The heart is where your real thinking comes.
Director Skye Fitzgerald‘s Lifeboat is the latest “human face” documentary to get an Oscar nomination. What might set it apart from others—for better or worse—is that it seeks to highlight the face of the man doing the saving as a beacon of hope more than the victims as byproducts of our collective failure as a species. His name is Jon Castle and he’s without a doubt a true hero. He also died this past year (the film’s rescues occurred in 2016) and thus a worthy candidate for a tribute. But while Jon says and does the right things, you can’t help watching the whole as a tug at heartstrings for white Europeans to wake up and acknowledge the problem they so easily ignore.
There’s something about the way the film is put together that makes it more infomercial than human-interest story. It does its best to not show the faces of these African refugees risking their lives in the knowledge that death is a better outcome than the present as statistics with a few interviews about human trafficking and forced prostitution out of Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, but those brief testimonials aren’t enough to look past the overall perspective. By putting so much of the onus on Castle’s head, this project becomes less about documenting horror than it does white guilt. Passages about how Europeans might find themselves needing escape during the next historical cycle of dominance on Earth only augment this fact.
So while the subject matter is important and its purpose to bring outsiders closer to the issue crucial towards sparking change, the runtime can’t give the situation’s complexities the scope they demands. It’s neither truly about the German non-profit Sea-Watch nor the Africans they save from Libya’s oppressive regime of criminality. By giving cursory context as a means to justifying the harrowing imagery while also devoting so much time to outsiders letting their hearts speak louder than minds, we’re merely watching a close-up of tragedy with no real interest in finding a solution. Those who feel that same ache Castle did already understand and those who watch similar footage on Fox News (see Mexican caravans) won’t be swayed. The former will donate money while the latter soundly sleeps.