Finding the Human Stories in Europe’s Refugee Crisis

December 27, 2016
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

A family of Syrian refugees look out at the Mediterranean Sea after crossing from Turkey to Greece.

The refugee and migrant crisis that gripped Europe starting in 2015 had not yet reached its peak when director James Bluemel got the idea to make a film about the journey.

Over the last two years, more than 1.3 million people have arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean. Nearly 9,000 have died or gone missing along the way.

“We were watching the news, and looking at hundreds of Africans dying in the Mediterranean,” Bluemel remembered. Around the same time, a friend of his had returned from a trip photographing a migrant camp in Morocco. He returned with footage shot by several migrants of their attempts to cross the sea from Morocco to Spain.

“It was this really incredible footage, really visceral, unique access — because it’s taken by them,” Bluemel said. “We just thought, Christ, if this stuff is being filmed, that could be a really interesting way of telling the story.”

Bluemel and his team began filming just as the Syrian conflict was starting to spill out of the Middle East, with Syrian asylum seekers setting off for Europe in search of safety and a better life. “We were up and running, so we could react to that.”

In his new FRONTLINE documentary Exodus, Bluemel combines his footage with video filmed by refugees and migrants themselves. Viewers meet Hassan, an English teacher from Damascus, Syria; Isra’a, a young Syrian girl from Aleppo; Ahmad, who worries about his wife and daughter who stayed behind in Syria; Alaigie, a Gambian man who dreams of lifting his family out of poverty; and Sadiq, who fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban.

Bluemel sat down with us recently to talk about finding the human stories among the thousands of refugees and migrants making the journey to Europe; about surprising moments of humor in the direst of circumstances; and about where those featured in Exodus ended up.

This is the edited transcript of a conversation held on Dec. 15, 2016.

We meet some of the people in Exodus as they’re preparing to start their journeys, and some after they’ve already left home far behind. How did you find this cast of refugees and migrants?

Finding refugees is actually pretty simple once they’ve already become refugees. You go to these hotspots and there are hundreds of people there. So, it’s just a case of milling around and talking to people.

Finding refugees before they become refugees is much more tricky. In places like Eritrea and Gambia, people don’t advertise the fact that they’re going to leave. They do it in secrecy because it’s illegal to leave their countries. They don’t even tell their close family sometimes. They certainly don’t tell their neighbors. So finding those people is much harder.

I went to Senegal and met some people who [if you asked,] “Anyone thinking of going to Europe?” everyone said, “Yeah, me!” So you go, “Well this is amazing, I’ve got this huge cast of people I can cast from.” And then a few shoots down the line you realize that there’s a big difference between being able to go to Europe and just wanting to go to Europe. You have to find someone that’s already paid [a smuggler]. Once you find the smuggler, you can say, “Who’s on your books?” And the smuggler will take you to the migrants, and then it’s just a case of seeing if any of them would want to be filmed.

Casting for a film like this is incredibly important. You’ve got to get it right. You’ve got to choose people that a European or American audience will be able to relate to. The sort of person that can easily generate empathy is, in a way, what gives this film its power.

“It was those moments where humor rose to the surface which surprised me and made me realize how robust the human spirit can be, and how quickly it can repair itself.”

How did people react to being filmed? There were probably people who were wary of it, and didn’t want to be on camera.

In general, you’re filming people who are very stressed, their levels of anxiety are running very high. They’re worried about disinformation and rumors. “If I get photographed in Greece, does that mean they’ll send me back to Greece? If I get photographed and get seen by the Syrian secret police, is my family going to be penalized, killed?” These are very legitimate fears, and sometimes the last thing they want is a camera. And you’ve got to be very mindful of that and never push it.

This idea of using footage shot by refugees and migrants themselves — how did you make the decision of who’d be able to go the distance, shoot and tell their own story?

If I liked them, then probably the viewer would too, because it’s been filtered through my lens. I’ve got to like the person and have that special little connection. Once we explain the film and what the ambition is, and the added bit, “Listen, we can give you a camera and you can film part of that journey.”

There’s some people that understood that. They found it helpful. I think Hassan, as an example of that, found filming his own journey incredibly helpful, in the way that it made him slightly removed from the experience of being a refugee. It gave him an extra role. He saw that reality through the lens, and he filmed all the time. The camera for him was a crutch.

Ahmad found filming quite difficult and didn’t enjoy doing it as much. When he was going into the back of that lorry, there’s no way he wanted really to film. He did it. He did it well, and every shot that he filmed I used. It’s not something he found particularly helpful, even though his reason for doing it was less for me. It was more to have a record to show his family what he went through. He found a reason for doing it.

“When you say goodbye to someone in Greece and say, ‘See you on the other side,’ there’s a possibility that you won’t see them on the other side.”

Isra’a’s family didn’t film their dinghy crossing. You put yourself in [her father] Tarek’s place, and you’re worried that this dinghy’s going to go down and you’ve got your children and your wife on board. Perhaps what’s not going to be at the front of your thoughts is, “I better film this on my phone.” I completely understood the lack of footage from that trip.

That makes Hassan’s boat footage even more remarkable. The fact that he did that — his boat was going down and he still filmed.

Did any of them tell you what they hoped to convey by recording their journeys?

Everyone says yes for their own reasons. People say no often for very similar reasons, but “Yes, I want to be part of your film” can be quite personal. Tarek, in the documentary just before he’s about to go on that dinghy, says, “If we go down, broadcast our story to the world.” There was a sense they wanted some sort of document. They felt that they didn’t have a voice, and we were definitely giving them that voice.

In the film, you made the decision to focus not just on people fleeing war, but also people who left home for economic reasons, because of dire poverty. Why did you choose to combine these into one narrative?

I think it’s incredibly important not to make a distinction at that level at the moment. We’ve got huge numbers of people leaving and fleeing their countries for multiple reasons. You’ve got to be aware and suspicious of forming a hierarchy of suffering, I think. I didn’t feel that denying the fact that there’s economic migration would be at all helpful.

What did you make of the smugglers you met? Were any altruistic or were they all just in it to make money?

The smugglers that I met in Calais [in France] and the smugglers that I met in Turkey, they’re doing it for money. They recognize there’s a demand, and they will exploit that demand. They can be pretty ruthless.

Alaigie’s smuggler, who’s in the film, is in a way slightly different. In Gambia, and a lot of these source countries in Africa, they don’t really think of their smugglers as being illegal, dodgy criminals. They think of them more as travel agents. Someone that can offer you the route, and it’ll cost this much. There’s lots of competition.

Once you get up to Calais, you have Kurdish gangs, Afghan gangs, Egyptian gangs, that will take your money and lock you in a refrigerated lorry.

What was one of the moments that surprised you while making this film?

There were lots of surprises. The humor always cheered me up whenever it happened, and it was important to make sure that was transferred into the film. People can have the most dire situations. It’s easy to find someone with a horrible story, but it was those moments where humor rose to the surface which surprised me and made me realize how robust the human spirit can be, and how quickly it can repair itself. I was happy to see that.

What was the toughest situation you witnessed?

The hardest situation is you don’t know how these journeys end up. You don’t know the fate of anyone. When you say goodbye to someone in Greece and say, “See you on the other side,” there’s a possibility that you won’t see them on the other side. And there’s a relationship there. You know them, they’re not just faces anymore. You know their names. You’ve spent time with them. When you say goodbye, I get on a ferry and it costs me 22 Euros. And they go on a dinghy, and there’s a definite chance that they could drown. And that’s hard.

“It’s important to unmask and humanize, and remind people that this is a human tragedy.”

What do you hope viewers take away from this?

It’s always hard to answer this elegantly. People have lazy and fearful assumptions about things. That’s not a criticism of anyone, that’s just how we view the world. That’s how the world is often fed to us. And the news is part of that, and the news does scale incredibly well. You watch as thousands of people walk down a road, and the assumption is that this mass of people are going to come and they’re going to live next door to you.

What was missing in the dialogue of the way in which the refugee crisis was reported were the human stories. If someone can watch this film and relate to the person they’re seeing, feel empathy for that person, and by the end of it — no matter what you felt about the refugee crisis — if you’re rooting for that person to succeed, then you’ll reassess your thoughts. That was the hope of the film.

It’s important to unmask and humanize, and remind people that this is a human tragedy.

Have you been in touch with anyone from the film? Any updates you can provide?

I’m in touch with all of them. It was important to be in touch with all of them right through the editing and broadcast process. Those relationships are still very active. I can tell you that Ahmad and his family are very settled in England now. Ahmad is enrolled in a university in London studying disaster management with a view that he wants to go back and help rebuild his country.

Hassan is now working with me, as a fully paid up member of staff on Exodus Two. He wanted to make it into filmmaking so I thought he’d be the perfect person to hire. Not much has changed with Isra’a. They’re still waiting for their official asylum claim to be confirmed. But she’s doing very well. She’s learning German and going to school. Sadiq, there’s not much change, except the longer it goes on where his asylum claim is refused, the more anxious and worried he becomes.

Alaigie is in a refugee camp in Germany now, and he’s working as a cleaner, sending a little bit of money back to his family. He’s applied for asylum. He’s still waiting to find out what the outcome of that will be.

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