“We did it for publicity.”
“We destroyed tourism.”
“We caused the problem.”
Philippa Kempson keeps hearing these derisive comments. She lives with her family on the Greek island of Lesvos, in the town of Eftalou, and is one of the main characters in a new Canadian documentary, Trace, that seeks to widen the lens on the issue of refugees in the Mediterranean.
In the film, the British woman describes the harrowing rescues of refugees on life rafts and rickety boats from 2015 to 2016. Yet, a few years later, these rescue efforts have divided the island and those who continue to help are looked upon with suspicion and loathing. Kempson and her family have been subjected to verbal attacks and threats.
Trace begins with quiet, beautiful footage of the Greek islands affected (Lesvos, Chios and Samos) — an idyll sharply juxtaposed with a Kurdish refugee, Anwar Nilufary, who is camping outside the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in noisy, traffic-choked Athens. Nilufary is stuck between worlds of bureaucracy and carelessness.
“This is not civilization,” asserts Nilufary, an engineer who decided to escape persecution in northern Iraq. “This is not humanity … what is our crime?”
Trace turns the gaze outwards — a way of tracing how the violence (physical/emotional/spiritual) inflicted upon refugees emanates from a cold, indifferent political and social mass: public opinion, bureaucratic bungling and general dis-ease with the suffering of others.
The film, directed by Raluca Bejan and Ioan Cocan, bears witness to the awful and strange triad that occurs between refugees, rescuers and NGOs. Overhanging this triad is an oppressive dark cloud — the machinations of the European Union and the United Nations. Squeezed and forgotten are the refugees themselves — Afghanis, Syrians, Iraqis and Africans.
Trace recently captured the prize for the best feature documentary at the Santorini Film Festival, in Greece.
“Initially we went to Lesvos with the intention of trying to do some sort of a text/images book on the idea of the ‘space’ containing the crisis … to try to get away from the zoological approach that objectifies the migrants in suffering. The idea being, this is a structural problem, hence the visual attention should be on the structural ‘space’ per se and not on the figure of the migrant shown as dying in the Mediterranean Sea,” Bejan tells me in an email.
Bejan is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at St. Thomas University in Fredericton and is also the book review editor of Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees (York University). As well, she is a rabble blogger and has detailed Nilufary’s battle. Cocan works in media arts and is a video editor. They both filmed the documentary.
However, when the pair encountered Nilufary, plans for making “documentation” became a documentary-in-the-making.
“It was basically an unplanned trajectory of contingent events that led to this film,” she wrote.
Broken up into three chapters, Bejan and Cocan carefully track the narrative from the plight of the refugee through to the ins and outs of rescue (and also the challenges refugees face after that) and then, the utter mess that politics and anti-migrant backlash has wrought.
Indeed, the first chapter deals with Anwar’s condemnations of the EU and the UNHCR. It also details what the rescuers experienced.
“In one day we had 12,000 people,” notes Kempson. “It was horrific, we lost so many in October  … but they are still coming, there are four boats each week, at least.”
Illegal to help
The fact is, once the refugees landed they were not “safe.” New regulations made it illegal to offer a ride to the nearest village, a two-hour walk. Kempson says many flouted the regulations by driving refugees in the night — this included tourists and locals.
The film includes explanations by a worker with a small NGO, Lighthouse, about how refugees are treated and processed on site and the challenges they face after.
As the documentary widens to spotlight the work of other NGOs, it becomes apparent that bigger is not better. The directors interview Salim Nabi, a volunteer Farsi interpreter with the Hellenic Open University, and Bridget Anderson from Oxford University. The key takeaways concern the bloated bureaucracies that undermine the post-rescue efforts of the locals and the colonial attitudes that have brought the situation to a so-called “crisis.”
Nabi speaks of the high-paying jobs at the larger NGOs that suck up the money provided by the EU. A human rights lawyer tells of the “really frequent” violent attacks by police on refugees, expounding on the local backlash as restaurants in Greece refuse to serve refugees while landlords also refuse to rent apartments out to them.
Kempson is particularly vocal about this issue: “The EU provides 14,000 euros per refugee per year in funding to the Greek government … Just give it to the refugees!”
It is frustrating as Kempson points out that a majority of the work is still being done by locals and small, independent organizations (Trace was filmed in 2017).
What’s at the heart of this?
“We just wish people would stay over there and die. Where we don’t have to see [them],” is the stark answer from Anderson, a professor of mobilities, migration and citizenship at Oxford.
Anderson recounts a story in The Daily Mail newspaper in which a few British tourists in Lesvos spoke unhappily about their annual vacation.
“You can’t enjoy your meal when you see all these people looking in, they say … It’s this grotesque inequality we can’t look at,” says Anderson.
Furthermore, she emphasizes that the reason most of these people are fleeing their homeland is because of the “multiple crises happening in which the U.S., Europe and North America are deeply, deeply implicated.”
Anderson adeptly focuses on the ugly, underlying issue — how the global north is more concerned with the extraction of resources from the global south: “The resources can come, not the people.”
Trace circles back to Anwar whose hunger strike lasted 64 days in 2017. He has been pleading with Canadian officials to let him into the country. He’s still there and wants to resettle in Canada. You can follow his plight through his Facebook page “Hostage of Europe.”
“Even the Greeks are leaving,” he states. “There is nothing in Greece.”
June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.
This piece was first published by Rabble.