In March 2011 an inflatable boat carrying 72 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa set out from the coast of Libya hoping to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. As one Italian official commented, sailing from Libya towards Italy should have been ‘a bit like doing a slalom between military ships’. Yet as, out of fuel, supplies of food and water dwindled to nothing and the people on board began to get sick and die, the boat continued to drift and no help came. Eventually it floated all the way back to the Libyan coast. Of the 50 men, 20 women and two babies who set out to sea, only eleven remained alive.
Sharon Davis and Geoff Parish reconstruct this tragedy through interviews with five young men who survived the trip. Their first-person accounts of the journey are augmented by interviews with sympathetic Dutch politician Tineke, Rome-based Eritrean Priest Father Mussie Zerai, who was contacted by the passengers by satellite phobe, human rights investigator Lorenzo Pezzani, who forensically reconstructed the boat’s movements, and dour NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. One survivor (Abu Kurke) speaks in halting English; for the others the vernacular is faded under voice-overs. It is raw, simple narrative, expertly selected and edited to move the story seamlessly forward while also allowing listeners time to form mental images of the boat and its passengers and to absorb the emotional impact of what they are hearing. The survivors’ individual accounts overlap and repeat to poetic effect, underscoring the veracity of their testimony. The survivors’ tale floats on a bed of sound – the splash of waves; the hum of a boat motor; restrained, ominous music (with cello predominating), and the occasionally distant chime from an old clock tower marking the relentless passing of time and its deadly impact on the voyage.
The radio makers’ approach is dignified, restrained and powerful. Just as the clean lines of minimalist architecture can rely on sophisticated engineering, so the apparent simplicity of a chronological account conceals the artistry, deep thought and sheer hard work of radio production. A strong undercurrent of anger flows through the documentary, and we are given strong encouragement to doubt that NATO has been fully truthful in its response to the tragedy.
The Left-To-Die Boat won a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize and was shortlisted for a Sony Academy award (UK), the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and the Australian Human Rights Awards.