Cameras’ ability to capture the world’s worst disasters and crises is not exactly new. Media outlets worldwide are filled with images of people and places that horrify and shock, as though this is the only way to convey the devastation the journalist, photographer or film crew experiences firsthand. The explicit nature of photographs and films is defended as an attempt to present suffering, destruction and pain in the most honest and provocative way possible, thereby stressing the urgency of a situation and demanding attention and action. Although these images spark empathy and remind audiences they should be more grateful for their blessings, these feelings quickly fade. Images are often so explicit that the recipient wants to push them from their mind or replace them with something less disturbing. The immediate shock fades, and action rarely follows reaction. Instead, the subject matters of the film and photographs have been exploited and then abandoned.
But photographers and film makers (or at least some of them) are beginning to change the way they capture and engage with communities in crisis. This is most evident in coverage of the refugee crisis. For many people, the extent of the refugee crisis was not fully realised until late in 2015, when the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body was circulated in mass media. The image of the young refugee, who drowned after the boat he was on capsized, made many people who had demonised refugees or failed to realise the full implications of the crisis finally understand the error of their ways. Refugees were not greedy; they were vulnerable, looking not for a more lavish lifestyle, but a safe one. What followed an increased awareness of the crisis was a greater need to tell the stories of people who live through this trauma every day.
Rather than having their story told for them, individuals are increasingly being given a platform on which to share their own story. The result is both more honest and direct. It seems able to connect a seemingly distant crisis with real-life experiences. The stories become more immediate, more emotive and more human. The people living through this crisis are more than a snapshot of suffering. They are real people just like us, our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues. They had their own homes and communities, and just because that life and all they have ever known has been obliterated, it does not mean that they stop living or feeling.
This is exactly what Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which was recently screened in St Andrews, is able to convey. It follows the journey of several refugees, alone or with their families, and is told largely through video footage captured on smartphones. All of the most terrifying experiences of life as a refugee are captured: meetings with smugglers, life on board an overfull dingy, crossing the desert, losing your family, the back of a lorry, the Calais Jungle and being in front of guns in the cold, the wet and the dark.
It is the moments in between these that are often overlooked: saying goodbye to a home you don’t want leave, saving money to buy life jackets that will turn out to be faulty, deciding who will hold the baby if the boat capsizes, searching Facebook groups for a contact who can get you a fake passport, learning English or German, worrying you are unwelcome, pleading, praying, children playing and women laughing at the rain because it is the first time in so long that they have been free to walk outside and laugh. Tarek, one of the refugees, tells the cameraman that if he and his family die, “you will have our story to tell. Deliver our voice to everyone.” Tarek’s family survives, and his directive is exactly what the documentary accomplishes.
It is easy to romanticise survivors as brave and resilient. They undoubtedly are, but what many fail to recognise is that these are terrified, despairing people. The actor Douglas Booth, in a speech at London School of Economics, said: “These people are just like you and me. They don’t have some superhuman power that protects them from fear or suppresses their hopes and expectations for a future. They don’t possess a body where hunger and thirst fails to make them weak. Or feet that fail to blister and bleed when they are forced to walk hundreds if not thousands of miles to seek safety. Just because they have suffered so enormously doesn’t mean they feel each tragedy any less. Suffering and grief does not plateau. To lose a brother and then a daughter, doesn’t make losing a husband any easier.” It is this sentiment that Exodus stresses, because to think of refugees as “super human” is to undermine their experiences and think of them as though they do not need help when in fact they do.
This is help that Europeans are capable of giving (precisely detailed in “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell,” an animated video that explains the crisis). The United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), for example, is campaigning to make people realise they must give. Booth was one of many actors who contributed to the UNHCR’s video, “What They Took With Them.” In this piece, the actors read out lists of items that refugees had recorded taking when they fled: house keys, prayer books, photographs, diplomas, virginity, wedding rings, baby clothes, medicines. The video is more than a list. It is the story of lives ruined and lost but clung to. It emphasises the similarities between the viewer and the refugee by showing shared items that viewers hold on to as well.
This effect is similar to that of the UNHCR-funded short film “Home,” which presents a British family as a group of refugees, thereby forcing the audience to relate to the experience and appreciate the desperate need for help. More than anything, these films and Exodus highlight the need for humanity. Some of Tarak’s final words express his gratitude towards the people who help his family, but he stresses that “the duty on every human being is to help each other in this crisis.”
If it wasn’t obvious before, Exodus and other responses to the refugee crisis are making his words have greater poignancy. The need for action and our own ability to effect change are increasingly difficult to ignore. If we found ourselves where these refugees are now, as these films invite us to do, we would not want to be overlooked. We would want someone to listen and do something to help.