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Entries in Refugee (2)



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.



In the same week as global media is consumed by some of the most tragic images ever captured detailing the immigrant plight, SCREEN-SPACE spoke with filmmaker Prashant Nair about his latest film, Umrika. It is the story of Rama (Suraj Sharma, from Life of Pi), a soulful innocent thrust into manhood as he searches for Udai (Prateik Babbar), the older brother who left to chase dreams of a better life in the U.S.A. Having announced his talent with his debut feature Delhi in a Day (2011), Nair’s sophomore work is a deeply humanistic take on the refugee experience, an artfully crafted, compelling piece of contemporary Indian cinema with a truly international voice; it scored the Audience Award (World Cinema) at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival...

From the very first frame, the images of family and community unity in the rural setting are beautifully warm and engaging. Is it your belief that the essence of India can be found in a simpler, more traditional way of life? 

Rural India is often portrayed as gritty and backward with an emphasis on issues like caste, poverty and illiteracy. And while all this is certainly present, there is also a warmth and simplicity that is equally present. On our research trips we were overwhelmed by the generosity and spirit of the people we met in the various tiny villages and I really wanted to capture that aspect. There is a certain joy that you experience in villages that is hard to find in the big cities of India.

Why the title Umrika? The subtitles translate into full English except for the word ‘Umrika’, perhaps suggesting it is less about a place and more about an ideal.

Exactly. There are many ways to spell America in Hindi and this one is slightly unusual. I wanted it that way because, in many ways, it is not America they are discussing but their own very specific idea of what America is -  an ideal that they have fabricated through the various letters that arrive and their own personal fantasies, hopes and dreams. As Andy Warhol said: “Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see… you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” (Pictured, right; actors Suraj Sharma, left, and Tony Revolori)

What were the thematic reasons you set the film in the 1980s? Is the image of America as the land where dreams can come true no longer believable in 2015?

Actually, my reasons for setting the film in the 80s are mainly selfish. I grew up the kid of Indian diplomats and we would move every three years. I never lived in India but we would visit every second summer for three months throughout the 80s. It’s the India of my childhood and the India I wanted to portray out of nostalgia. Things were very different – the country was much more closed. There were only several types of cars, Doordarshan (State TV) was your only choice, the advertising, movies, music – I wanted to recreate all that.  Indian fascination with America was also peaking during those years. I do think America’s image as the land of opportunity, although not as strong as before, is still very much alive and well across the planet.

The film details a very particular set of intrinsically Indian circumstances that lead to the Rama’s plight, yet his journey could represent the refugee experience of any nationality…

Large numbers of Indians try to immigrate both legally and illegally each year. Just last year, a container was found in New Jersey and U.S. Border control continues to find a significant number of Indian migrants attempting to enter through the Mexican border. In terms of immigration as a global phenomenon, UNHCR’s figures are devastating and we are in one of the worst periods since the Second World War in terms of displaced people, immigrants and refugees. The recent events in Europe are heartbreaking and I hope, in some small way, Umrika allows its audiences to think of immigration beyond statistics and to connect with the story and background of one very particular immigrant in a personal way.

Can you put in context, primarily for non-Indian audiences, the role that the Nepalese women play in your film? One glances suggestively at Rama; Ubai has married one. It may be construed that they are negative influences, based upon ethnicity.
It’s not at all a statement on any community in particular but more about fear, in general, of what is not familiar. In Jitvapur village, there is a neighbouring community of Nepalese migrants who live alongside the villagers but who are not accepted by the villagers. Rama’s mother believes that her sons should marry someone of their own community and will not tolerate any exception to that. We learn later that one of the reasons Udai left was to marry the woman he wanted to, who happened to be Nepalese and who his Mother would never accept because she is not of the same community. It could have been any community other than their own, she would be equally unhappy. There is a lot of cinema about caste in India and it’s rare that I have a conversation with someone outside of India and it doesn’t come up. I felt like ethnic and racial prejudice in India is less addressed but unfortunately equally prevalent. (Pictured, left; (l-r) actor Prateik Babbar, director/writer Prashant Nair and actor Suraj Sharma, at Sundance 2015).

The final scenes unfold with a heartbreaking ambiguity. Given the setting is 30 years ago, the revelations about the destinies of Rama and Ubai seem horribly current. That makes for a very sad story, doesn’t it?

I had seen a lot of great films about how difficult the immigrant journey is or how hard it is once they reach their destination. I wanted to make a film about everything up until the decision to immigrate is made – to really give a glimpse behind statistics and tell a personal and unique story, (one that) leaves the audience hoping that our protagonist reaches where he is heading. I hope that the magnitude of his decision has a very concrete impact on the audience, in terms of humanizing this incredibly courageous and heartbreaking decision that millions do make. As we speak, someone is making the same decision that Rama makes in the film, facing odds of unimaginable proportions and willingly heading towards an uncertain future. As heartbreaking as it might be in the film, these are decisions people are making every day.

Umrika begins its Australian season on September 10; check local listings for release dates in other territories.