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Tuesday
May092017

FIVE DAYS ON LESVOS: THE RICHARD WYLLIE INTERVIEW

In the summer of 2015, director Richard Wyllie and his producer, Sam Brown, left behind their London base and travelled 1500 miles to the Greek island of Lesvos. Their aim was to craft a documentary that examined the role the outpost played as the entry point for an increasing number of refugees, fleeing conflict and oppression via a dangerous ocean crossing. The finished film, an extraordinary work called Five Days on Lesvos, would ultimately capture a tipping point in one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in European history. Richard Wyllie spoke with SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the Australian premiere of his film at the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

SCREEN-SPACE: What were your impressions that first day you set foot amongst the refugees of Lesvos?

WYLLIE: I remember thinking how much these people are just like me. Many find the refugee crisis difficult to relate to because the people involved speak a different language (or) the Middle East seems like a different world. But meeting the people, seeing their clothes, hearing about their lives before the conflict, brought it home that it isn’t too much of a leap to imagine myself in that situation. They were businessmen, doctors, students. I wondered what it would take to make me flee my home and make a terrifying journey across the sea with my family. These people are fleeing death and destruction, we should be under no illusions about that. As the week progressed, the sheer numbers of people arriving was pretty overwhelming. We’d film one boat coming in at dawn, head back to the hotel to eat breakfast and there’d be two more boats on the horizon. The volunteers on the island were fantastic, and just as relentless as the boats; they would just carry on helping, getting refugees off the beach, going back for more, all day long.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did the film evolve as you’d envisioned it would? Were there discoveries you made between pre-production and arriving on the island that altered your vision?

WYLLIE (pictured, right): We knew we wanted to make a film about both the refugees and those helping them. Filming on Lesvos was supposed to just be the beginning. We thought we might want to track some refugees across Europe, over months or even years. I called Eric, who you see at the beginning of the film, and he was happy for me to film his work, so we simply agreed to meet him at 6am on top of that hill. We had no idea what we would actually capture during that week. (But) that particular week saw a massive increase in the numbers of refugees; although many refugees had arrived in Greece before this, that week marked an escalation of the crisis. What you see in the film is the effect of that – the island becomes overwhelmed and ordinary volunteers step up to help. It was only when we got home that the idea of simply telling the story of those five days came to us. It really was shot in five days, the characters coming in and out of the film in the same way we met them during filming. Narratively, it worked very well. As the edit progressed, this structure made more and more sense. I like the cyclical nature of what’s happening, because that is what it felt like when we were there.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you set out to make a political statement, a humanist drama or a historical snapshot?

WYLLIE: Probably a bit of all three, to be honest. Samantha (Brown, the producer) and I were getting increasingly frustrated with the depiction of the refugee crisis in the British media. Our politicians were using phrases like ‘swarms of people’ and the right wing press didn’t question any of this. We wanted to make something that gave faces to the refugees, emphasizing their humanity. I don’t like to make films with an overt message, telling people what to think. I like to let people decide for themselves. The best way to do this is to show the situation through the eyes of the characters, let their experiences tell the story, revealing the human drama naturally. It’s the reason why I let the pictures run for quite a lot of the film – I want the audience to decide for themselves what they’re seeing. Some people have said the film is very sympathetic to the refugees, but we simply filmed what was going on. There’s no way you can’t feel sympathy for people in that situation. Historically, we thought that we had perhaps captured the pinnacle of the refugee crisis. In retrospect, we not only captured the beginning of the crisis, but also the beginning of a turning point in the politics of Europe. The refugee crisis has been a trigger for much of the current tumult in European politics, such as Brexit, the increased rightwing fervor and populism. Eighteen months on from those events, the film takes on a new relevance as the political situation develops. Those five days were, to an extent, the catalyst of all that.

SCREEN-SPACE: How do you reconcile the dichotomy of your life as a documentarian? Do you struggle with being so close to the human condition while maintaining the distance your lens affords you?

WYLLIE: I was confronted with something I hadn’t ever experienced as a filmmaker – the compulsion to put the camera down and help. Usually, filming in crisis situations, you’re in the presence of experts who are far better placed to assist people in need. Your job is to film and document. But here, it was ordinary people who were helping; there was so much to do with every boat that landed on the shore. So I would film some of it whilst Sam tried to help people off the boats. We spent some of the time ferrying people off the beach and down into the town; there were elderly people, pregnant women, children, who were in no shape to walking those kinds of distances.

SCREEN-SPACE: What do you hope western audiences, such as the Melbourne Doc fest crowd, take from the experience of watching Five Days in Lesvos? 

WYLLIE: I hope that people come away realising that these people, and refugees across the world, don’t give up their homes and make these dangerous journeys because they want more money, or welfare from foreign governments. They just want safety for themselves and for their families.  These people deserve our help and, having met them, I’ve no doubt they’d do the same if the tables were turned.

FIVE DAYS ON LESVOS will screen as part of the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in July. Session and ticket details can be found at the event's website here.

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