Credit: Locarno Film Festival/Sylvain George
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Obscure Night — Goodbye here, anywhere — Sylvain George [Locarno ’23 Review]

August 11, 2023

French documentarian and academic Sylvain George has been making a particular kind of film for nearly twenty years, carving out a specific cinematic niche. In interviews, George describes his work as focused on spaces of migration and immigration, particularly those buffer zones between societies where illegal immigration offers the chance for a better life. In Obscure Night — Goodbye here, anywhere, George films a group of street kids in Melilla, a Spanish enclave which exists adjacent to Morocco, just over the Mediterranean. It’s a port city, surrounded by fortified walls and barbed wire, and constantly patrolled by Spain’s Civil Guard police force. Just last month, the Moroccan government acknowledged at least 23 deaths in one single day, while human rights groups contend that nearly 100 border-crossers are still unaccounted for.

Goodbye here, anywhere is just over three hours long, shot in crisp digital black-and-white and alternating, for the most part, between two types of footage. George embedded himself with a small group of homeless immigrants barely scratching out a living each day in Melilla. We gradually learn some of their names — Hicham, Amine, Medhi, Hassan — but crucially, we come to know them by their outfits. One kid wears a hoodie with the Minions on it. Another has a sweatshirt with the word “WHITE” emblazoned across it. Before long, it dawns on the viewer that the only clothes these kids own are the ones on their back. They hang out, try to find food, get high, and generally exhibit laddish behavior, threatening to fuck each other’s mothers or giving each other jovial beatdowns.

Most of the other material in George’s film is shot from above, at a distance, as other young people attempt to scale walls, swim their way onto ships, dart across parking lots, etc., in an effort to make it out of Morocco and into Melilla. George is careful to keep his footage general and underlit; no one in these sections could be reasonably identified for legal purposes. But what he achieves is a kind of aerial schematic of the process of illegal immigration and border patrol, the never-ending cat-and-mouse between mere children and the gendarmes charged with keeping them out.

George has also stated that his aims are aesthetic as well as political, seeing the two aspects as mutually informative. Goodbye here, anywhere displays the sea, the cliffs, and the architecture around Melilla with a classical sense of balance and composition, and it’s clear that the film wants us to consider the contrast between beauty and danger, natural grandeur and human precarity. At times, this seems like a distraction, especially since there are concrete facts about the situation in Melilla that the director declines to provide. One would probably need to see another of George’s films, especially Obscure Night — Wild Leaves (which directly precedes Goodbye here, anywhere), to have a clearer sense of his project and its ethical dimension. Having said that, Goodbye here, anywhere’s take on experimental documentary is at times unclear. We are situated at the heart of the European immigration crisis, but after three hours, we don’t really understand its inner workings much better than we did at the start.

Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 1.