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Oscars 2019: “Lifeboat” Review

Often, films that seek to tackle a humanitarian crisis attempt to do so on a grand scale. Showing the stories that seem like they’re out of Hollywood, going for a larger message and so on.

“Lifeboat” does things a little differently. It’s not trying to bring any bombast to a tragedy. It sells the story on the grim reality that it is. No movie magic to buffer it.

“Lifeboat” is directed by Skye Fitzgerald (“50 Feet From Syria,” “Bombhunters”) and is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

The film offers a very visceral and heartbreaking examination of what refugees face when attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and of the efforts of the rescue boats that try to reach them in time. “Lifeboat” was filmed aboard a small search-and-rescue vessel helmed by the first captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior.

As I mentioned previously, it’s a pretty common approach for documentary filmmakers to do less documenting and more postulating. There’s always some message or some focus. Instead, “Lifeboat” is simply showing.

Showing the crowded conditions of those boats. Showing the desperation and the dire situations of the individuals. Showing the death and the suffering. It doesn’t have to do more.

For most of “Lifeboat” we simply watch as the rescuers assist with particular boats of refugees. We never stay with any one group for too long.

There is a heaviness to the film and something almost pessimistic. The crew members can’t do as much as they want but do as much as they can. It’s a sad realization when you see that not everyone can be saved.

Aside from the jarring visuals, “Life Boat” places emphasis on the stories of a handful of refugees. Why did they leave? What happens when they are caught? How are they doing?

Unfortunately, there are very few happy endings.

The film ends with a conversation with rescue ship captain Jon Castle. There’s one thing he says that very poignantly summarizes the entire subject of the film. He speaks to the impulse to view a refugee as a problem. A puzzle to be rationalized away. But the moment you face a humanitarian issue with your heart instead of your head, the heart wins every single time.

That’s a very beautiful and very human idea. It’s also a reminder.

“Lifeboat” is a somber but effective film, and it’s easy to see how it earned its place among this year’s Oscar nominees.

“Lifeboat” is available now in The New Yorker’s screening room. The Oscars will be held live on Sunday, February 24.

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