Children of the Night: On ‘Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere’ (2023)

by Arta Barzanji

Sylvain George’s latest work, Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere, follows up 2022’s Obscure Night – Wild Leaves (The Burning Ones, the Obstinate). While the film itself hasn’t been made available thus far, theatrically or otherwise, the memory of its viewing at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival has vividly stayed with me. As I waited for a wider release of the film to provide the occasion to write about it, the impetus ended up coming from elsewhere: the genocide of the Gazans by the Israeli state, ideologically and materially supported by the main imperialist powers, Germany amongst them. Berlinale, standing at the pinnacle of German cultural institutions, proved itself an intransigent mouthpiece in justifying the imperialist aggression under the banner of “impartiality” while responding to critical voices with accusations of “anti-semitism.” The festival firmly stood up for “open dialogue across cultures and countries” while thousands of Palestinians, devoid of water, food, electricity and medicine, were being bombed to oblivion, living up to its proud legacy of anti-anti imperialism, dating back to 1970’s jury ban of Michael Verhoeven’s o.k., which was banished from the competition for failing to promote “better understanding between nations.” The grave error it had committed was none other than criticizing the US for its massacre of Vietnamese people in the name of capital. Considering this context, it’s simultaneously fitting and ironic that Obscure Night hasn’t been seen by many beyond its Locarno premiere, and this silence compels me to write about it more than any release. Arta Barzanji

Obscure Night’s structure is informed by the daily life cycle of its main subjects, a group of Moroccan teenage refugees. While the day belongs to the ticket-paying tourists who climb the stairs of historical sites, the night is the domain of the homeless refugees who climb the fences of cargo ports. Erected all around the coast, the fences are the gates of global capital, the physical manifestation of imperialist relations. They have a dual function: keeping the refugees from entering the city and safeguarding the commodities inside the cargo shipments from those who lack them. The historical precedents of these fences are visible in the walls of the fort on the coast and call our attention to the complicated history of Melilla, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa that has turned into a buffer zone between Africa and Europe. 

While tourists ponder the past in the city’s military history museum, the teenagers live through its militarized present. Traces of this history are visible around Melilla: canons, forts, and even a holographic reimagining of an ancient soldier. State as the “armed bodies of men” (Lenin) makes its presence felt in the past and present, museums and streets alike. “The police are violent, but we don’t give up despite their blows,” says one of the kids. Police and security forces are ever-present but always framed in the distance. They remain amorphous and faceless, an abstract entity, another physical embodiment of capital. 

During the day, the singing of the birds and the tame waves of the sea create a tranquil background for the mostly empty streets of Melilla. As night falls, human figures gradually start to appear—climbing over fences, using moving trucks as cover, and doing their best impression of  ‘citizens’ taking a casual nighttime stroll when the cover is gone. The daytime scenes are littered with jump cuts that provide a rhythmic effect and break the monotony of life, while at night, the integrity of action is carefully maintained. No jump cuts are used as the kids skillfully climb over the fence, nor would they be needed as there is ‘excitement’ enough in the action itself. As one of the teenagers says, it’s “like in an action film.” George’s camera also changes how it sees between day and night. Its nocturnal gaze operates at a distance, like a spy camera or one of the security cameras around the ports, observing the teenagers as they climb over the barbed-wire fences. 

While the night provides scenes evocative of an “action movie,” the daytime is the image that temporarily masks the nighttime’s reality. As the skies darken, the empty streets transform from public spaces of transport and trade into the private quarters of the kids. In a society of property owners, sewer ditches become the closets of the propertyless; after all, they need to store their blankets somewhere during the day. They need shoes and jackets, so they climb fences to get them. The darkness of the night, like a warm blanket, provides much-needed cover from the ever-present security apparatus around the ports. While the darkness is inconvenient for the surveillance apparatus, George’s camera embraces the lack of light as best it can, gifting us images overflowing with dancing grains that complement the vivacious resistance of the kids in the face of impoverishment. 

This is an aesthetic of necessity: it’s instigated by material conditions, accepts it whole, and is all the better for it. Geroge opts for close, intimate observation. The political undertones naturally emerge from the commitment with which this observation is carried out. The high-contrast black-and-white image, often captured through long lenses with a handheld camera, is adept at capturing tender close-ups during emotional outpourings and distanced, surveillance-like footage from afar.

Airplanes, helicopters, ships, and cars come and go. They occupy the air, the sea and land alike. But the children stay. They travel only on foot: walking, running, crawling, sneaking, swimming. Nature is cut off from them and is ruled by commercial interests. So, they find themselves both excluded from nature and industry. The teenagers climb the rocky shores in the daytime to plunge into the sea. The more hospitable access areas have been fenced off and used as commercial contact points. No beautiful sandy beaches here, only “the vegetable, the fish, the sea… that’s life!” The open sea at once represents freedom and hope, but also peril and confinement; it can trap one in just as well as it can facilitate movement. Evocative shots of light glittering on the surface of the water are disrupted by the appearance of monstrous cargo ships. One of the kids tells the story of a peer who tried to swim to a passing ship one night, only to be eaten alive by the iron monster’s propeller. 

As a graffiti reads: “Only dead fish follow the stream.” And so, their dream for freedom, “freedom to go,” remains a dream. Towards the end of the film, a poem is recited on top of overlayed close-ups of the kids’ faces: “I know god is dead, and children are dancing on fire, so I won’t ask for anything anymore.”

Arta Barzanji is a London-based Iranian filmmaker, critic, and lecturer. He has written for publications including MUBI Notebook, photogėnie and Documentary Magazine. His current film project is the documentary Unfinished: Kamran Shirdel

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One thought on “Children of the Night: On ‘Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere’ (2023)

  1. I was very impressed by this article especially , only dead fish follow the stream, sad and interesting

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