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IFFR 2023 Tiger Competition

Review: Geology of Separation


- Yosr Gasmi and Mauro Mazzocchi’s documentary is a polyphonic study of two refugees’ journey through the asylum process, and an unfamiliar Europe as a whole

Review: Geology of Separation

Geology of Separation [+see also:
film profile
, the second feature co-directed by Yosr Gasmi and Mauro Mazzocchi, pits documentary truth against lofty essayistic digressions, with the latter troublingly winning out in most instances. From a straightforward-enough starting point, following two recent African migrants in Sicily, as they commence the nightmarish resettling process of the interior ministry, we’re then whisked through a number of eclectic yet solemn chapter-headed detours, with the filmmakers at pains to place their characters’ hand-to-mouth existences in a number of ill-fitting visual schemas, and offbeat academic or scholastic contexts.

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Premiering in IFFR’s Tiger Competition, which has long been an open forum for feature-length works made outside the traditional industry pipeline, numerous examples of which are eccentric or hybrid in nature, Geology of Separation fits this profile to a tee. It’s listed as having received a grant from the Doha Film Institute, but ever-present is a sense of Gasmi and Mazzocchi following their own individualistic muse, working in curiously lo-fi black and white that defamiliarises every image we see, and always overlooking the journalistic imperatives of “who, what, where and why?” that ground most documentary undertakings, especially on such grave subjects as this.

Our two focal figures are Abderhaman, who fled the Libyan Civil War which commenced in 2014, and Laly, who speaks French and hails from an unspecified West African country; there are further circumstances that the directors don’t see fit to clarify for us. They begin in the predicament, easily parsable for the audience, of waiting, waiting, waiting in spartan immigrant detention centres for their asylum claim to be processed, faced with a dehumanising sense of nothingness. As Abderhaman – whose odd, articulate verbal reflections aren’t nearly privileged enough across the running time – remarks, “Rotting here like this, sometimes I’m distressed.” But following a new chapter heading, mysteriously subtitled “Transplantation, corruption and death of…”, both their trajectories and the film’s are blown apart, scattered to the winds.

The two men’s claims are summarily rejected by the authorities, setting them on a trek to new, friendlier borders and paid-under-the-table agricultural labour. Shot in extended takes that resemble the apocalyptic panoramas of Béla Tarr, the film’s interest in patiently documenting its subjects’ strife is withdrawn in favour of more aestheticised imagery, with the two men artfully framed in the photogenic squalor of their environments, appearing as merely bodies, rather than fully inhabited humans. And then, in a poetic voice-over from Gasmi herself, she explains the deep roots for mass human displacement as residing in the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, over further prettily soft-focus aerial imagery – all explaining, at a stretch, the film’s discipline-blurring title (eg, the geological features of an abstract concept like “separation”).

Further visual cutaways from the migrants’ plight are seen when the filmmakers segue to footage of French social-studies academics lecturing on the phenomena of cargo cults and symbolic anthropology – subjects that would be interesting in isolation, but feel awkwardly whisked in here to justify artistic choices. The indifference of the wider, settled European population is well visualised by a sequence on a ski-resort slope, where Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is heard softly and diegetically in the background – an image out of Loznitsa’s present-tense observational documentaries. But as explained, whilst Europe’s legal protections have abandoned migrants like Abderhaman and Laly at its door, the film abandons them as well.

Geology of Separation is a production by Tunisia, Italy and France, staged by L’Argent.

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