As the world continues to watch aghast at the horrors in Syria, here’s a story of how a group of young filmmakers set out to humanise the refugee crisis.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
“Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad” read a New York Times headline on April 4, 2017. #SyriaGasAttack trended on Twitter with disturbing images and videos of children writhing, choking and foaming at the mouth. The Twittersphere reacted in hordes, berating Trump, Putin and Assad alike, for what is suspected to be the worst chemical attack in the six-year war, claiming at least 67 lives.
Sadly, such heartbreaking images of dead children and desperate patients in Syria are an all too familiar sight.
Back in the fall of 2015, when the world was right in the thick of the media cycle for the refugee crisis, similarly consumed by the news, the reports, the photos of despair and loss from Aegean – Matthew K. Firpo decided that he wanted to know more about the people living those headlines, about their stories, about what they had lost, what they had left behind, and where they hoped their lives were headed.
While the news coverage focused on the problem, it often forgot about the human being; the Refuge Project was born from this desire to learn more. A Magna Carta Special Project, it is the short documentary Refuge, three photo stories, a print book and 30 full-length testimonies.
Matthew K. Firpo, an award-winning director and photographer, co-founded the creative firm Magna Carta with his executive producer Maximilian Guen with the mission to tell powerful stories.
“I wrote a short treatment about the Refuge Project, what I wanted to do, how I wanted to approach the film, and what the complete multimedia portion would become. With that, I reached out to a small group of talented artists and filmmakers who were both my close friends, and frequent collaborators, and explained what I was setting out to do'” says Matthew.
The Refuge Project team consists of Matthew K. Firpo, Rosanna Bach, Elliot Ross, Stephen Michael Simon, Jake Saner, Haris Katsigiannis, Matteo Zevi, and Maximilian Guen – all coming together to turn their desire to share the refugees’ stories into something more than a newsflash.
“Once the flights were bought, the entire project became very real very fast. We landed in Greece the day after New Year’s, and connected with a local producer in Athens who was invaluable to the entire project – that same day we took to the streets,”
“With a mixture of tenacity, luck, and honesty, we spent the next 18 days working in Athens, and the islands of Leros and Lesvos, speaking with people, exploring the situation, and documenting the human stories as best we could. We just worked non-stop for the month we were abroad – 18 hours a day, every day,” Matthew fondly remembers.
From sleeping in the camps on Lesvos to waking up at 3 am to catch that day’s boat landings, the team worked to capture everything they saw and bring it home.
“I’m proud to say that throughout the entire process, every single artist involved donated their time and energy and passion to the project. From prep to the post-production process, everyone believed in what we were trying to do, and worked together to bring these stories to the screen.”
REFUGE has played worldwide at over 30 film festivals and has won Best Documentary at the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo International Film Festival among others.
“REFUGE has always been about sharing a story that we felt was important,” Matthew adds. The team has made the documentary available for free for the world to watch and share at Vimeo, Short of the Week and their official website: REFUGE PROJECT.
For the team, the most important thing has been the individual human reactions from the project. “I remember in Texas, at our final screening at SXSW, an older woman came up to me after our Q&A in tears, she tried to thank me, but couldn’t find the words.”
“I pulled her into a hug (she just seemed like she needed one), and she just broke down crying in my arms. A total stranger. It was a powerful experience and a wonderful, sobering reminder of the power of telling stories and the value of doing what we do,” says Matthew.
From having spent an entire month in Aegean humanising the refugee crisis, the team’s biggest takeaway is the realisation that ‘you don’t need permission to make a difference.’
“I think anyone is capable of just going out and making change in the way they know best. Whatever you bring to the world, use that – your unique skills, your passion and the people you know, to affect positive change,” says Matthew.
“My advice is to learn more and to speak out. Hearts and minds can change policy, and they can change the world. I think we have a simple responsibility to try and leave the world better than we found it, and it starts one person at a time.”
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with the desire to explore life through the stories he chases. He currently works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.