How refugees filmed their own journeys to Europe for a new documentary

A BBC production team gave camera phones to people attempting to reach Europe. Exodus: Our Journey to Europe is the result.

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In the days after the Brexit vote, I found it difficult to concentrate. Nothing seemed to cut through – not books, not films and certainly not television. Then something finally penetrated: one of the most remarkable and important pieces of documentary film-making I have ever seen (11-13 July, 9pm). Over three hours, it gave me a chastening sense of perspective. If you missed it, I insist that you watch it on iPlayer, where the BBC should keep it at least until the end of this year, if not until the end of days. What I’m talking about is not a tonic. Most of it is indescribably sad and desperate. But it will make you want to be, if not a better person, then a more grateful one.

About a year ago, a BBC production team, aided by various organisations (including Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Organisation for Migration), gave cameraphones to people who were ­attempting to reach Europe and asked them to record their journeys. Those taking part were also filmed and interviewed, when on dry land, by BBC teams. The result was Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, a powerful bit of storytelling that made mere statistics – in 2015 a million people smuggled themselves into Europe – flesh and blood. On screen were names, not numbers; individuals, not crowds.

Their stoicism and good cheer when ­confronted with unimaginable hardship was humbling. Now and then, I would look up and around my office, every corner of it so familiar and so comfortable, and feel close to disgusted both at my good luck and at my navel-gazing. But I was struck, too, by something else. Only rarely is the essence of a person – their quirks and flaws and singularities, all the things that make them lovable, or not – diminished in a moment of crisis. Mostly, it grows exponentially. People are more themselves, not less so. I can’t quite explain why this seemed so important to me but I know that I took solace in it. Heroism seemed, in these epic tales, to have just as important a role to play as simple determination.

Here were Isra’a, an 11-year-old ­Syrian girl, travelling with 15 members of her family from Izmir in Turkey to Germany; ­Ahmad, a Syrian Kurd trying to reach the UK, where he hoped his wife and daughters would join him; and Hassan, an English teacher from Aleppo, also heading for Britain. We saw them in inflatable dinghies in the middle of the Mediterranean; in muddy, freezing-cold refugee camps; in the backs of lorries at Calais; and in many other places.

There were so many heart-stopping moments: Isra’a’s father wrapping her disabled sister in a life jacket in the dead of night; Ahmad describing how, just the other evening, he’d stowed himself away in a flour tanker and nearly suffocated to death; Hassan, crouched in a water-filled dinghy, gazing at his mobile phone in an attempt to work out if the boat had entered Greek waters, at which point it would be safe to call the coastguard. The logistics were fascinating: the cost and availability of fake passports, the recycling of life jackets as mattresses, the absolute importance of keeping your phone charged and dry at all times. Knowing this stuff, I wondered all over again at Europe’s panicky impotence in this matter. Why can’t we match such ingenuity with some compassionate resourcefulness of our own?

The refugees spoke of their old lives with no self-pity (“I was pampered,” Hassan said) and of their new ones with unbridled hope. “It’s nice walking in the rain,” Isra’a said, marching along some Macedonian road, looking for all the world as if she were just on an exciting school trip. Beside the Eiffel Tower, Ahmad grinned like any other tourist.

The danger was that this led to magical thinking on the viewer’s part. Braced at first for disaster, I found that I came to share their willed optimism – or, at least, to believe that nothing bad could happen to them along the way. So what a shock it was to see Isra’a in Serbia, blue with cold, her head bowed, her jokes and wisecracks having finally run out. I only truly worried for her when she stopped smiling, which makes me just as stupid and careless as some enamelled government minister. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM