A recent graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism, Bay Area documentarian Daphne Matziaraki found her thesis film 4.1 Miles traveling far and wide, distributed through the New York Times and landing recently on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short. Born and raised in Greece, Matziaraki returned to the country to document the refugee crisis, putting a human face on life-or-death circumstances faced by many.
On a boat in the Mediterranean for three weeks, the filmmaker observed those few heroic Coast Guard officials rescuing scores of terrified refugees, whose flimsy boats were sinking on a daily basis as they fled war in Syria. Speaking with Deadline from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam about her doc, which is part of the Emmy-winning New York Times Op-Docs series of short documentaries, Matziaraki shares her reasons for making the film and the experience of witnessing mass terror firsthand.
How did the story of 4.1 Miles first come to your attention?
I’m based in the Bay Area, in Berkeley, but I am originally from Greece, and that’s where I’ve grown up. I was in a stage where I was reading about the refugee crisis—it had just peaked in 2015, and I was reading everything and it was quite over-exaggerating. I found that I could still not connect to the issue; I felt I hadn’t read or watched anything that made me really feel for the issue. I felt like in the west, if I can put it this way, I’m kind of in a comfort zone, in a bubble almost. We may feel sorry for a situation like that, but we are always, in a way, distanced from it.
I wanted to go and see with my own eyes what the situation is there, and I want to start thinking about it. I was thinking of, how I could tell the story in a different way? How could I tell a story from a perspective that would make any common person, like me and you, that didn’t have anything to do with a crisis like that, to connect? How do people get out of their comfort zone? How do they respond? I was trying to see who this person could be. I realized that in Greece, the Coast Guard crews, they’re not trained to do CPR or to deal with any crisis like that. I know that a person, their life suddenly changed because of this huge war going on in Syria, and the refugee crisis, and suddenly having to respond, would be an amazing story. To actually give this story from a very different perspective from everything that I had seen so far.
It took me a really long time to try to get access on the Coast Guard boat because they don’t let any journalists or filmmakers on that boat. I finally did after a few months and a lot of persistence, and I met this incredible person, who was just a very normal person, who had nothing to do with anything like that. He had never thought that something like that would come into his life, and suddenly he was called to respond to this and save thousands and thousands of lives from the Mediterranean.
What was the involvement of Berkeley students and staff in the making of this short?
I was at the Graduate School of Journalism at the documentary program there, and this was my thesis film. I worked with all the incredible, legendary faculty of the documentary program, like Orlando Bagwell, Jon Else, Dan Krauss, Spencer Nakasako. Incredible, legendary filmmakers were consulting producers, and executive producers, really.
What was it like for you to witness these dire, life-or-death circumstances firsthand?
I went there without really knowing what to expect. I expected to see what I was reading, and watching until that point. I could only imagine certain things, but I didn’t know. I don’t think any words can describe the shock that I felt when I went there, because the amount of people that were crossing the Mediterranean at this time, and the way that they were, and the minimal help that existed… These islands used to be really peaceful, picturesque islands, and suddenly it felt like a war had just come. I had never seen people coming from war before. It’s a situation that I feel that people are so scared, and you can really tell, you can really see it in their eyes. And after them having fled war, they had to go through this really difficult journey. It was very hard for me to be there—it was really hard for me to film there and hold a camera.
It was really hard for me to try to separate the job that I had to do, which I had decided that I needed to do, which was to make this film to show what is happening there, and to hold it together. The film opens with a scene where the Coast Guard captain tells me to put the camera down and hold the baby. That happened so many times that I really didn’t have any other option but to help, and there was no second thought. I feel hopefully that every human being in their right mind would respond in a way, or should respond, and help the other person, and that’s what the captain does.
How were you taught to think about these situations, in the classroom? In a sense, you’re there first and foremost to document a crisis, but of course, how can you simply watch someone dying in front of you without intervening?
Before I went there, I had really thought about it, and I had a huge ethical dilemma about this. I don’t know how to do CPR. I don’t know how to deal with an emergency like that. I don’t have any training. I had decided that what I can offer as an individual is what I know how to do, and that would be to document in the best possible way the situation as it is. However, the situation was so chaotic, and in a situation like that, I forgot, oftentimes, my role as a filmmaker. Like I said, when I was asked to put the camera down, there was no second thought crossing my mind. Of course, I did put the camera down and held the baby.
Every time that I was not shooting, the emergency was so big that I would have to help transfer somebody to a hospital, or get somebody to the port that really needed to get to the port to find some dry clothes. Help a family transport with babies. I did things that were outside my comfort zone, and my knowledge, but I really felt that I had no other option. However, when I was on that boat, I was really trying to stay out of the way of the crew, because the boat was so small. I was really trying to be as discreet as possible, and not be in the way. Because sometimes, filmmakers or journalists could be in the way of things like that.
What was the most surprising revelation to you in making the doc?
I felt that I realized that the film, in itself, was, of course, about the refugee crisis and this terrible situation. But really, what it’s about for me is the way that people do respond in an emergency situation like that, towards other human beings, or not respond. I was really surprised, in a way, that I’m kind of shocked to see the captain of this boat, and his crew, gave their soul, put their lives into so much danger, and went completely out of their way to help these people, because they felt an internal, really huge responsibility. It’s this responsibility that really impressed me and I found very unique and surprising, that some people still feel this huge responsibility as citizens, or as members of the society. And some others, just don’t.
Is it validating to see the traction your documentary has received, being presented through The New York Times? That would seem to amount to a lot of people experiencing the reality of these circumstances for the first time.
Of course, I’m thrilled about The New York Times and all the success, exactly because The New York Times has millions of viewers. Already, the film has traveled quite a lot. I’m in Amsterdam right now at some very successful screenings. And the film premiered at Telluride, and had a few other screenings. I feel that people come to me and tell me, from the bottom of their heart, that it was really important that they saw this, because they understood. That’s all I really want, is for as many people to see this.
A lot of people ask me, “What can I do to help?” They’re asking why there’s no call to action in the film. There is no call to action purposely, because this film is about something bigger than just, “Send your money to help the Greek Coast Guard.” It’s about, how do we respond, and how do we act as citizens? Right now in the States, there’s a new presidency, and there’s a lot of talk about people being deported, or refugees not being welcome. The issue has taken a political expression, in the States and all over Europe. I feel that people need to see this film because these people are like us, and we would need to escape a terrible situation of war, if that was happening in our home. We need to have people like that captain, who’s a true hero, to actually take responsibility, put their lives sometimes aside, in a way, and help.
In your written piece in The New York Times, you refer to a “new, huge crisis threatening to undo years of stability and progress.” That certainly seems to reflect strongly on the world we’re living in at the moment.
Exactly. It’s in these situations that we need to reflect about how we stand and how we live our lives, because there is a huge financial crisis in Greece, there’s a huge instability all over the world, and in the United States, in a lot of ways. When situations are not great, obviously we tend to find scapegoats, or blame situations like refugee influx in the country, and we are very scared of something “other,” something different entering in our lives when we’re already in an unstable situation. I really think we need to rethink all these notions, and be a little more human and understanding, and responsible for our own actions, as members of society and a world that we’re all part of.
To view 4.1 Miles, click here.