“Styx” (2019)

I was lucky to have forgotten everything I knew about this film before I went to see it. Its 94 minutes of study of the moral, technical and emotional problems which suddenly confront Rike, a lone yachtswoman, as she cruises southwards down the Atlantic from Gibraltar toward Ascension Island, were a startling blend of the meditative and the thrilling. I was engrossed by the film throughout and only bothered to be properly sceptical about it when I got home.

Rike’s face – its light frowns, its seriousness – reminded me strongly of the female lawyers in Palais de Justice. Everything we know about her instils confidence. Of course, actually, this is no Palais de Justice, which points its camera without scenario or script or message.  Styx is, rather, a box of tricks – it is a tad tricksy. Its premises might have been disingenuously assembled out of a jumble of NGO press releases about the horrors facing refugees (or should that usually be migrants?) on the high seas.

About the only funny side was my seeing the film in an EU-affiliated arthouse cinema which ran an EU feel-good ad about togetherness etc. The EU has not done much to please the refugee and migrant NGOs. Indeed it is easier for EU states to fund this movie than to work out what to do with Africans and others who throw themselves on the mercies of the sea, merchant mariners, NGOs and European states.

The film’s certificate said it contained “mild jeopardy” or some such. An understatement: there was extreme jeopardy. As super-competent emergency doctor Rike sails south, her head filled with ideas of the Darwinian paradise she is headed toward, she comes across a stricken trawler over-filled with Africans. She approaches out of kindness and notes that several of the refugee/migrants throw themselves into the sea, head toward her and drown. On the radio, the Coastguard (of where, we ask?) repeatedly tells her to back off because she will only cause chaos and death.  They are, they say, on the way. They don’t tell her how long that’ll take before ringing-off. (Is that really how these things work?) Most nearby ships refuse to respond but one does only to say it’s against company policy to stop. (Would a deck officer go so far as to broadcast this apparently pretty normal fact?) Meanwhile, she hauls in an African boy who has managed to swim to her boat, and who then begs her in tolerable English to return, at least to get his sister. She does not (as I recall) remind him that the last time she tried to approach the trawler, she killed people – a thing he knows pretty well for himself.

The pair do back off. There are dramatic small scenes as the boy takes things into his own hands. The Coastguard ship does not arrive after however many (unspecified) hours. Rike decides to expedite matters by masquerading as a sinking yacht, an act of crying wolf which I guess may be judiciable. She heads toward the trawler on which people are now either dead or ill to such a degree that she approaches and boards without inducing any problems. We are not shown, but presumably or with luck she is able to save a few lives. The Coastguard turns up and transfers lots of dead bodies and a few walking casualties to their ship. She is mutely stunned. The Coastguard says she has a lot of questions to answer: she’s part of an inquiry now, they say.

Thus was our heroine scuppered.  Well, no, she wasn’t. By being on the spot, but also by her delay, she was able to approach the trawler and be useful, and perhaps at the only moment in the unfolding of events when she could usefully apply her undoubted skill. We are supposed to believe, or guess or speculate, I am sure, that the Coastguard would never have come except to her fake SOS.

Even if that was plausible, is it so very awful? Whatever the merits of Rike’s actions, the big picture remains as difficult as the right-on PC world – and Rike, we guess – dislikes to contemplate. It is a cold fact that there is good reason to suppose that every publicised rescue of a migrant/refugee encourages more hopeless cases to hurl themselves on the good will of the international community. But that goodwill is wafer thin and getting thinner. That’s democracy for you. The upshot seems to be that in the cruellest but perhaps necessary and barely-stated policy, European nations will do as much as they possibly can to keep migrants/refugees on the beach before they set out. They will fish out from the seas as few as they can get away with (depending on media coverage), and return them whence they came (“refoulement”) as soon as possible. They will hope that the millions of people from the southern hemisphere who would far rather be in the northern hemisphere will get the message that they can’t smuggle their way there.

It is entirely possible that Rike’s instincts and actions were the only proper ones for an individual and in the end she was lucky to be able to do some good, in her limited terms. But states and international bodies are not persons, and they do not have private obligations writ large.

There is one very bleak possibility that I can see in the scenario Styx’s makers put out there. Had the trawler’s fate gone unremarked – had all those people died and not been noticed – their deaths would not even have been accorded the usefulness of being a stark message to fellow-hopefuls still stranded in Africa to stay put. The effect of Rike’s act of moral courage is moot. She will have made the trawler incident famous. The word that three or four people got through might percolate to the beaches full of hopefuls and encourage them to seek similar voyages. Even these “lucky” ones might not discover until a good bit later that the EU nations will be sending the migrants amongst them back to Africa anyway. Or, very diffierently, the word that the Coastguard only turned up to clean up a charnel ship might similarly make its way to Africa with a bleaker but salutary effect.

I am supposing that Rike’s boy might well stay in the West because he is a minor. So he is in a sense a winner in all this. So is Rike, though she is too saddened – we are to believe, I am sure – by the harshness of ship-owners and states and the EU, and by her own impotence, to feel it.

This tense and exciting film and its fine central performance tells us nothing of how the wider world should respond to the North-South imbalance. I am tolerably sure that its core audience will feel they are on the side of the angels, whilst actually most of them would not vote for an open-Europe policy. Even if they were it is very unlikely they could persuade many of their fellow citizens to follow them down that line. In the meantime, politicians have to work out how to persuade Africans to stay home and neither Rike’s courage, commitment and skill, nor this film’s skewed messaging, will help them. 

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Publication date

19 May 2019