As Trump cracks down on refugees, an Oscar nominated documentary goes to the frontline of the Syrian crisis
by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)
The first shot is the horizon. It's the ocean.
You can see swells and whitecaps as the horizontal tilts like a seesaw. You're on a boat and the water is rough. Somewhere off screen, people are screaming. A tiny body is pulled by the arm over the stern of the vessel. A Greek flag flaps in the wind.
Then, a smaller body — a baby — is hoisted toward the camera.
"Put the camera down, take this," commands a voice, and the shot disappears as the director complies.
This all happens in the first minute of Daphne Matziaraki's film 4.1 Miles. The documentary follows a single day in the life of a Greek Coast Guard captain as he and his crew pluck refugees — adults and children — from the Aegean. Not all of them are alive.
The crew is vastly outnumbered by the people they're trying to help. Children are stacked on deck and some are wailing. A man hanging from the side of the boat can't be pulled onboard and he slips back into the water. It's chaos. When the director puts down her camera to help, you feel relieved.
"I was wondering what would I do, or what do I have to do, if I'm confronted with a situation like that where somebody is drowning in front of me," Matziaraki told me on CBC Day6.
"And I decided at that point before I went there that my role was to stay out of the way of the crew and their efforts and to really do my job as best as I can to document what is happening in the most truthful and realistic way I could."
"However, the situation on the boat was so chaotic and so frantic and everything was happening so quick. The instinct that I had was, of course, to do everything that the crew would ask me to and, of course, to help."
Impossible choices, fatal consequences
All of the rescues in the short film were shot in a single afternoon. The boat makes three excursions and the cockpit fills with humans. On one of the outings, a mother with two children falls back into the ocean. The winds and current sweep them away.
"The water is really, really rough and everyone that is on this boat is completely panicked," says Matziaraki.
"The crew is trying to pull, one by one, babies first, kids first up on the boat. And a mother with two kids slips and falls off of the rubber dinghy boat."
We see them unprotected on the water, at what seems like a great distance from the safety of the boat. But the crew must first rescue the large group of people closest to them before they can recover the three who are drifting.
"When we on the Coast Guard boat get to approach the mother with two kids, the two kids are unconscious. The crew pull them up on the boat and started to give the kids CPR."
Not everyone will make it
Some of the rescued women look on in despair as crew members pump the bodies of the children, a girl and a boy, at the back of the boat.
"Come and help," one of the crew members says to another. "Hold the nose and blow through the mouth."
Matziaraki says none of the crew is trained to give CPR. It takes about 15 minutes for the boat to bring the distressed children to the dock.
"And when we arrived at the dock there was no ambulance there. There is some volunteer doctors, semi-trained, who are trying to help. The girl regained her senses and started breathing again in that process."
But not the boy. He is taken to the emergency room at the hospital. Two days later, 7-year-old Mohamadi Amir Mahdi dies.
Matziaraki dedicates the film to him and all the other children who have drowned crossing the Aegean.
"It was really, really challenging for me to be there [and] to try to keep calm and to try to do my job," Matziaraki says. "But also the enormous psychological stress that I was under when I had to witness things that I never thought I would."
Heroic and traumatized
This week, as the U.S. mulls a reduction in refugees, 4.1 Miles was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary Short. Of the five films nominated in that category, three of them touch on the crisis in Syria or Syrian refugees.
The Trump administration wants to scale down 2017 targets to a total of 50,000 refugees. Last year in Greece, there were 50,000 refugees arriving every 10 days.
Matziaraki's film documents their desperate and dangerous journey across 4.1 miles of open water from the coastline of Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. But the other crucial part of the story is the man helming the boat, Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, whose life and work have been utterly changed by the crisis.
"The Coast Guard captain and his crew were not trained to do this job and they had to suddenly carry the weight of this, the biggest human tragedy I think since World War Two. So they were panicked themselves. They didn't know what to do."
Matziaraki shows Papadopoulos filling out his ship's log at the end of the day, a grim list of the living and dead he helped recover from the ocean on that day alone.
"He is extremely traumatized,"' Matziaraki says.
"And I recall him telling me that what haunts him is the lives that he's lost. And this is something that he cannot get over. It's people that, usually, he loses from within his hands, people that he's trying to pull up and they slip from his hands."
"It's now become everything in his life and a mission in his life to really try and help as many people as possible. He feels very alone however because he feels that the world is not really responding or really helping out or really preventing this."
The Academy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on February 26.