Q&A with Treasa O’Brien, director of Noor at Mytlini Port - LSFF2017
Friday 13 January 2017, by ,
Treasa O’Brien is a Ireland and London-based filmmaker whose works (doc and narrative) ‘explore art politics, poetry, social change, the individual and the collective, ecstatic truth, storytelling, reality, the usual.’ Her film Noor at Mytlini Port screened as part of LSFF’s Global Movements at the Hackney Picturehouse last night, where I had the chance to chat with her about the refugee situation, Noor, filmmaking and activism just before the event.
Mydylarama: Your film seems like quite a journey: what sparked your desire and how did you make it to Greece?
Treasa O’Brien: I went to Greece beginning of November in 2015 because I had a film that was being shown at a film festival in Athens, and in the leadup to it I’d obviously read about what was called the refugee crisis (I don’t really like this word, refugee “crisis”, I would call it maybe a “situation” because the crisis has been invented by Europe rather than the refugees). I thought if I’m going to Greece, I’m gonna go onto Lesvos and see if I can help out. It was coming to Christmas, so I could use my holidays and stay there for a month and volunteer.
When I got there, one of the big things I heard from people was the reaction towards filmmakers and journalists, the liberties that they were taking in a vulture mentality. For example, the day I arrived in Lesbos, there was a Greek photographer who was taking photos of women when they were changing just after coming off the boats. He said that it was his freedom to report. That was one story I heard on the day I arrived, and there were many others. It’s something I think about in my work anyway.
And I wasn’t going there as a filmmaker.. but I am a filmmaker, so of course I was thinking maybe if there’s something particularly interesting. Then I decided my role there wasn’t to film. The world knows enough, it’s not about not knowing. It’s about what we actually do. So in the end I spent two months there, working at an activist/volunteer level to help set up the camp, welcome people, cook and work the night-shift to welcome people who were arriving then (It was the middle of the winter and everyone knows the boat journey is precarious, but in the middle of the winter in the middle of the night... most people have hypothermia by the time they arrive, if they arrive)...then I met Noor.
M: How did you meet Noor? What led you to Noor? How did you work together?
T: That was a month in. I stopped off at the port which at that time was very busy, because at that time in Europe, the borders were open. So most people passing through Lesbos after doing a very arduous journey (people know about the boat journey, but don’t know about the journey through the mountains from Syria into Turkey and so on). At that time if you arrived in Lesbos, you were pretty joyous and hopeful and you were going to get a piece of paper that allowed you to pass through Greece up to the Macedonian border etc.. And a lot of people were going to join family and friends that had gone earlier, up in Germany and Sweden and other countries who at that point were welcoming refugees. That’s all different now. Completely different. When I was there it seemed crazy and precarious but now it seems like hopeful times compared to how it is now.
So a couple of days before New Year’s Eve, I was walking down, it was about 3 o’clock. And at that time a lot of people were getting their piece of paper to go on to Athens and to Europe. It was quite buoyant, and I was looking out at the sea, having a reflective moment, and this girl next to me started chatting to me with quite good English. This was Noor. She was very curious about me and what I was doing. And she’d had a good experience in her 3 days in Greece with volunteers and people being very kind with her, compared to when she had to travel through Turkey with smugglers. So she was quite positive and curious ( “Who are those people who are welcoming us?”) I told her I was a filmmaker but that I didn’t think it was my place to film. There were a lot of people doing that, I don’t know what I could say...and I asked her “what would you say if you were a filmmaker?” and she said she would like to tell women’s stories. And she said “come on, make something now! I’ll help you, I’ll translate.” And I said rather that translate, I’m more interested about what you might like to ask, so why don’t you ask the questions and I’ll get it translated later. We hung out, got something to eat, got to know each other a little better. I took her down to the camp where I was working where we always had a huge daytime meal, and we talked to people about what we might do and we went back to the port to make this thing on my mobile phone. I didn’t even see this as a film at the time, I saw it as an activist video. But I think the reason why people respond to it and why I felt ethically OK making it was that Noor wanted to make it. She made it with me, and she takes agency within this very short film. She leads it.
M: Why did you choose a mobile phone? How was it?
T: She was leaving that evening at 8 so I had no time to get a camera or anything. I was worried it’d come out terrible. Afterwards I didn’t know if it would be usable. Due to the nature of more activist type stuff, I took it off my phone that very evening, edited it pretty quickly and put it up on my Facebook. I’m very glad I did because my phone got stolen two days later. And in those two days myself and Noor were in touch a lot. She was updating me on her journey. She sent me a beautiful message on New Year’s Eve. And that’s the night it got stolen. So I then didn’t have her number, so unfortunately, I don’t know how Noor got on. I hope she’s well and happy and in Sweden. I tried to find her, the end of this summer. I presume she made it to Sweden as she was already in Germany two days after we met, and at that time - before the EU-Turkey ’deal’ on 20 March 2016) the borders were open and Noor and most refugees could travel overland legally through Europe. Noor wanted to become a doctor so I hope she is thriving in Sweden and starting her studies.
M: In the film, a woman, speaking about the catastrophe in Syria, says:
"May God not show it to a Jew or an enemy"
T: I got it translated afterwards so I didn’t know what she was saying at the time. I got the gist she was pregnant because of their gestures, and Noor told me afterwards, but it was only when I got it translated later that I realised what she had said and it was a turn of phrase, I don’t know if it’s a racist turn of phrase, or a turn of phrase you just throw out, I don’t know. And I didn’t want to censor it. But I don’t know.
(M: We have old expressions in French with similar issues. ) Did you meet others not included in the film?
T: Yes. Other things weren’t quite interview-based. When I went back in April I met someone who was a photographer in Iran. And we started to talk about cameras, a bit of a geek conversation. It was night time. He said he always loved to do long exposure photographs. We started to play around with the camera and the borders had just been shut, so we made this beautiful photograph. I also filmed a group of guys smoking shisha that were chatting about their journey, watching things on their mobile, having serious conversations but jokingly. And I took part in a project called precarious trajectories
M: Noor at Mytilini has been showcased at a few festivals already. What do you plan with it moving forward?
T: It premiered at the London Film Festival now LSFF, tomorrow evening, it’s in Berlin, British Shorts Festival (I’m trying to get them to change the name to British-Irish Shorts given all the stuff going on), then it’s coming to the Belfast Film Festival next month and I’ve been asked to do a talk on video activism and relationships and so on. I’m glad to see that. It’s great to change consciousness that then turns into some kind of action eventually.
M: . What’s your next project? The film you’re making in Ireland?
T: It’s a longer piece on longing and belonging. I made it in a small town in the west of Ireland It would have been a very traditional down where for centuries people just grew up and left it. A lot has happened there with globalisation, Celtic tiger, austerity, and so on. Many migrants that came to this town are from Brasil, but also there are English migrants, Romanian, French, Polish and internal migration from other parts of Ireland. I’m making this film Town of Strangers (working title) more in the tradition of some of my favourite Iranian films, in a style that transcends fiction and documentary genres.
I would love it to premiere at Sheffield doc fest and hoping to finish it this Spring (it’s at rough cut stage. I’ve been working on that for 2 years). I’ve been doing shorter things around it too. And I feel like they’re all connected. There’s a refugee from Afghanistan in this film that’s been in Ireland 10 years now. So it’s also what happens later. How we live together. How we miss home. How we adapt, how we try to belong, how we long for….
(M: Ah yes we can relate!)
T: I think most people do, it’s why I’m making this film, most people can relate to this film on an emotional level, rather than a didactic activist level where you’d feel morally guilty. If you actually relate and think “this is me” then it can change your consciousness more. I hope. I’m an idealist!