In Want of a Future: Refugee Stories from Greece

in 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Sasja Koetsier

If you expect documentary to reflect the current state of affairs, then arguably Greece is an interesting country to take a close look at. At the 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, my colleagues and I watched a selection of 22 domestic documentaries that covered, among other things, a couple of major issues the country is currently dealing with. These could also serve as a perfect introduction to some of the main challenges within Europe: the economic crunch and the collapse of the welfare state, threats to biodiversity and the natural environment, the rise of right-wing extremism and the humanitarian drama of the refugee crisis.

Two films in the Greek selection explicitly dealt with the plight of refugees – a theme that was also highlighted in a special tribute encompassing nine documentaries from Europe and the Middle East and a panel discussion on the challenges that filmmakers face when documenting the issue. Morteza Jafari’s reportage-like travelogue Dreaming of Life and the more dramatically structured The Longest Run by Marianna Economou presented very different approaches to the subject. But both left a lasting impression, for reasons of their own.

Immediately at the beginning of Dreaming of Life, the filmmaker reveals his highly personal drive for making this documentary, which traces the harrowing odyssey through Greece that starts anew for up to a thousand migrants each day. Just a few years ago, fleeing his home country Iran, Jafari was among the crowd himself. Armed with camera and microphone, he now undertakes the trip once again; from the beaches of Lesbos, where volunteers bring ashore the dinghies packed with migrants, through various camps all the way to Idomeni on the border with Macedonia. Dreaming of Life has no other main protagonist: the camera takes us through a succession of encounters with people we have to leave behind again with every new stage of this solitary journey. The filmmaker reminds us that the real drama cannot be shown, but his raw account brings the experience considerably closer than anything I’ve seen or read about the current situation on the migrant trail. Despite the admirable involvement of local and international volunteers trying to provide aid and relief, it’s the massive scale, the chaos and despair of the crowd that stuck with me. And on top of that, the strong urge of the filmmaker to bear witness to it all.

In The Longest Run, teenagers Alsaleh and Jasim experience a specific type of ‘hard landing’ in Europe. We meet them in a Greek juvenile prison, where they await their trial for alleged complicity in human trafficking. In carefully composed shots, the film observes their prison routine. Special attention is devoted to their phone conversations with anxious parents in the war zones of Iraq and Syria, to the friendship that develops between the vulnerable Jasim and the slightly older and wiser Alsaleh, and to their contact with the mentor-like ‘Miss Maria’, who tries to make sure they’re aware of their rights and obligations within the Greek judicial system. While it initially appears that the pending trials provide most of the dramatic arc, a new feeling of suspense surfaces when Jasim approaches his release. Will he be ready to build a life of his own in Greece, or will he try to reach his older brother in Germany, even if that would make him an illegal alien? The perspective of two youngsters that were imprisoned the moment they set foot on European soil proves to be an inspired one, by which the film sheds a bright light on the many pitfalls that young migrants can find on their way to and through Europe.

Edited by Carmen Gray