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Wolfgang Fischer’s friends warned him not to go to the open ocean to shoot Styx, a drama about refugees that’s a hit at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

It’s impossible to control the ocean, they said. The weather is unpredictable. So are boats. The open ocean has been the bane of ambitious filmmakers ranging from Steven Spielberg making Jaws in the 1970s to the team behind Kevin Costner’s 1995 film, Waterworld.

But the Berlin-based Mr. Fischer wanted a particular authenticity for his story of a German doctor (Susanne Wolff) on a solo sailing vacation off Africa’s west coast who comes upon a sinking trawler with African refugees aboard. When authorities refuse to send help, she has to make some tough choices about what to do. Should she rescue the refugees even though the effort could swamp her boat?

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“I think, especially with this topic, that everything had to be real,” said Mr. Fischer, who ruled out using visual effects to create the ocean or planting his boats in a giant tank.

The film was shot off the coast of Malta, a Mediterranean archipelago between Sicily and the North African coast. For about 40 days, Mr. Fischer and his team sailed daily until there was no land in sight − a necessity for the story. Mr. Fischer and his lead actress had no significant experience in ocean sailing beforehand and had to learn.

In an interview after the film was screened during the Vancouver International Film Festival, Mr. Fischer, 47, said he wanted to get to the emotional core of the European response to refugees.

“We are [in the movie] all the time with the main actress and right in the middle of the dilemma. The aim was to raise the question: What would you have done in this situation?”

Alan Franey, the festival’s director of international programming, knew he had to get Styx for VIFF when he saw the film at its world premiere during the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Beyond the topical nature of the refugee crisis, Mr. Franey was astonished by the visceral experience. “You couldn’t do this film with CGI without it feeling fake,” he said in an interview. “There are not many films that are set on the open seas. I thought this was really remarkable for putting you there and making you feel what [the main character] is feeling.”

To date, he said about 1,000 people have seen the film at VIFF – a good turnout by festival standards. Styx has screened twice so far and will get an encore Oct. 17 screening.

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Born in Vienna, Mr. Fischer is now based in Berlin. Styx is his second major film after What You Don’t See, a thriller released in 2011. He has been working on Styx since then, an effort that included raising the budget of about $3.5-million from various European funding sources.

Most of the refugees on the trawler were played by former refugees themselves, who had travelled to Malta from Africa. But one key character was played by Gedion Oduor Wekesa, whom Mr. Fischer found during a casting effort in a Nairobi arts school.

Mr. Wekesa, now 15, learned to swim in Kenya pools for a sequence in which he swims to the boat of Ms. Wolff’s character. “I have to thank him for his will and courage,” Mr. Fischer said.

Styx has been nominated for a European Parliament Lux prize, an 11-year-old program that honours films that speak to issues central to public-policy debate in Europe. Three other films, all featuring female protagonists, have been named as finalists for the prize, handed out on Nov. 14.

Mr. Fischer’s next project involves refugees grappling with wild animals as they traverse the Namibian desert. He expects a complicated shoot. “I don’t know anything about wild animals.”

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