When a small group of young Australians on a leisurely holiday boat cruise encounter a desperate asylum seeker vessel doomed to sink in the new thriller Safe Harbour, the crew are forced to make a decision. Should they help their fellow humans facing certain death, while dealing with their own fear of the unknown, or cast them off into the terrifying sea to fend for themselves. The symbol of the ocean as both hope and death is very strong and very real.
From the time our earliest rudimentary ancestors dragged themselves from the sea to walk on the land, the ocean has played a huge role in our storytelling as humans – to discuss our relationship with where we and our food come from, and what we are doing here. We flock to the shores of the oceans to relax, play and ponder the vastness of Earth from the safety of the beach, but the open sea can play the opposite role – an unquantifiable area of unknowns, terrifying darkness and horrific monsters.
The Old Testament banks on fear of the sea as much as it does the wrath of God, which is all basically one and the same. The Leviathan prays on the unknown terror of the deep, and the monsters that were certainly believed to lurk there. Spielberg’s Jaws basically made it impossible to swim in the ocean without a fear of great white sharks, mostly irrational considering the infrequency of such attacks. But unlike the fantasy and science-free exploration of Lovecraftian terrors of the deep, those things are all too real in Australia.
You’ve heard the tales of sharks that wait out survivors at sea from plane crashes to devour them when they become too weak to fight them off – a more terrifying way to shuffle off this mortal coil is hard to imagine. We’re gripped by these tales of real shark attacks on the news, of disappearances at sea, planes lost in the ocean, fishing trips gone wrong... and our news services whip up hysteria at every opportunity.
But the ocean is also a symbol of optimism and hope, from Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath characters escaping the dust bowl to make their way to the supposed bounty of seaside California, to our hero’s heartbreaking trek of hope to the ocean in Cormack McCarthy’s The Road as he and his son dodge cannibals and general apocalyptic mayhem to find the sea – the elusive ocean is just out of reach but promises hope.
For asylum seekers fleeing doomed lives of misery, the sea must present the same hope, but that hope only exists in the face of extreme fear and the high probability of death at sea. Since the beginning of this particularly dark phase in Australian history in which government policy has essentially mirrored the idea of leaving the boat to drift without help or intervention, Australian society has dealt with the ethical and moral dilemmas presented in Safe Harbour.
Inherently, the crew of the Australian vessel is forced to make the same decision that Australia has been making as a nation. Safe Harbour preys on our very real fear of the sea, and it illustrates the fear of being in the middle of the ocean on a dying boat, with your loved ones to protect, and a tiny glimmer of hope on the horizon. It also examines the betrayal of that hope, in the face of a known human, universal fear, and the very real consequences of what happens if we ignore our instinct to save the most vulnerable for our own preservation.