When Samantha Brown and Richard Wyllie set out to make a film about the refugee crisis in Europe, they weren’t entirely sure what the end result would be. Armed with their equipment and a pre-planned interview or two, they headed for the Greek Island of Lesvos, where a large concentration of refugees were arriving at an ever increasing rate. Almost as soon as the filmmakers arrived, a series of events unfolded that saw conditions worsen for the refugees arriving on the island. Brown and Wyllie spent the next five days filming what would become, Five Days on Lesvos.
I was lucky enough to catch-up with Samantha Brown to talk about her film ahead of its premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
Congratulations on the film! Five Days on Lesvos really drives home the reality of the refugee crisis… it’s impact at a purely human level. I’d love to hear about your background and how you came to make this film.
Samantha Brown: Thanks! Let’s see, I graduated in 2010 and decided that I wanted to get into documentaries. I’ve really gone down the TV route so far, and the past seven years have been working on documentaries for several of the major channels in the UK… the BBC, Channel Four, ITV.
Five Days on Lesvos was my first dive into independent films. I think we have a really good documentary industry in the UK but sometimes you just feel a little bit frustrated that you have to know what the story is before you shoot it and you have to be able to make promises to the channel about the programme you’re going to be making. I’ve got ideas myself and I wanted to have more ownership over a film and so I decided that when the refugee crisis was reaching a bit of a peak back in 2015, that was a good opportunity to see what it’s like to make an independent documentary and how that would be different.
Before we jump into the movie, can you provide some more context regarding the situation in Lesvos?
It was the summer of 2015 and at the time the refugee crisis was just starting to really make regular news in the UK. A lot of the commentary and the assessments of politicians and things were a bit of a mess, and David Cameron had made his quite famous statement about floods of people heading over to us. I was getting really frustrated with it. I was kind of aware of the fact that there was a constant stream of people coming over the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, and I’d read an article in The Guardian about grassroots projects that were happening all around Europe. They were made up of local people trying to assist with the situation. That’s where I saw a paragraph about Lesvos.
I’d not really heard of the island before that and I wasn’t aware of what was happening there. There was this family mentioned who were British ex-pats, the Kempsons, who had been trying their best to help ever since the first boats had started landing on a beach near their house. We went over there not really knowing what to expect other than that we have contact with that family and we knew that boats were coming. I thought that there would be a much better system in place for helping the people as they landed, to make sure that their journey was somehow organised. I thought there would be systems in place, but when we got there it was very apparent that there weren’t any.
I think after we finished filming that winter was really, really difficult for both the people volunteering and the refugees themselves, because there was a rush to put more resources in place but it was still very much ordinary people who were at the forefront volunteering in all their efforts to help. I think that since that winter it’s all been kind of pared down quite a lot and there are many, many refugees still stuck in centres across Greece, but the tide of people has stemmed quite a lot now.
When you say “We” I’m guessing that’s primarily you and your collaborator Richard Wyllie?
Yes, that’s right. We were basically the team. I’ve known Richard since we worked together on a history programme years ago. We both had some free time and decided to just book flights and go out there and see what we could do.
Can you describe what Five Days on Lesvos is about in your own words?
Basically, it’s about the actual people involved, I think. We didn’t really know what we were setting out to make. We had a rough idea, but it didn’t turn out to be that way at all. What we definitely knew we wanted to do was put a human face on the headlines. People were receiving a lot of numbers and statistics but you didn’t really know what was happening on the ground. I hope that the film really is about people.
You see them as refugees but, you also see them as people and you see this desperate situation that they’re going through. Five Days on Lesvos is a story of five days during this huge peak in the refugee crisis. It was the period where the crisis turned from something that people were kind of talking about to something that everyone knew about. It was a really divisive subject. It’s a story of people trying to make the best of a situation… refugees who were looking for a safe place to live and a hope for their future, but also trying to make the best of having nowhere to sleep and not having anything to eat. And then there are also the volunteers who are trying to help in any way they can, but see that this is a weird little bubble where the world doesn’t seem to be helping or aware of what exactly is going on.
You mentioned the fact that you shot the film over the course of five days and that most of what you captured was unplanned. I imagine you shot a lot of footage. How much of what you got really ended up in the film?
A really huge amount of what we shot is actually in the film. Richard is very proud of his “shooting to use” ratio on that trip. Once we got back to the UK and realised that we had captured this quite unique moment in time, we were like, “Oh, maybe we can make it a little bit longer so we can have more of a chance at festivals”. I think there were only a couple of scenes that we’d filmed that we didn’t end up using. I can’t remember exactly the number of hours that we filmed, but yeah it was a very good ratio.
Are you still in contact with the people that appeared in the film?
We are friends on Facebook with Eric Kempson and his family and I’ve kind of tried to keep abreast of what’s happening with them, but they’re so busy that I wouldn’t say that we’re in regular contact. Eric was our initial contact over there because of the volunteer work he was doing. What was really nice was when we had the premiere at Raindance last year their daughter had just moved over to the UK and she came along. It kind of gave you a warm feeling that someone who – you know, this film was about their life in a way – actually enjoyed the film but also felt that we represented the events and the people accurately. Jawed, one of the refugees we focused on, is doing very well, he’s in Sweden. His paperwork is complete and he seems to be settling in very well. Nicolaas who was one of the volunteers… we’ve kept in touch with him a bit.
Obviously there’s a pretty strong message in this film but what would you like viewers to go away and do after seeing Five Days on Lesvos?
I think my biggest hope is that people will watch it and think more about the situation that people are in. I suppose that one of the difficulties is that we can make documentaries and hope that we’ll have a positive effect on people, but it’s probably a bit of an echo-chamber. I imagine that the vast majority of people who would even sit down for an hour to watch the film are supportive of refugees and their rights. If those people can see the film and look into anything that they can do – from donating to an organisation or giving their time somehow – then that’s good.
But the real wish would be that people who have had critical ideas about refugees in the past – especially in terms of making assumptions about why people are risking their lives for that journey – might see the film and think a bit more about the humanity of the situation.
I’d also say that there is a difference between knowing what the situation is and having compassion in this theoretical way and actually seeing what people are going through. It makes it all a lot more visceral and real and I think that’s pretty powerful.
I’m glad to hear that. We watch news footage of people scrambling off boats and you maybe hear a few words from them but you still can generalise when you are seeing that tiny bit of footage. You get an idea but you don’t really know the extent. And even though the people that we’re filming aren’t being beaten by police or going through the kind of atrocious things shown in some news footage, it’s still about not being treated with the kind of respect that you’d hope any human would be treated with. I think seeing that in a more detailed way and getting a better understanding of it, and seeing how individuals are reacting to that treatment as well, will hopefully send a message home.
Obviously you’re working in TV, but is there another independent project on the cards for you in the near future?
Yes, hopefully. We really enjoyed the process of making the film and it did give us the creative freedom to just explore the story and portray people in a way that we felt reflected them. And it was great not having an exact work mission putting pressure on you to find different stories or whatever. We do have a few things on our development-slate at the moment and I’m hoping that in the summer I’ll really start working those up.