The ocean is blue, one character in Maggie Peren's immigration drama Color of the Ocean tells us, so that people remember the whales who have sunk to the bottom, lost their color, and died. A metaphor for the countless Africans who've unsuccessfully attempted to make their way to Europe in search of better lives, this title-explaining statement is the most poignant moment in a film that could use a few more like it. It's an evocative notion, and one matched by a similarly striking aesthetic: DP Armin Franzen favors a bright, washed-out palette reminiscent of days spent shielding your eyes from harsh sunlight and looking at the sky through your fingers.
"Why do you hate these people so much?" a resentful border patrolman tasked with sorting out the illegal immigrants who make landfall in makeshift rafts is asked by a more sympathetic colleague. He doesn't answer, and for a while we're left wondering about him. At first this uncertainty seems like a good thing, but eventually the effect wears off: Peren too often leaves us at sea in terms of nuance and characterization as she moves her plot forward in an increasingly by-the-numbers fashion.
Really the story of a Congolese man named Zola (Hubert Kounde) and his young son, Mamadou (Dami Adeeri), who struggle to make entry into the Canaries, the film's core ideas never quite live up to the outlying elements that make it briefly stand out. Slickly made, its human moments aren't always as human as they could or should be; Peren seems poised to surprise us, but ultimately plays it a little too safe. Would-be immigrants have tough lives, of course, and bitter policemen are bitter for a reason. It isn't that these notes don't come across as genuine and even earned, but rather that they feel as though they've been marked off the official border-crossing checklist and inserted into the story out of obligation. Color of the Ocean is sincere, well-crafted, and nice to look at—it just isn't especially vital.
This year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 14 – 28. For more information, click here.