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The Movement: Director Sharon Walia on Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

7 November 18 words: Georgianna Scurfield

After a year dominated by Brexit negotiations, President Trump and #MeToo, the images of toddlers washed up on Turkish beaches and life boats brimming with desperate people trying to stay alive seem like ages ago. The refugee crisis that once dominated our minds and news feeds is not fixed, or over, or past. It’s still very much an issue, and a Nottingham documentary maker has made a film that highlights the problem from a different point of view...

Sharon on location during filming

Let's start with the basics; who are you and what is The Movement?
I’m a refugee worker and Journalist based in Nottingham, and I’ve worked with asylum seekers and refugees in different capacities for around 12 years. I had a career change a few years ago and did an MA in TV Journalism and luckily got a full time reporting job. I made refugee pieces my niche and soon realised that there was a huge movement of normal people who give up their free time to help people fleeing persecution.

I wanted to showcase these stories and in doing so make the refugee situation more accessible. No one has ever delved into the stories of voluntary rescuers and the NGO refugee boats so I saw a real untouched area. The Movement is a new angle on the refugee crisis and follows everyday heroes who save refugees on land, at sea and from air. Where the European Union is shutting its borders and ignoring the refugee issue, normal people are stepping in. It was filmed over a one year period all over Europe and off the Tripoli coast. The film also highlights the brutal conditions for refugees in Libya (a popular transit country) and the global smuggling networks.

Why was the refugee problem important for you to shine a light on?
I first started highlighting the refugee crisis a few years ago when it wasn't ‘in’ or ‘fashionable’. Here for example, I shared stories of Iraqi, Eritrean and Afghan refugees who fled persecution and war. When the conflict in Syria started, the refugee situation was reported on a lot. This was was great, however it seemed that ‘refugee fatigue’ set in and eventually the conflict began to drift in and out of the media. It’s a known fact that currently the number of refugees is the highest it’s ever been since World War Two. For me this was really significant.

Let’s not forget that it will soon be Remembrance Day, a day to honour the brave and the fallen. Millions of refugees were created after the War, and the 1951 Refugee Convention was set up after WWII to ensure that we would not have another crisis. And yet, a few decades later, here we are again. So for me, it was really simple to see that if people are against refugees seeking persecution now than it’s likely they would have felt the same against the Jews during WWII. Also, with the growing far right groups and governments, I thought it was more important than ever to report the refugee crisis in a different way. Seeing ordinary people saving refugees will hopefully be a wake-up call, and alert those to the fact that they are picking up the slack because governments are stepping back and abandoning these people.

How did you find your main protagonists?
I once remember a professor at university telling us that great Journalists are only as good as their contact books. So, every time I filmed with someone I would nurture every contact I made and follow up on what they were doing over a period of time. One of the main characters in the film is Brendan Woodhouse who’s a Firefighter based in Nottinghamshire. I met him twice while doing local news reports when he arrived back from rescuing refugees in Lesvos, then off the coast of Libya on the Sea-Watch ship. Brendan uses the bulk of his annual leave to complete refugee rescue projects at sea. I looked up Sea-Watch and joined Brendan out on a 3 week mission. It all snowballed from there; I realised there was this huge grassroots movement of everyday people helping the refugee cause. It was well interconnected too, and many of them know each other which was really moving.

I then met Dan Teuma, who also knows Brendan and runs a charity called Aniko in Greece, which helps refugees rehabilitate through football. I later joined Brendan and another volunteer, Amy Sunshine, on an aid run to France. Through them I met Heather Young, a former palliative care nurse. Heather is fearless and compassionate; she works all throughout winter - even Christmas Day - to handout blankets, tents and food to refugees sleeping on the streets. I basically pitched my documentary to these characters and explained I wanted to show the refugee crisis through their eyes. The response I received from them was amazing and I couldn't have made this film without them. I’m really pleased that I was able to make the first film following ordinary people going to extraordinary lengths to save refugees.

Is it a problem that can be solved, and if so, how?
The Movement is split into four parts and the last chapter is called A Collective Solution, where I ask the main characters how we can attempt to solve the refugee crisis. There isn’t one answer and it certainly won’t happen overnight, but the protagonists all say that the crisis could be eased by introducing asylum reception centres and safe legal passages. This is so asylum seekers can have their claims dealt with in a safe environment so they aren't forced to go to transit countries like Libya and make dangerous sea crossings on smuggler owned rubber boats. There is also mention of having a Europe wide policy, where each country accepts their fair share of refugees. At present, most EU countries are shutting their borders, and more recently the likes of Italy and Malta are stopping refugee rescue boats from entering the ports. But this only makes matters worse for those seeking refuge, as figures from the IOM show that thousands of migrants are still making the treacherous sea journey everyday. Lord Alfred Dubs, who features in the film, also believes that we need to look at the root causes and economically assist the countries who produce the most refugees.

You've shot and edited the film completely by yourself - what have you learnt about documentary making along the way?
Documentary making and filmmaking in general is somewhat elitist. There is funding out there, but it’s difficult to get money if you’re a first time filmmaker. I decided to make this documentary the non-traditional way by securing my main characters and then filming the bulk of it before gaining distribution. I guess what I really learnt was that if you have an emotive story and compelling characters, don't wait for someone else to tell you how to make your film. Trust your instincts, nurture your contacts and if it is good enough, it will get picked up.

I found when talking to production houses they want to mould the film in a certain way, and I had a clear objective from the start: to make a feature about the normal people saving refugees, rather than focusing on the overall subject of ‘refugees’. I also learnt that it is possible to make a film without a mega budget! There’s some great cameras out there - I used a Sony A7Sii - and invested in some good mics, a lightweight tripod and an Adobe Premiere subscription. As a one woman band I found that it made me more creative, I pretty much had free reign on how I wanted certain scenes and interviews to look.

You can watch The Movement, on Thursday 15th November at Showcase Cinemas across the UK

Buy tickets here

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