Richard Wyllie has been directing documentary films for over a decade, for channels including BBC1, ITV and Channel 4 in the UK, and PBS and Nat Geo in the US. He was part of a team that won the Royal Television Society Journalism award for their Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into the ‘Plebgate’ scandal, and has made current affairs documentaries about a range of topics, from the Nobel Prize through to the US criminal justice system. His independent films have been shown at festivals around the world, and his short ‘The Art of Doing Nothing’ won best short documentary at the 2011 London Independent Film Festival. Richard has filmed across the globe, on all seven continents, and is used to filming in sensitive situations and difficult conditions.
In Conversation with Richard Wyllie
Five Days on Lesvos is an exceptionally moving documentary about current refugee crisis. How did the idea for the film come about?
It was around July last year, and the refugee crisis had been picking up over the previous few months. Much of the press coverage, and the rhetoric from politicians, had been extremely and frustratingly negative – it didn’t seem like we were getting the full picture. Sam, the producer, saw an article about various people across Europe who were helping refugees. One family was the Kempsons, who were (and still are) doing fantastic work on Lesvos’ northern beaches. Lesvos was the epicentre of where refugees were getting into Europe, so this seemed like the obvious place to go. We emailed the Kempsons, and they said I was welcome to film them doing their work. So we booked flights. And that was it really – we hadn’t made any other plans, it seemed like such a fluid situation that in cases like that it’s often better not to make plans and just see where the story takes you.
What was your vision for Five Days on Lesvos, what message and story were you trying to get across to the audience?
I make character-led documentaries – whereby the people involved, and the situations they are in, tell the story – so the vision was simply to assess what the story is on the island, and then find the right characters to communicate what is going on. I don’t like to tell the audience how they should think, or what they should think, but simply try and present the situation as the characters see it. It was such a complex situation, but we were really lucky that we found characters who could articulate this during the film – each person can see the argument from both sides, but in the end the conclusion they come to is that they simply can’t sit back and watch all this going on without helping.
Why did you decide on tackling such a complex subject as refugee crisis?
The more complex a subject the more I like it! I look to make films about subjects where there is no one really clear answer about everything, where every argument has a valid counter-argument and where there are lots of shades of grey to every questions. That way you can enable the audience to ask questions in their own minds about what’s going on, and start to think about the subject for themselves, and the refugee crisis is such a subject. There are many questions raised in the film but I didn’t want to try and answer them – after all, I’m just a filmmaker, not a politician – but by raising these questions, it might get the attention of people who are better placed than I to try and answer them.
Could you tell me more about your stay in Lesvos, how was it for you to film the documentary?
Our time on Lesvos was busy! But also quite harrowing. We genuinely did shoot the film in five days, so it was a question of getting there, working out what was going on and then finding characters and sequences that would tell this story. But it really was so busy that week, with thousands of refugees arriving, that wherever you pointed the camera something was happening that would help to tell the story. When filming, especially with a subject as harrowing as this, you need some downtime, and that was hard to get. We had booked a hotel near the beach, and we’d come back after doing some filming to get a bite to eat, and you would see more boats coming across the sea – it really was relentless. And we didn’t spend the whole time filming, we’d help on the beaches too. At that time, it really was up to people like Eric, Nicolaas and Mike, who had just turned up to help. So we helped as much as we could to get people ashore safely – both whilst filming (Sam is in a few of the shots helping people!) and also once we’d finished recording. We helped the volunteers by adding our car to the pool availble to drive the most needy people into the town where they could hopefully get some rest and a bus across the island. But it never felt like we were doing enough, because there were always people that needed help. And ultimately we were there to make a documentary. It was an extremely frustrating situation.
Five Days on Lesvos is 60 minutes long, have you thought of turning the film into a feature film?
It was nominated for Best UK Feature at Raindance, so maybe it is a feature!? But in all seriousness, when we started the project, we thought it might be a long-term project, where we filmed some refugees on Lesvos and then filmed their journey across Europe. But as the week continued, we realised we had a neat closed narrative, about the situation on the island in that week. As the crisis continued, we realised it would never be one of those things that has a nice tidy ending, because the crisis will be going on for a really long time – so it made sense to tell it as a story in just a short time, as a microcosm of a much bigger story. During editing, I simply edited what we had together and it came out at 62 minutes, so that’s the length of the finished film. To start filming any more would mean coming out of the ‘five days’ narrative, which would be of detriment to the film, I feel. It just seems to work right fit into this narrative. One of the great things about doing independent film, as opposed to broadcast documentaries, is that you’re not tied down to making something that is a set length, you can just see what feels right for the story you’re telling, and 62 minutes felt about right for the footage we had, so 62 minutes it stayed.
What sort of challenges did you face production-wise while making the documentary?
As I mentioned before – the biggest challenge was knowing when to put the camera down and help. Usually when making documentaries about subjects like this, my job is to document what’s going on and get it out there to raise awareness – the helping is usually left to the experts and people who are trained. But in this situation, there were so few people, and so many refugees, that we were among the people who could help. So we would put the camera down and helped as many people as we could. Once we knew we couldn’t do any more, we would carry on filming again. From a filmmaking point of view, working out the narrative as it developed, with so little time, was tricky. I think many people think an observational film like this just happens in front of a filmmaker’s camera, and as long as you film it then it’ll tell itself, but this is never the case. Although it seems in the film like it’s a nice neat little story that progresses throughout, there was a lot going on on the island whilst we were filming, and we could have gone down any of those leads. Thinking about how to react to the events, and how it then would fit into the wider film, and provide an accurate account of what was going on on the island, was quite a challenge.
What was the most important lesson you learned while filming that had a positive effect on your film?
The most important lesson I learned is that sometimes it doesn’t pay to plan too much! Usually I’m quite meticulous in planning a documentary – often I’ll even write a rough ‘script’ of the way I see a story and film playing out. This may change, of course, but it’s always good to have some plan as to how you think something might play out. However with this, I deliberately didn’t plan anything. As it turned out, the situation was so fluid, with things changing on the island so rapidly, that this was the best way to do it. If we’d tried to schedule meetings, interviews etc, we would have missed most of the crucial things that were happening, so it really paid not to have thought about it too much before we went. I wouldn’t generally recommend this strategy for filmmaking though!
Any new projects in the pipeline?
Not in terms of independent films yet. Both Sam and I also work in broadcast docs and are currently working on some really interesting films for Channel 4 and BBC2 respectively. Once those are finished, we’d like to do another independent doc. But the challenge is to find great characters, and you just kind of have to always be on the lookout for a great character. I always find that if you have a great character, the subject will follow from there. So if anyone knows an engaging character who might like to be involved in a documentary, send them our way!
Interviewed and written by Maggie Gogler
All photos © Five Days on Lesvos