In light of President Trump’s (thus far), failed Executive Order to ban Muslims from seven countries and refugees from our shores, the Academy Award Nominated Documentary Short Subject, 4.1 Miles, is a must see film. Daphne Matziaraki’s cinematography of on-the-ground rescues of refugees who allow smugglers to take them via unsound boats over the 4.1 miles of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesbos is trenchant and riveting. Her film is a human chronicle of families with young children devastated; some are orphaned by war. All hunger desperately for peace and the freedom from imminent danger and the ravages of maiming and death from bombs.
Wisely, Matziaraki follows one Coast Guard Captain, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, on a fall day in 2015. Through interviews and gritty footage she captures his heartfelt and empathetic perspective on the augmenting refugee crisis that no one in Europe or the U.S. appears to care about and that those on the small island of Lesbos are ill-equipped to handle. Papadopoulos discusses how in 2001 20 refugees from Afghanistan crossed the nautical miles and it was a momentous newsworthy subject. But that situation was under control and was peacefully and satisfactorily resolved. The subsequent years on the island where he and other coast guard captains did their routine patrols, enjoying the sun and satisfaction of cresting the waves on coast guard vessels, were largely peaceful.
Things changed when the first tanks fired their weapons and the slaughter and destruction began destabilizing the region of the Middle East. That upheaval threatened to overthrow the equipoise of Greece. The country, suffering from its own economic crisis, faced a new one. How would they be able to prevent the death of refugees who had escaped the bombs but had to face the hazardous graveyard of the Aegean on flimsy boats and keep their lives?
Though the filmmaker accompanied the Coast Guard Captain for three weeks during which the same rescue crises happened again and again, she documents one day, October 28, 2015, from morning to evening. In talks she has implied that that one day contained and held the pathos, the relief, the sorrows, the fears and the griefs of lives saved and lives lost. It was a day in the life of these members of the Greek Coast Guard which was like all the other days, and the filmmaker decided to follow the ebb and flow of the human current of desperation during that one day. Indeed, that day’s incredible emotion and drama captured all of the rest of the twenty-one days she spent with the captain. It reflected the days that continued long after her camera shuttered and she returned home.
In the film Papadopoulos narrates with sorrow and the full understanding of the tragedy he, the other captains and the islanders face. They are overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees that come across the waters daily needing rescue, succor and sustenance. The numbers are staggering because the coast guard and the islanders are undermanned and not well provisioned. Where are the outside world’s relief efforts? Does the world know what they confront? Do they even care?
As Matziaraki films cinema verite, we see the situation is often desperate, untenable: the refugees’ boats are taking in water; there is chaos and panic; many do not have life jackets; unconscious bodies must be pulled from the water. The captain considers after a rescue: are there any missing? Have small, crying children slipped over the side of a listing, un-seaworthy boat?
With intimate close-ups and dynamic action scenes, the documentarian reveals how Papadopoulos and the other Coast Guard members (four boats with 4-5 crew), fulfill their obligation out of a sense of “the golden rule,” of decency, of humanity. They understand this grievous need and willingly stand in the chasm of death and life, as best as possible, with inadequate numbers of blankets, no oxygen and shaky life-saving skills (many of the crew were unfamiliar with CPR, initially). Under an almost impossible unction, they save the lives of hundreds a day. We are gratified as they pull mostly women and children from sinking rubber rafts or out of the water on the wind-whipped and dangerous Aegean onto the coast guard vessel.
The scenes are wrenching. In one scene toward the end, two children are pulled from the water and CPR is attempted, the ambulance called. In another an unconscious, naked child is held upside down to get all of the water out of her lungs. The filmmaker turns her camera away when the situation is too grim. She shows the joy and relief of the crew and villagers (in the last scenes all of the villagers are present for a particularly trying rescue), when children are brought back to life.
The filmmaker shoots this gripping reality so we understand our own humanity as we witness theirs in sorrow, in fear, desperate, looking for salvation. They are us. Can anyone watch this twenty-one minutes of film and not be moved? Is it righteous to turn one’s back on women and children who yearn for peace and a new life after the trauma of war’s destruction from which they may never recover emotionally?
The filmmaker’s work is especially current. We are reminded, if we have empathy, that the dire circumstances of the refugees in Syria and elsewhere must not be obviated. These are the courageous ones who have chosen to face the possibility of death by hypothermia or drowning (or overland trials). For them such a death would be better: at least they would be living in the hope of rescue rather than having to face one more day of exploding terror from ominous skies or the fires on the land that have consumed their homes and well being.
Out of human decency, women and children are saved by these Coast Guard Captains (one million lives were saved, one thousand lost), who would do more if they could, as Matziaraki indicates at the conclusion with an intimate close-up of Papadopoulos. It is often the little people on the front lines who are the most generous and empathetic. These are the greatest teachers of what it is to be good and just. Their leadership, as the filmmaker reveals, is golden.