16 juin 2023

Shedding Light on the Rohingya Crisis: The Aesthetic Journey in 'Lost at Sea’


'Lost at Sea' weaves in less than 5 minutes a touching narrative of Rohingyas and all people cast adrift from their homes, portraying their nighttime voyage with vivid emotions and evocative visuals.

Based on actual footage, these compelling visuals piqued my cinematographer's interest, sparking a desire to chat with the artists who crafted this piece and to share it with you.

So here is an interview with the directors Andrés Alejandro BARTOS AMORY and Lucija STOJEVIC, conducted during the 2023 Annecy International Animated Film Festival.


PMO: I'm intrigued by your film, not just for its stunning visuals but also for its beautiful score and the narrative itself.

Andrés Alejandro BARTOS AMORY: I appreciate your comment. Our intention with this film was indeed to elicit strong emotions from the viewers.

PMO: It's quite a heavy narrative, filled with emotion, yet it doesn't succumb to pathos or heavy effects. That's a commendable achievement. And speaking of visuals, let's mention the animator, Richard Swarbrick. 

Lucija STOJEVIC: Indeed, Richard's talent significantly contributed to the unique visual style. But it's crucial to understand the process behind it. The film is based on an actual testimony. 

AB: Right. From that testimony, we began developing the script, concurrently conducting thorough archival research since the film's visuals are inspired by real images

We delved into various news archives, documentaries, and photography to depict the Rohingyas, especially during the COVID pandemic when travel was restricted. 

With no opportunity to travel, we had to rely on these sources to maintain authenticity in our storytelling.

LS: And accessing these materials wasn't always easy.

One of the key pieces of footage was from a boat carrying Rohingyas. It was a challenging process to obtain permission for its use. However, utilizing animation allowed us to provide audiences with a vivid experience without losing the emotional intensity of the refugees' plight.

PMO: I see. While the film specifically tells the story of Rohingyas, it seems to resonate with the experience of boat refugees universally. 

AB: Exactly. That was our intention. The Rohingyas, often depicted as masses of people fleeing their homeland, are generally perceived as an indistinguishable crowd. We wanted to break this stereotype by telling the story of an individual. 

We sought a personal perspective, which is why we centered the narrative around a Rohingya named Muhib.

Muhib's testimony about his childhood and his yearning for his Burmese classmates was a significant part of the narrative. 

LS: Yes, those human moments revealed the transition in his life and his environment. Another pivotal moment was understanding the Rohingyas' oral history tradition, which influenced the structure and narrative of our film.

We were aware that Rohingyas, due to the lack of a written language, often rely on songs and oral stories to pass down their history. So, we incorporated this cultural element into the film.

AB: That’s where we should mention Mayeux, a poet who contributed to the film while living in the Cox's Bazar refugee camp. 

Mayeux, now living in Canada, collected and converted people's experiences into poetry. He even composed a second book comprising lullabies, songs, and stories. 

LS: His wife is the one who sings in the film. She recorded the first version of the song in Cox Bazar’s camp.

PMO: Wow, that's remarkable. It seems like you've put significant effort into ensuring that the Rohingyas' voices are authentically represented.

LS: Exactly, we wanted the film to pay tribute to the Rohingyas by using their narratives and language. It was important to give voice to a community that often goes unheard.

PMO: And in terms of visuals, the archival footage was crucial in setting the emotional tone, right?

AB: Absolutely. We also played with two different color palettes to highlight the contrast between the harsh realities of the sea journey and the warmth of Muhib's childhood memories, in Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar.

LS: And to create these visuals, we worked with both actors and non-actors, some in a controlled studio environment, while others were filmed out at sea.

AB: Filming in a green screen studio gave us control over the lighting and sound, while shooting at sea, handheld, provided authentic and dynamic footage. This combination helped us in character building and setting the narrative's tone.

PMO: And throughout this process, animator Richard Swarbrick was involved, guiding you on what kind of reference footage he needed?

AB: Yes, it was an ongoing dialogue to understand his requirements. Since he often works with composite visuals, he guided us in creating the background and the main characters.

PMO: The technique used in your film does remind me of Rotoscopy, but it's not quite the same. It's not a photocopy of reality, but more of an interpretation.

AB: Richard Swarbrick, our animator, indeed captures movement and action in a unique way. He uses an approach that's almost impressionistic and dreamy, which is very different from the more literal interpretations in films like 'Scanner Darkly' or ‘Waltz With Bashir’. Richard's work can make you feel that there are real beings behind, but they are so much stylized that it feels both real and dreamlike at the same time.

We found Richard through a project he had done previously with archival work. His sensitivity in capturing expressions, especially the eyes of the characters, caught our attention. His approach to animation allowed us to show the characters' eyes, which was crucial to our storytelling.

LS: Our initial approach towards the project was quite different. We initially thought of finding a famous voice-over artist related to the conflict zone. However, we later realized that it was more important to let the voiceless, stateless Rohingyas speak for themselves. So we decided to focus more on authenticity rather than finding a star for the voice-over.

AB: Once we reached picture lock, the stage at which the edit cannot be touched any further because the animation and sound work are based on it, we agreed on the direction of the project. Sound design was also an ongoing process during this time.

The project had four main elements, and we needed to find a balance among these within our resources and budget. There were our ideas, Richard's needs, the binaural sound design, and the music. 

LS: The binaural sound was a vital aspect of the film, as we wanted to create spaces for the audience to be immersed in through the sound. However, this desire for immersion led to a question of balance. Richard, used to a more commercial style of quick cuts, was concerned about having prolonged sequences that may not be visually engaging, like a two-minute scene of just the sea. We were striving to extend such sequences for a deeper immersive experience, and striking a balance between these two perspectives was crucial.

AB: Lastly, music was another critical element. While we had the mother's song, there was also composed music. Richard's work is significantly influenced by music and rhythm, so integrating these musical components effectively was a significant part of our process.

PMO: Why did you start the film in darkness, during the night ?

AB: This decision was largely informed by the nature of our archive footage. The most powerful footage we had was captured by a film crew on a boat with Rohingyas escaping in the night. Shot in night vision, it gave us a single point of light with everything else almost hidden in darkness, and the people appearing as just silhouettes. This was the first time viewers get to see mothers with their children, people praying, and the sparks from the boat's diesel engine, details that make the situation palpable.

We saw it as a metaphorical 'dark night of the soul' for the world, which we gradually unravel throughout the film. It provided a stark contrast and a way to focus on the subject matter, instead of presenting a highly detailed picture.

PMO: The lighting by zones and layering used in the film is something not typically seen in animated films. It focuses our attention, and is both artistic and functional due to the situation being depicted.

AB: Richard's use of lighting in the film is indeed very captivating. The transitions between the adult and child characters, which happened mostly through the face, were done very effectively. 

Unfortunately, Richard could not be present here for this interview, but he's always busy with multiple projects, including advertising and Netflix series.


This article will be completed with Richard's interview if his commitments allow him the time.

Credits: all pictures are © Noon Films S.L

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