“Listen to me, my family, this is very important. We are going to go through many villages, many towns, many cities and many borders. Be patient. If you see people pushing, let them push. If you see people shouting, let them shout. Remember this, we are now one big family.”
The tone of the voice, those powerful words…they stay with you long after you’ve seen the trailer. This is the hauntingly beautiful opening of the extended trailer for the aptly titled ‘Island of Refuge’.
‘Island of Refuge’ is an upcoming independent feature length documentary film from Oliver Zimmermann, a British-German filmmaker with a passion for telling stories. He is chronicling the current refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesbos and how the locals are coping with the massive influx to their small population.
The island is no stranger to diaspora – many of the residents of Lesbos are themselves descendants of refugees. As current wars and strife rage in Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, thousands of innocent families are caught up in the conflicts, struggling to survive. Many make the arduous decision to cross the narrow sea passage of the Aegean from the Turkish coast to the Greek shores seeking a safe habour.
Oliver first traveled to Lesbos in November 2015 to make a short film about the burgeoning crisis.
“It was late at night and I was about to return to Molyvos from a small fishing village along the coastal dirt road where a lot of boats were arriving that year. I had been on the island for two days but because of a storm all the boats had stopped coming,” Zimmermann says as he explains his first encounter with refugees.
“Suddenly, a boat appeared out of the dark, full of refugees. Volunteers and locals were ready to help them get into dry clothes, give them food or information.”
Each refugee – women, men and children – have different reactions upon arriving at the island. Some scream in sheer panic, others kiss the ground and embrace their loved ones, some even pose for selfies.
“Why they were forced to leave their homes is utterly engrossing, horrifying, fascinating and inspiring,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmermann got involved in the crisis because the atmosphere on Lesbos spoke to him. He remarks on the beauty of the island, the generosity of the people amidst trauma and horror, and he realized a story needed to be told. Zimmermann already knew of the tragic situation and of the amazing work volunteers were doing. But what he never anticipated and what touched him the most has been the incredible welcoming response of the local population. Even before all the volunteers arrived, the locals were dealing with this influx. They are overwhelmed but their attitude and willingness to help is steadfast. Indeed, Oliver was so captured by their generous spirit that his short film has been transformed into a full-length documentary. Zimmermann loaded up his van with his dog George and trekked across Europe to reach his new home.
Oliver insists it is important to have systems in place to allow people to move to safety with dignity, compassion and without danger to human life. The mainstream media coverage centers on the refugees, while Zimmermann focuses on personalities and the impact this crisis is having on local life. His style isn’t focused on shoving cameras in refugees’ faces (they have enough of that) – he films the refugees in a wide shot from afar rather than close up in order to afford them a modicom of dignity. Rather, he explores the lives of the locals as they watch boats full of refugees pouring into the island day after day, as their parents and grandparents had before them.
The island is full of compassion, selflessness and sacrifice – all ideals that made Zimmermann want to give back to the island with this documentary.
His unique project has inspired both a cinematographer and an editor to come to Lesbos to help finish the film. They have received a donation from a charity foundation called Movement on the Ground, which fell in love with the trailer for the film and became captivated by the project (how can you not!). The team still needs funds in order to tell this important story and have launched a crowd-funding campaign.
Zimmermann’s way with people has allowed him to integrate into the small local population. In conducting his interviews, he is now in the privileged position to count them as friends. This total immersion into island life is taking the documentary to another level because he achieves a level of openness and honesty that an outsider simply wouldn’t be privy to.
Oliver and his team are determined to do justice to these individual stories that represent such a pivotal moment in the history and legacy of this tiny island with a very big heart.
For more information on Oliver and his film ‘Island of Refuge’ & to support his crowdfunder effort: