Review of Mathilde Suissa’s Depart
Depart (2021). 9 min. Written, Directed & Edited by Mathilde Suissa. Starring Lauren Sowa and Natalie Abruzzo.
Shot remotely at the height of the COVID pandemic in New York City, Depart takes up several challenges. First, how to produce a film when each and every person on the planet is supposed to avoid contact with each other as much as possible. Second, how to tell stories on-screen that are influenced by the painful realities that linger during life in the pandemic, with people losing loved ones and struggling with the uncertainties of an unknown illness, as well as with mental health issues exacerbated by these and many other social, economic, and political issues combined. A feeling of dread of what the future holds is persistent. Where will humanity go from here? How will the planet survive? Will people be able to come together in solidarity, or are we doomed forever?
Mathilde Suissa’s short film picks up on these realities. In Depart, something has happened—what, we don’t know. But it is something of so much impact that humans have to be evacuated. Lauren (Lauren Sowa) is one of them. Preparing to depart her home as part of what is titled “Group C,” she can only take one container with her. It is no larger than a piece of regular-sized carry-on luggage. Similarly to not revealing why people are evacuated, the film also leaves the audience in the dark about where the upcoming journey will take its passengers.
As Lauren packs clothes, books, pictures of family and friends, and basic necessities, her and our feeling of uncertainty intensifies. How do you fit a whole life into a suitcase? Which memories have to stay, which can go? Do you go with practicability or emotional attachment? Thriller-like music coupled with the TV anchor’s voice in the background giving information on the general process of departure accelerate a sense of discomfort. This is furthered by the knowledge that a form of panic and lack of solidarity has set in among the populations of Groups A and B, leading to overpacking and overcrowding during the first rounds of departure.
While Lauren is in no hurry to pack, taking her time pondering which pieces to take, we realize there is much more to the departure than just altruism on the part of the evacuations’ organizers. We can only guess who they are: A political party? The 1%? A governmental or military organization? What we do know is that the journey ahead for Lauren is very much shaped by bureaucracy, with lots of rules set in place and a need for her to provide documentation, called prolifics here. Not having your papers, not arriving on time to catch your vehicle of transportation, or not adhering to baggage-weight limits means you won’t be able to leave and have to stay. Depart very much makes references to the status of immigration policies around the world in this regard. Who can go where under which conditions is not a matter of volition, but only for the chosen ones, who want to and can follow rules set in place by those in power. The audience never gets to know why Lauren is among those able to leave, as we never know what the difference is between groups A, B, or C, or what the preconditions are to be able to depart, but we can easily guess that not everyone will be able to make the journey. As reality catches up, we have to look no further than Russia’s war on Ukraine to point out imbalances of economic, military, and political power—not just among countries or governments but also people. Waves of migration, separation of families, and loss of homes and lives caused by war are a reminder that a person’s well-being is a matter of their country of residence, their citizen status, ethnicity, social class status, and gender—and much more that isn’t as obvious and feels clearly arbitrary but plays a large part in the individual person’s fate.
Lauren has an orderly home. Her apartment presents itself very much as Instagram-ready: clean, décor with a calm color palette of whites and grays, a color-coordinated bookshelf, just like an IKEA showroom. However, her behavior indicates that she has not yet ordered her thoughts about the turn of events transpiring in her life. A call from her sister telling her to hurry up, as otherwise she will miss the time of departure combined with a missing memento put her on the path to collapse. We experience a lot of emotional turmoil in the film’s 9-minute runtime. Lauren’s mixed feelings of indifference to, dread of, and uncertainty about what’s to come are palpable. This is, for one, due to Sowa’s performance, which does not rely on much dialogue, but conveys emotions in other ways. Additionally, the audience is told at the end of the short that this film was shot remotely, during times when people were not able to leave their homes, and if they did, they were always in danger of catching a life-threatening illness, amplifying our anxiety even once the film is over. Knowing as an audience member that a collapse of civilization and the destruction of the planet Earth does not seem so unimaginable in the face of our many social, economic, and environmental issues gives this short film a dreadful relevance and substance.
But as much as Depart is about fear, despair, and anger, in the end, it leaves us with a sense of hope. While Lauren has to leave so much of her old self behind, there lies new life ahead. Interestingly, this positive outlook is attached to a single item found in her apartment, an egg gently placed in a black wooden box. As it is, it seems out of place, and its presence isn’t contextualized further. But it has lots of meaning attached nonetheless—mainly in regard to themes such as life, survival, and renewal. Suissa’s film thus ends on a metaphorical note, going along with the film’s lack of dialogue, with Lauren’s (and humanity’s) fate unclear and many questions unanswered. However, with the words of probably the world’s most famous broken egg resonating, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” It is up to the audience to find meaning in the metaphorical message we are left with. This is a film that proves it is ready to take on challenges and isn’t afraid to pose some likewise to those watching.