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Made under the patronage of the UN Refugee Agency and explicitly aimed at raising awareness of the global refugee crisis, Beyond the Raging Sea is an odd documentary that combines a humanitarian message with high adventure. Its first hour chronicles the harrowing ordeal of two Egyptian athletes, Omar Samra and Omar Nour, who with no previous nautical experience set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a high-tech rowboat guaranteed not to capsize, even in the strongest storms.
But five hundred miles out to sea, it does.
The purpose of Nour and Samra’s exploit was to draw attention to the global refugee crisis in which thousands lose their lives each year crossing the Mediterranean and Marco Orsini’s film is faithful to this aim. In a surprise coda, a Syrian father and a young African man briefly tell their own boat stories. This tie-in with the refugees’ plight puts the action-adventure tale into a real-life context and, however bizarre the coupling, it hits the audience with an emotional payoff they weren’t expecting. The pic premiered at the El Gouna Film Festival and should make a happy find for the small screen, where its largest audience lies.
Working with practically no live-action footage other than a few minutes of on-the-boat video shot on a cellphone, Orsini conjures up a gripping hour of male adventure on the high seas. Taking his distance from Discovery-style docs, he boldly alternates Samra and Nour telling their story against a black background, where white line drawings appear to illustrate what they’re saying. These graphic effects and the live footage are superbly edited into their account, along with other characters like the very human Egyptian captain of the Greek ship that came to their rescue.
A quibble is that a number of obvious narrative points are hard to pull out; for instance, where did they depart from? Where did the accident happen? But these are less important than the excitement generated by the storytelling and the bold ending. Orsini, the president of IEFTA, which promotes film education in developing countries, is the provocative director of Dinner at the No-Gos, which explored the real safety of traveling in countries on the U.S. State Department’s warning list, and Gray Matters, a doc about architect and designer Eileen Gray.
It is surprising that the film has so much suspense, considering the fact Samra and Nour have obviously lived to tell the tale. The beginning is a blizzard of talking heads, who include the protagonists’ mothers and the worried-looking event coordinator for sponsor Talisker whiskey (DHL, another promoter, is prominently featured on the rowboat itself), clearly aware of the disaster that might have been.
The heroes’ good humor and contrasting personalities enliven their accounts. Amazingly, neither athlete had the slightest experience on water when they agreed to the project. Nour has represented Egypt on the Olympic triathlon circuit, and Samra is a mountaineer who climbed Everest and has skied to both the North and South Poles. So the heroes are no slouches, but one wonders what they were thinking. Given their publicity goal, why not row across the Mediterranean instead of the Atlantic?
As they prepare to depart, they throw out corny wisdom about the ocean: “It will find your weaknesses!” But they are soon underway and quickly reach the turning point of their journey. Samra has been at the oars all night while Nour sleeps in a sealed-off cabin. They’re just about to switch off when a giant wave lifts them up and capsizes the boat. Then the agony begins: Samra is swept overboard; water rushes into the cabin and Nour can’t find his emergency equipment; the lifeboat fails to inflate; they drop a crucial mouthpiece into the sea; and so on, all told with a gripping back-and-forth pace by editors Dionisis Xenos and Vincent Cattaneo.
But the dramatic peak is yet to come. They are spied by a 35,000-ton Greek ship passing by, but because of the raging storm it is unable to lower a lifeboat. The final rescue operation pulling the two up the 250-foot side of the ship is the most heart-stopping part of the film.
After all this drama, the emotion of the final scenes comes as a shock. The two athletes are replaced by a shaken Syrian man who draws the audience into his account of how he crossed the sea with his pregnant wife and child in the most frightening journey of their lives. Mohammed, a youth from Africa, describes how he saw fellow voyagers drown on his crossing to Europe. This somber conclusion to a film about high-seas adventure forces the viewer to evaluate the reasons people risk their lives — which is almost exactly what Samra and Nour set out to do.
Production companies: Team 02, Film Clinic, Mojo Entertainment, Polaris Production, Queen Production in association with IEFTA, DHL, UNHCR, UNDP
Cast: Omar Samra, Omar Nour
Director: Marco Orsini
Screenwriters: Marco Orsini, Frederick L. Greene
Producers: Marco Orsini, Lizzy Lambley
Co-producer: Hassan Mahfouz
Director of photography: Ahmed Gabr
Editors: Dionisis Xenos, Vincent Cattaneo
Music: George Acogny
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (out of competition)
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