Artist interview: Independent filmmaker, Richard Wyllie
Richard directed the documentary film Five Days on Lesvos which, through the prism of a five-day period in 2015, addresses the movement of hundreds of thousands of people across a small Greek island to seek refuge. The film was produced by Samantha Brown. Richard spoke to me about the motivation to tell this story as well as the challenges of working in such an unstable context.
This is a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Was that your plan for the story from the start or did it evolve as you met people on the island?
Well, given that we chose to make a documentary about the refugee crisis, I think it was always going to be a film about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, no matter how we as filmmakers chose to approach the subject. The story itself, however, evolved as we were on the island. We were fortunate to come across some fantastic individuals, people you know as a filmmaker will hold an audience’s attention and get them engaged in the subject. So we kept on going back to them as the week progressed, and sure enough, they were at the centre of the events that unfolded on the island during that week.
How long were you on Lesvos in preparation for the film?
We were on Lesvos for about 12 hours before we started filming. Our flight landed in Mytiline in the afternoon, we travelled to check into our accommodation on the North of the island, then went to meet one of our contributors, Eric, and his family at their home. At 6am the following morning we started filming, and that’s the first scene of the documentary. It was a pretty fast turnaround! It actually worked out for the best that we hadn’t made many plans, because the situation changed and evolved so rapidly that anything we had planned beforehand would have just been thrown out the window anyway. In those situations it’s best to find some good characters and stick with them, observing the situation.
Most people in front of the camera didn’t seem to mind being filmed. Did you have any problems with access to people and places for this documentary?
I’d be very worried about the ethics of us and our film if it showed people who clearly didn’t want to be filmed! There were a considerable number of people who didn’t want to be filmed, and as responsible filmmakers it is our duty to make sure that we don’t put anybody in danger or in an uncomfortable situation. We were careful to spend a good amount of time in every location, so that if anybody was concerned about us filming they had chance to express that to us – be that coming over to have a chat or just waving us away. Many people were concerned about the safety of their family back in their home countries if they were to appear in any kind of footage, so we couldn’t take those kinds of complaints lightly.
In terms of access to locations, we found that the vast majority of volunteers we approached were very receptive to us being there. At the time it really felt like the island was a little bubble of chaos, and the refugees were suffering from a lack of attention from the wider world. So, people were keen to highlight the situation on the ground in any way they could. In contrast, some volunteers and locals did express annoyance at our presence – in some cases they were becoming frustrated with the increasing number of cameras on the island, others were a reflection of the heightening tensions on the island. And occasionally we came across people who just didn’t want the refugees there and thought that any media attention they received encouraged more people to travel to the island…
It was hard not to feel like we got to know the volunteers better than any of the refugees. Was this a deliberate technique to give a sense of the vast numbers involved in this migration?
Yes, this was basically a reflection of how things felt on the island at the time. There was this constant flow of men, women and children landing on the beaches and travelling across the island. You see some familiar faces more than once because they were resting in one place before continuing their journeys. But overwhelmingly they were constantly on the move, their presence on the island at the time - and hence in the film - is very transient. This is in stark contrast to the volunteers, who we see mostly in the same places, repeating the same tasks, in a bid to help the next boat loads of people who they meet on their journeys across the island. This is particularly true of Eric, who every morning stands in the same spot on the coast with his binoculars, awaiting that day’s arrivals, who are inevitably on their way.
Both you and the producer, Samantha Brown, have done a lot of work for TV. Did you decide that this story was better in festivals and other screenings rather than for TV?
I’m not sure how familiar you are with the process of documentary commissioning for TV, but unfortunately it isn’t as easy as spotting a story, making a documentary and a broadcaster snapping it up! There were multiple factors that contributed to our decision to make the documentary for festivals. Firstly, the timeline. We could tell that the crisis was reaching new heights, and so we booked flights very quickly after deciding to make the film. There was no time to pitch the idea to anybody beforehand, we just had to pack our bags and go filming. Secondly, we didn’t know exactly what film we were going to make. We knew there were stories and characters to be found, but because of the nature of the situation, we wanted to be as flexible as possible to unfolding events. There was no way we could get a broadcaster to back us when we had no guarantees of what we were going to come back with: broadcasters just aren’t prepared to take that kind of chance. And finally, inextricably linked to that, is the fact that the film we ended up making from the footage we shot in the five days we spent on the island, just isn’t a TV documentary! We wanted to really make a film that as accurately - but also as beautifully - as possible reflected the events on the island over those five days. In order to do that we have been creative with the pacing, narrative, visuals and music, in ways that you just don’t see on TV very often.
What sort of marketing strategy are you using for this film?
Unfortunately due to this having been a self-funded project running parallel to our day jobs, there isn’t a very targeted marketing strategy per se… But, we have built up a bit of a social media following, and try our best to keep that community up to date with the film’s progress. One thing we’ve learnt from this process is that marketing a film and getting it out there is a full time job in itself, which takes a fair amount of money! Having funded our film ourselves to begin with, we had few resources for proper marketing. However, it’s gathered a fair following and hopefully raised some awareness in that way.
We’re very aware of the fact that our film is just scraping the surface of the experiences of refugees in Europe over recent years. And also that the experiences and treatment of refugees has been shifting since we were on the island in 2015. Because the people who have taken an interest in our film are more likely to take an interest in refugee rights more generally, we feel like our social media channels are a good place to keep our followers updated with the issue more widely, hopefully raising awareness of the issue in a more broad way.
Who manages your social media strategy? Do you have a team or an individual?
Our team is just the two of us, and Sam has been handling most of it.
Do you feel that people are engaged with your social media after seeing the film or do they hear about the film because they have come across your Twitter and Facebook feeds?
We don’t have any kind of data that would be able to answer that question! I think it’s probably a bit of a mixture, particularly as we have had a very limited number of screenings to date, and so whilst a lot of people might hear about the film through social media and want to see it, a lot of our physical audience might be people who are attending the festivals and our film stands out to them in the lineup.
Is the film being used by community groups for fundraising screenings etc? Is that something you’d like the film to be used for?
Not at the moment, but we’re looking into the possibility of creating resources that bring the story of some of our characters, and the situation across Europe, more up to date, and so a mini impact campaign involving community groups is something we’ll be keen to explore if and when that materialises. If anyone wants to show the film at a pop-up screening, please do get in touch!
Is one of the aims of a film like this social change? If so, how do you measure that?
I guess you could call it social change, or even just social awareness will do. One of the reasons we made the film to begin with is because we thought the British media wasn’t doing a very good job of communicating the many facets of the refugee crisis, so we decided to find out more for ourselves. Hopefully our film contributes to that debate, and helps to put a face and a story to the people involved. I’m not sure it’s something you can measure accurately, but I’m not sure that matters too much.
What are each of you working on now?
Sam has been selected for Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Future Producer scheme this year, and is developing some exciting new feature doc projects. Richard is working on a major series for the BBC, which is due to air in the autumn. Keep an eye out for it!