Five Days on Lesvos, gets right to the heart of the situation

Film review: Five Days on Lesvos

Dir. Richard Wyllie

Prod. Samantha Brown

The world is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. I know, you’ve heard it before and it’s hard to hear. It’s hard to understand what that really means. In 2015 one million people crossed the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Over half of them landed on Lesvos.

Five Days on Lesvos, gets right to the heart of the situation. I use the word heart deliberately. I could have said center or core but this story is all about heart. The opening images of silken waves breaking on the shore of this idyllic Mediterranean island gently introduce us to a story that is all about a conspiracy of circumstance for both those people from the middle east seeking a safe place and those volunteers that are trying to instill some sense of order amongst the chaos.

Documentary film, 5 Days on Lesvos poster.

So often documentaries are about the head, about knowledge, facts and figures. The facts and figures of this massive movement of people are just beyond comprehension. Yet to follow the story of one person or one family wouldn’t do the story justice. The director of Five Days on Lesvos, Richard Wyllie and producer, Samantha Brown, have given us a way into the story that is both subtle and direct. The narrative focuses on just a few of the volunteers that are helping asylum seekers that, with jubilance and hope, land on the stony beaches of Lesvos.

This island is a microcosm for refugee movement worldwide. The bureaucracy on the island can’t cope with the influx of people. The locals are divided about whether the asylum seekers have a right to land there. The asylum seekers themselves are bewildered, determined, and yet, disempowered. The few people who are helping the refugees are overwhelmed and persecuted by local authorities. Does this sound familiar?

On Lesvos, at the time of the documentary, none of the major charities are there. Asylum seekers that are fortunate enough to make the journey across the sea in tiny boats and land in a small regional centre are told that they can’t stay in this town. Even if they have the money they can’t get a hotel room or a taxi, because they don’t have papers. The place to get papers and transport to the next leg of their journey is sixty-five kilometres away. Sometimes there are buses to get there. Sometimes they need to walk. One of the refugees says, “we got out of one thing and into another”.

The film is beautifully shot in difficult circumstances. The scenes at night that follow a volunteer offering medical assistance are handled deftly. Sam Lee and Friends’ haunting score at once hints at cultures and histories that have been left behind and also points to the great melting pot of cultures that are trying to make it work in a Europe that is changing rapidly.

The occasional footage of people trying to cross borders or arguing with security personnel remind us that this story is playing out in many different ways right across the continent and the world.

For me, the power of the film was summed up in two images: the volunteer who stoically says he is just doing what he has to do but, to cope, he keeps coming back to the refrain, “it’s cigarette time”, as he draws heavily on his smoke; and the boy, who must be twelve or thirteen years old and is travelling by himself to find a better life to bring his sister and mother to, looks at some younger children struggling to find food and turns to the camera and says, “they don’t deserve this”. 

Five Days on Lesvos is a tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who are simply doing what they can to survive.

Five Days on Lesvos is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tix and screening times here...

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