The producer of ‘Five Days On Lesvos’, Sam Brown, sat down with Elliot Burr and James Baxter-Derrington to discuss an intense five day shoot during last year’s refugee crisis. We must apologise that we were unable to find a picture of Sam, but we thank her for taking the time to talk with us!
I saw the film the other day and really enjoyed it, having seen a few documentaries this week. Yours was very compact.
Sometimes documentaries force themselves to be longer than they need to be, it just so happened to fit into that time slot, and we didn’t feel like stretching it out any further.
So was it always going to be in the ‘5 Days’ format?
To be honest, when we set up, it was just me and Richard [Wyllie], the director, who worked on it. We both work in broadcast TV, documentaries and we’re in between jobs / working part time last summer and got really frustrated watching all the news coverage of the refugee crisis, it was all really negative coverage at the time, so we just reached out to Eric. He’s the guy with the binoculars every day in the film, and he was happy for us to go and see him. So we booked flights to take us there for a week and kind of expected to either come away with a short film that we could stick online to raise some awareness or possibly, if we could get some funding, it could become the start of a bigger documentary where we meet some people as they came to Europe for the first time and then travel to meet them later once when they reach their destinations – it could be a long term doc – but as it happened, so much occurred on the island when we were there just in that five day period, and then at the same time so much happening around Europe with these kind of interesting archive bits… but it felt like a neat little story, a microcosm, a snapshot of a much wider issue. It came about naturally.
How did you hear about Eric specifically? He became the central figure of the documentary.
I read an article, I think it was in The Guardian, that was kind of little paragraphs about various grassroots movements around Europe actually helping the refugees on a small scale level. One of these paragraphs was about Lesvos, and mentioned the Kempsons, and I emailed Richard with that section highlighted saying “how do we make a documentary about this?” and then we just went from there.
I like the fact that each day started with Eric looking out to sea, it was very cinematic compared to a TV documentary. Was that always part of the creative process?
It was a little bit of it being a creative process, but then again because Eric was the only proper contact that we had on the island when we got… the first day we arrived, we had to drive up to the north of the island to meet him and his family, and we established that they were fine to be filmed, so the first time we filmed was in the next morning at 6 o’clock. We met him on this cliffside where he would start his day every morning, looking out to the horizon to see which boats were coming from where, trying to get on them as quickly as possible to help. So it kind of… it partially happened because that’s genuinely how our days began, but it also became a really nice motif I suppose throughout the film, just shows this clip where Eric’s life revolves around standing there waiting for people that he can help… you can literally see little dots on the horizon, which is the Turkish coastline, right across the sea and we’d just wait. Within an hour you could have about 5 boats, and you’d just have to watch him, because he knows which way they’re going and we all get in the cars and chase them. That’s how it always began.
“it felt like a neat little story, a microcosm, a snapshot of a much wider issue”
He is a truly inspirational figure in the film, offering his home to people. What was the experience like for the whole crew when you were having to live there?
I suppose our experience of the island was very much in the middle of the two extremes. We stayed in quite a nice hotel. It wasn’t massively busy but there were tourists there, our room had a lovely view over the sea and the restaurant was looking over the sea. You understood that this tourism thing had to happen, but after we’d been up at dawn to see the boats, we’d get back to the hotel, sit down, have a can of Sprite and be waiting for my lunch to arrive, and you couldn’t help but look at the horizon and see another boat coming in, and you’d just grab everything, get to the car, get the kit again and go out to chase them. Because as well as filming, we were also helping. The film shows that there weren’t really many around helping at the time, just some volunteers from all over and so we had emergency foil blankets, and once we put the camera down, we’d be helping pregnant women and children get to camp so they didn’t have to walk. It was an odd one because you definitely felt how this island was torn between this humanitarian crisis that was happening and the need for tourism to continue.
Was finding volunteers really organic?
Yeah! So, as I said, Eric was our main contact so we had him in the bag and because we didn’t know what we were setting out to do, we made a conscious effort to try and cover all of the main areas where things were happening. So Eric took the initial boats arriving on the beaches and we knew that Molyvos, the local town, had a camp there and that was one of the main things that was happening – the refugees in that town. And then in Mitilini we knew that there were all these tents along the harbour, and we knew there was a camp there so we went to see that as well. It kind of feels lucky, but at the same time, it maybe just says something about the refugees and their positivity and determination and spirit that every location we went to, someone always came up to talk to us. So Jahwed, the Afghan, he came to us and so basically all the refugees that came to us were super friendly and wanted to tell their story, and understood that by talking to the camera, hopefully if it didn’t help them it could help other people that were following them on that route at some point.
Did you have any challenges from any people that didn’t want cameras there?
Yeah, it wasn’t like everyone wanted to be filmed, or everything liked us being there. With the refugees, some people are very concerned that them being filmed could impact their families back home. Often people with cameras, particularly the news crews, kind of land in a place, stick around for ten minutes whilst they get their shots and zoom off, but because we were hanging around a bit, if people didn’t want to be filmed they could come and talk to us, or they could make it clear that they didn’t want us to use them in the film. Even with the volunteers, some of them weren’t happy with us being there. I think they warmed to us after a few days of hanging around, but I think that was also lethargy at the press by the time we were there. It hadn’t all kicked off because Aylan Kurdi, the young boy whose body washed up on the beach, that story that brought all of the world’s press to Lesvos. But already by the point we were there, there had been this steady stream that was becoming a current of press, who’d been there and would turn up and stick their cameras in the faces of the refugees and volunteers as they were getting off boats, and it wasn’t very nice to have that happening in that situation.
“already by the point we were there, there had been this steady stream that was becoming a current of press”
What was the local government like about it?
I’m not an expert on the politics of the situation, but, my understanding is that particularly in the town of Molyvos, that town in the north, they were very, very torn regarding how to respond to this crisis. They were quite convinced that by offering aid or assistance to the refugees they were kind of encouraging them to go there, even though the refugees don’t know where their boat is heading when they’re in it. I spoke to Eric’s daughter who came to the premiere screening, afterwards she said that the situation is just really difficult. The tension is rife particularly in Molyvos, and so it’s a really tricky situation, trying to clamp down on anything that’s going to help the refugees. But I think that maybe the wider local government on the island is much more accepting.
You were saying when you first started, when you went there, you weren’t certain what the scale of the project was going to be – how did you find editing that glut of footage, how did that fit into an hour?
So I think that it… to be honest, there’s not really a sequence that we shot that isn’t in the film, I can maybe think of a couple of bits that we didn’t use. But it almost just… just felt like… when we sat down and looked at all the footage, it became quite quickly apparent that that was the best way to tell the story and the best way to use the footage. We were quite shocked by our shooting ratio, that we did manage to get an hour out of five days of footage – I think it’s quite good really! [laughs] So, yeah, it just… Richard did all the editing himself at home. It just became the clearest structure and particularly because of all those news events that happened whilst we were there. Once we’d sat down and we looked through all the archive footage and the stories that had happened, it kind of really felt like that was the strongest way to tell the story.
Are you looking to revisit Eric or Lesvos, or is it just this film that is the story you wanted to tell?
I think that’s the story now, obviously it’s an ongoing crisis and we could keep going back probably in about 5 years and it would still be going on under several guises. The situation on the island now is still terrible, but it’s quite different to what it was 5 months ago. But I kind of feel like what we’ve made is a compelling story, it’s emotive and shows the difficulties that that this crisis is presenting Europe with, but also it’s almost like a little time capsule of that terrible thing that’s going to go down in human history. I’d imagine it’ll be one of the worst crises of the 21st century, and hopefully we’ve at least bottled it in a way that you can go back to the documentary in a few years time or in 10, 20 years time and understand what was happening.
“to have actually been there, having people hand me their children off the boat…”
Yeah, certainly. Speaking of the future of the documentary, where is Five Days… going – is it more festivals or general release?
Who knows! So, yeah, coming from broadcast documentaries, I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to all that stuff, but hopefully it’ll have the opportunity to go to more festivals, and then I basically need to try and talk to people and see if anyone is interested in taking it on and getting it out there more. Obviously we set out to make the film because we want people to be aware of it, so I really hope that it does have a life after Raindance and people will see it.
How do you think this documentary fits in with the others that you have made in your career? Was it more difficult than others?
Yeah, it was. I’ve done a really mixed bag of things that I’ve worked on like, The Undateables, the first series of that for Channel 4, I’ve done, you know, social history things for BBC4 and Great Continental Railway Journeys, so it’s a real mixed bag. This was more of a passion project because this is what I got into TV for. I studied Arabic at university – it’s really not very good anymore! – but if you work in documentaries, you can hopefully change the way people think through their living rooms. They’re sitting at home and you showing them stuff and they change their view of the world and so it’s really kind of symptomatic of frustrations with my day job that I saw that article and that report and thought “let’s make a documentary out of it”. And I’m really pleased that we did because it’s infused me more, it makes me realise how much I love documentaries and to actually make something like that… and to have gone through those experiences as well. We were only on the island for a week, but it’s nice to have some first-hand reference point when discussing such a big crisis that lots of people have an opinion on, to have actually been there, having people hand me their children off the boat… it hopefully gives me a perspective which is actually useful to have, something considerably important to have some kind of an understanding of. And I didn’t have the resources to go and give up my job to go and live in Calais for six months to volunteer, but I know how to make documentaries, so let’s see if I can make a difference that way!
Are you looking to stay more with the cinematic scale of things, or will you go back to TV documentaries?
I would love to do more cinematic stuff. I love feature docs, but they’re notoriously difficult to get into. I can’t see me leaving my day job, I’m doing various other types of broadcasting projects. Definitely once this has seen through its life, whenever that is, we’re more likely to do independent stuff, and hopefully we’ll try and work up some new ideas. This maybe will help get us funds in the future to do something that’s a bit different.
Absolutely, best of luck with it – we wish you every success.