Interview with Michael Graversen and Florian Elabdi, co-directors of Ghosts of Mória
Tuesday 1 February 2022, by ,
When Europe’s Moria refugee camp burns to the ground, two friends from Aleppo choose to stay in the ruins and survive by scavenging metal in the apocalyptic world left by the fire. But they are in a race against the clock as the metal is taken by Roma people filling up their cars and Greek authorities filling up trucks with excavators, while the police is on the searching for fugitive refugees.
What made you decide to make a documentary about the refugees from the camp of Moria?
Moria was Europe’s largest refugee camp and, in many ways, it became a symbol of Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis for the past years where our core human values were put to the test. A test many believed we failed. The devastating fire in Moria was not only the collapse of a camp – it came to symbolise the finale collapse of something greater: Europe’s migration system. After the Moria fire in September 2020, we travelled to Lesbos with an open mind. We wanted to see what happened to the refugees in Moria after the media attention around the fire had vanished. We knew there would be thousands of people having to start a new life after all their belongings had been destroyed in the fire. We knew there would be widespread human despair, but we also knew that after every devastating fire, new life eventually rises from the ashes. We wanted to portray the human despair on the edge of a European Union struggling to solve its migration conundrum, but we also wanted to depict the dreams, aspirations, and the will to survive of the human beings at the centre of it.
How did you approach the two refugees from Aleppo and convince them to be part of your documentary?
We were wandering about in the burnt-out Moria camp which was completely empty a few days after the fire. Suddenly, we saw the shadows of two men seemingly working in the rubble. They were rooting about, pulling copper cords from wiring boxes, their clothing greased from the soot, ashes, oil and smoke. We approached them and struck up a conversation. Ayham and Khalil told us they didn’t want to relocate to the new tent camp and instead they wanted to survive in the ashes of the Moria camp by collecting and selling scrap metal. They wanted to live in freedom, away from incarceration. We immediately knew that this had the potential to become a documentary film, especially considering their charisma as characters. Khalil liked the idea of making a film from the start. Ayham was a bit wary about being filmed but after he got to know us better, he began to trust us and he opened up as well. Of course, they also benefitted from our company, we helped pay for food, medicine and we took them to the doctor. In many ways, it became a friendship of four and we still keep in touch on a regular basis.
What turned out to be the hardest part for you while making Ghosts of Moria and why?
The hardest part about making a documentary was definitely the dilemma: How much do you help someone in need without compromising what you are documenting? On the one hand, we were there to film and document the poverty Khalil and Ayham were living in and the misery they were going through. On the other hand, we are human beings, and it feels wrong to shoot a whole day with someone who is homeless and at the end of the day, you drive back to the comfort of your hotel room while they must sleep hungry in their cold tent. It was good to be two filmmakers in this perspective because we had a lot of long discussions about the ethics, about when to help them and when to hold back.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
The short format is really important and leaves more room to experiment. Not to be a slave of conventional 3-act narrative filmmaking. Lukasz Konopa’s After is a good example. He looks at how Auschwitz is used today and the clash between tourism and a historical place like Auschwitz. With a calm cinematic gaze, he leaves it to the spectator to interpret. Joris Iven’s Rain is also a good example of how the short format works in making art of an everyday phenomenon such as rain. Also, Chris Marker’s Junkopia where he makes a symphony of Emeryville Mudflats, an ever-changing art gallery of driftwood sculptures and structures. Created by anonymous artists, the works would regularly wash away with the tides, only to be replaced by new ones.
What’s your definition of a good film?
Curiosity. Both in its protagonists, story and how it is told. Coming from a documentary background it is key to find good characters or protagonists. It is even more important than the story. It is important to have a strong visual gaze or intention. To explore the cinematic nature of the reality or place you are filming. The burned down Moria camp created in all its tragedy also some kind of beauty in the remains, structure and materials burned and left behind. Humour is also important. Even in the worst circumstances you need humour to survive. Also, in the film it is important to engage the viewer. To take in the more moving or tragic bits of the film. In the centre of a tragedy, you need to find some kind of beauty – like Ayham and Khalil’s friendship. That’s the silver lining and what makes us human.