A heartfelt search for an Iranian woman who disappeared a decade ago intertwines with the stories of recent unauthorised migrant journeys, creating a tapestry of past and present in the evocative landscape of the English Channel.
Small Boats (working title) is an essay film exploring the English Channel waterway as a repository of the lived experiences of displaced people, coastal communities (and other non-human creatures), as the number of migrant sea crossings continues to rise despite increased border enforcement in the area. It is also a story about the search for a missing migrant. I first met Mariam in 2010 when we were newcomers to Europe. Separated by circumstances beyond our control, my voluntary migration from Brazil stands in stark contrast to her forced flight from Iran. When she applied for asylum in Belgium and was refused, she disappeared. No phone number, no social media profiles. I had to leave the country abruptly, she was evicted from government-provided social housing. I was left wondering if, after all these years, she had made it to her intended destination: the United Kingdom.
Over a decade later, I revisit personal archival footage of our earlier encounters while being an immigrant in the UK. As of 2018, Iran is one of the main nationalities of those crossing the Channel in small boats. The juxtaposition of these two narratives, the search for a missing friend and the ongoing Channel crossings, links past and present and highlights the ongoing challenges faced by displaced people and the journeys they take when access to safe routes is not granted. Mariam's lingering invisible presence is a conduit, a vessel for the stories of women like her, for universal feelings of displacement and the search for answers to which we can collectively relate. Small Boats brings to light the many ways in which we inhabit the sea, in and as bodies of water.
In a sense, seawater contains memory. In a compelling exploration of the lingering legacy of colonialism, Christina Sharpe delves into the story of the British slave ship Zong, which threw 132 Africans overboard in 1781, and the ensuing court case (Gregson v Gilbert), which was not about the lives lost but a dispute over insurance claims. Sharpe then considers the fate of those whose bodies were thrown into the water. As Gardulski explains, the time it takes for a substance to enter and leave the sea is called 'residence time', and human blood has a residence time of 260 million years. Thus, the two million African lives tragically lost in the Middle Passage echo through time and remain ever present in the collective unconscious . Sharpe's writings on the Zong resonate with the many cases of missing migrants today: What happens to them? Is there someone or a community somewhere missing a friend or relative who might be at sea?
By linking stories of forced migration by sea, past and present, we realise that the slave and the 'migrant' are racialised bodies. The slave trade, Mediterranean shipwrecks and more recent Channel crossings are not disconnected histories. They flow together in a confluence of bodies of water. The sea is often said to be the great equaliser, a place where humankind confronts the untameable forces of nature. The English Channel is an ideal space to explore water as a repository of collective memory, the inevitability of human movement and the links between forced migration and the sea. It is also an opportunity to imagine an alternative outcome to Mariam's migratory journey, or perhaps to discover what has become of her.