Still from the film Styx (all images copyright Beta Cinema Benedict Neunfels)

Styx, written by Ika Kunzel and Wolfgang Fischer (who also directs it), is the latest in a series of movies promoted under the umbrella of “Reclaim the Frame,” an advocacy program for cinema with a female point of view. Styx derives its title from the mythic passage of water separating earth from the underworld. In a drifting mise-en-scène, the film represents its topical subject matter — the plight of migrants — as a timeless crisis of separation, and, for its protagonist, a bitter loss of innocence.

The opening looks like a wildlife movie. Barbary macaque, the monkeys living on the island of Gibraltar, appear like aliens clambering around an urban environment. The space is the only thing the island’s human inhabitants share with the primates. This sequence ends. Now it’s late at night; a high-speed car chase causes a crash. Rescue services appear in an instant. Rike, the movie’s protagonist, is first seen with the ambulance team. She is an unruffled paramedic, skilled, capable, and resilient.

Still from the film Styx of the main character, Rike

The greater part of the film follows Rike, a lone yachtswoman on a holiday voyage to Ascension Island. In a weightless passage of cinema she is watched in action heaving provisions on board and trimming the sails. The camera adopts seemingly impossible viewpoints, perched on the sea and confined in the claustrophobic cabin. Isolation underscores Rike’s self-sufficiency. But, using the radio to chat with an unseen captain on a passing cargo ship, suggests that the ocean is wide but not empty, and her determined solitude will be interrupted. A storm is the harbinger of change. In the following calm, Rike finds she is close to another vessel. The ungainly shape is a fishing boat, sinking, overloaded with would-be emigrants, waving in distress. Trying to reach her boat, several jump into the sea. Only one boy, Kingsley, has the strength to swim to her yacht. She struggles to get him on board. He is unconscious. Rike takes command of the situation. Her boat is too tiny to attempt a rescue, so she uses the radio to call for aid.

She assumes that her appeal will promote immediate action. As a doctor, she imagines the emergency support services to be available to all. In her understanding, everything — from the coast guard, to the sophisticated first aid equipment she carries — belongs within systems, obliged to preserve life. Later, she realizes no help is coming. The people on the sinking craft are not part of her humanity. She pleads with the skipper of the passing ship that answers her mayday call. He says, “Unfortunately our company has a strict policy in such cases … I really cannot risk my job.” The coast guard tells her, “Your action causes additional chaos as soon as you get closer you provoke turmoil … Stay away!”

Rike tends to Kingsley in Styx

Rike’s fancy yacht, her independence, her voyage following an erudite plan, wisely provisioned, emerge as emblems of blind exclusivity. Even the technologies of her civilization are tainted with corporate and civic mercilessness, anathema to the lives of “others.” Their proximity to the migrants amplifies their suffering beyond known tolerances of care.

Early in the film, Rike is seen loading bottles of mineral water. Their purity, hermetically sealed, plays a central role, suggesting fabricated transparency in closed systems. When given a tiny sip of this water Kingsley vomits. In another scene Rike drags bottles out of storage, in readiness to deliver them to the fishing boat —subsequently, the misplaced water is an obstruction, rolling underfoot. Later in a despairing ceremony, Kingsley jettisons bottles overboard, mumbling the names of members of his family, stranded on the stricken boat, already dead, or soon to perish. The sealed bottles float away. They will not degrade. They pollute, and the water they contain will remain forever sterile, never mixing with the wider ocean.

Still image from Styx

Finally, by pretending her own yacht is sinking, Rike succeeds in summoning help. Night draws in. With a transgressive leap, she boards the fishing boat, groping for signs of life among the limp bodies. Aboard a rescue ship in the concluding scene, she is mute, unresponsive, a soul without agency. A lifetime of objective empathy and personal responsibility has ended with the realization her attitudes were embedded in subjective systems that she never perceived.

While other cultural manifestations have dramatized tragic narratives of maritime migration Styx is significant, daring to suggest civilization, even compassion, are exclusive, a protected resource of the developed world.

Rike piloting her yacht in Styx

Styx is released in selected cinemas via Film Movement and will be available on DVD from July 2.

Andrew Stooke is a writer and artist based in Shanghai and London. In Shanghai, he has developed creative studios and workshops that pioneer new models of Sino-foreign cooperation and understanding.