The little sublime: On Niko Avgoustidi’s Ummi (2016)
According to Fredric Jameson,
Burke’s problem as he confronted […] the sublime was to find some explanation [...] not for our aesthetic pleasure in […] “beauty”, in what could plausibly gratify the human organism on its own scale, but rather for our aesthetic delight in spectacles which would seem symbolically to crush human life and to dramatize everything which reduces the individual human being and the individual subject to powerlessness and nothingness (2016: 235).
Assessing this particular aesthetic experience, Jameson continues, Burke identified a particular connection to being as essential, detecting an ontological link, glimpses of a force that transcends human life. Through the sublime, the subject encounters a barely detectible force, one that generates a sense of acute vulnerability (2016: 236).
Presupposing a certain feeling of isolation, the ‘Burkean’ sublime is a thread that runs through Ummi (Avgoustidi, 2016), a short film that tells the story of a six-year-old refugee boy, who, after being washed ashore a Greek island, is separated from his mother and anxiously waits for her to appear. Ummi begins with a rather rare sight in cinema: open space – that is to say, a space which asks the viewer to imagine a world existing outside the frame, to conceive an area of infinity. Naturally, this is something that can hardly be seen on a TV or computer screen; it can only be sensed at the cinema. This parameter plays a vital role in the film.
The opening shot is a bird’s eye view of a green sea surface during the evening. There is no horizon or any other visible stationary line to reinforce the actual boundaries of the screen enclosure, thus the image, in a way, transcends its own borders, giving a sense of expansion towards all directions. The sea is fairly calm, light reflections and random wave ripples fill the screen (emphasizing the expansion), while the sound is also that of the sea.
Then suddenly a boat carrying refugees appears at the top middle part of the frame and crosses through it, therefore moving in and out of the frame. The movement is fast enough to intensify the sense of openness, and, at the same time, to confuse the frame lines. Right after, we are presented to the same frame shot filmed an hour later. Now the image of the open sea becomes much darker, more obscure. Then, again entering the frame from the top, there is a small image of a child swimming while desperately trying to hold on to what looks like a makeshift lifebuoy. The film title appears next. “The ocean is an object of no small terror”, Burke argues, also noting that, “when we know the full extend of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (1757: 43). Intensified by the strangeness of the angle, this dark, infinitely extended plane already forms the space of the sublime.
This image of the boy swimming across the water in the dark, agonizingly trying to keep afloat while no shore is visible, has stayed with me ever since first seeing the film on the big screen. The sea is a ‘Turneresque’ kind of affair, I then thought, naturally minus the usual sense of depth observed in the painter’s dramatic seascapes. John Berger once noted that Romanticism is “a new awareness of the size and power of the forces in the world – an awareness which invested the word Nature with a completely new meaning” (2016: 107). Through the eyes of a child, however, the enormity of nature, distinctly present throughout the film, is neither linked to a sense of “exploratory adventurousness” nor is one of “morbid self-indulgence” (Burger, 2016: 107). At the historical moment of late capitalism, Nature no longer provides a metaphor analogous to those encountered during the first half of the 19th century, which unfailingly foregrounded the alienated individual amidst a space then already marked by the advent of the first Industrial Revolution.
It was shortly before the dawn of the latter, in the country where it was launched, when Edmund Burke, who was to become a significant part of the Romantics, unraveled his ideas regarding the sublime, clearly differentiating it from what he conceived as ‘the picturesque’. As William Vaughan writes, his notion of the sublime image foregrounds that a feeling of unsettlement is always produced by what lies beyond human control (1994: 33). Operating most powerfully in a state of astonishment, the Burkean sublime requires a certain degree of fear (Burke 1757: 40-41) “since when we know the full extend of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (Burke 1757: 43). Burke also associated it with hardship and a sense of acute privation, with vacuity, darkness, solitude and silence (Burke 1757: 50). While hardship is, of course, the enabling condition of the story itself, the feeling of astonishment is unmistakably present at various moments. Astonishment is created through contrasts, both within the frame and via the editing process, thus generating a quiet sense of intensity.
Burke also extended astonishment, which is connected to suddenness, to sound that starts or ceases unexpectedly, without transition (1757: 65-66). Following the first cut in the film, there is a frame filled with an intensely sunlit image of the sky, accompanied by a fairly loud sound coming from the crushing of the waves on the shore. The shot is from the boy’s point of view the moment when he wakes up on the shore the next morning. Contrasts via editing continue since what follows is an intensely foreshortened due to the unusual angle image of the child. Shot from the back as he lies down, very little of his body is visible, whilst there is only a partial view of his face. The sea is blurred in the background, thus creating the first of many instances of flat space, a prevalent image in the film, which frequently produces a feeling that there is no escape.
Contrasts can also be seen after the next cut when we are presented to an upside-down image of rocks and the sky, shot from the child’s point of view when lying on the shore, as appears in the film poster. This expansive, ochre-coloured rocky surface is a paramount image in the film, as it appears throughout Ummi. We first get a better look of it when in a high angle close-up of the boy’s face, his eyes squinting when looking up, due to the blinding light. Right after the cut comes a long shot of the boy as a tiny figure in front of the rocks, which rise perpendicularly, dominating the screen. This is a static shot, a flat space with no perspective lines. No vanishing point can be imagined. This silently menacing view of nature produces a powerful sense of enclosure, an impasse. At the end of the film, the same surface creates a distinct sense of infinity, which is one of Burke’s main sources of the sublime (1757: 53). Starting with an image of the endless ocean, Ummi ends with a different sense of the limitless, as the rocky surface now fills the entire screen. It is a shot from the child’s point of view, following the realization of his mother’s death; the camera slowly tilts up, the surface seems to continue endlessly.
“What has happened to the sublime since the time of Burke”, Jameson argues, “is that it has been transferred from nature to culture, or the urban” (2016: 236). Away from any urban space, Ummi returns the sublime to where it began. At the same time, within this thoroughly unbuilt space, “the urban”, or generally culture, is signified by the commodity: the objects used by the bathers and, in particular, a tub of sunscreen that the boy grabbed from the bather’s hands. The boy has no other notion of what this tub might be, he has no experience of using it, and has only seen a little girl applying it to her mother. The sunscreen becomes part of a small ritual in his hands in a harrowing and agonizing endeavour to revive his dead mother. This alienating space with no marks, and its relationship to the main character approximates Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of the nomad. “The nomadic trajectory”, they maintain,
distributes people […] in [a] space that is indefinite and noncommunicating […] [N]omads have no points, paths, or land even though they do by all appearances. If a nomad can be called the Deterritorialized par excellence, it is precisely because there is no reterritorialization afterward as with the migrant. […] The land ceases to be land, tending to become simply ground […] or support (2004: 420-421).
Probably one of the film’s biggest achievements is that it goes far beyond the story it tells, as it is hardly about a tragically broken family forced to migrate, or simply about a child’s painful experience of witnessing his mother’s death in an unknown land. The viewers are not meant to suffer alongside the boy, neither are they likely to become overwhelmingly emotional at any stage. Few words are ever spoken. The camera is always felt; it is experienced as a presence, while a strong sense of composition can be discerned throughout via its frontal shots, or in the magnificent bird’s eye view when the drowned bodies form a wave approaching the beach, while at the same time the bathers form another wave moving back in fear. Avgoustidi’s decision to maintain the distancing of the medium is as crucial as his idea of having a child as a main character. It facilitates a kind of introspection into the universal human condition. A sense of melodrama – which would have certainly weakened the film’s impact, leading it away from philosophical issues – is thus intelligently avoided in various ways, chiefly by never showing a clear image of the mother.
Lying on the edge of the sea, her body is not only shot from behind (in a similar fashion to the boy’s first daytime shot), but also, it is so severely foreshortened that the viewer can hardly form the image of a figure. This image reminded me of how Gustave Courbet in his magnificent ‘Stonebreakers’, right after 1848, brilliantly avoided the sentimental, and foregrounded the work itself by having his figures turn away from the spectator. Only an assemblage of organic shapes, covered with red textiles can be discerned in this shot in Ummi. An array of volumes, similar to the rocks: this is what the maternal body looks like to the viewer. Only the boy’s tears point to the mother’s ineluctable fate. And it is quite telling that ‘ummi’ in Arabic is not simply the word for mother, it translates as “my mother”.
Next to a seemingly endless expanse of water, the substance Gaston Bachelard – the man who always insisted that, if we are to dream profoundly, it has to be with substances – considered a kind of milk (Bachelard 1983), the mother’s omnipotence finally disappears. What began in the Kristevan ‘Chora’ that engulfed symbiosis, the hybrid, undifferentiated zone of the mother-child dyad (Kristeva 1992: 195), the space of nurturance and protection ceases to exist. This final separation can be seen as the beginning of identity formation. The film ends with a close-up of the child’s face. From now on he is all alone.
Bachelard, G. (1983), Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Water, Dallas: Pegasus.
Berger, B. (2016), Landscapes: John Berger on Art, Tom Overton (ed.), London: Verso.
Burke, E. (1757), Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Available at http://archive.org. Access 11 October 2018.
Deleuze G. and Guattari F. (2004), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Continuum.
Jameson F. (2016), The Modernist Papers, London: Verso.
Kristeva, J. (1992), Feminism and Psychoanalysis, A Critical Dictionary, Elizabeth Wright (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, Oxford.
Vaughan W. (1994), Romantic Art, London: Thames & Hudson.