At Doc/Fest, one of the screenings was Exodus: Breaking Into Europe (working title, Jack MacInnes and Paul Glynn). This is the initial cut of the first of a series of hour-long programmes, produced by Jane Merkin and created in large part from footage acquired by KEO films, who gave out camera phones to 75 people attempting to reach Europe as refugees. The idea is, of course, that such footage comes from places where film crews would never have access – on dinghies from Turkey to Greece, in lorries entering Eurostar, on trucks crossing the Sahara. The result was described in its Doc/Fest 2016 listing as ‘a terrifyingly intimate yet uniquely epic portrait of what has become the biggest story of the decade’.

Interestingly, much of the first programme was made with footage not from the camera phones distributed by the filmmakers, but by two men who feature centrally in the episode. I wondered about this, especially about the fact that the focus was so much on two individuals who spoke good English. After the screening, one of them told me that later episodes do shift their focus, and that the reason his and the other participant’s stories were used for the episode is they had filmed their own journeys, hence had footage from inside Syria, and from the very early stages of their travels, before the camera phones were distributed. This makes sense, as the footage from Syria, especially, is remarkable. However, it might be worth noting this choice explicitly to viewers. Otherwise, the focus on two English-speaking men, each travelling solo, may seem odd (or, worse, may go unremarked, feeding into stereotypes about reasons for migration and about immigrants who do/don’t ‘speak the language’).

Latterly, we discover that one of the men has family still in Syria, and we see and hear his torment when he tries to speak to a wife hugely restricted in what she can say by the political context in which she’s surviving. This familial context is more overt with the third central participant in the episode – a young girl travelling with her family, the first footage of whom we see as illegal street vendors trying to eke out a living while preserving funds for a perilous trip across the Mediterranean. Her father and mother disagree about whether to even make the trip, her father terrified of the prospect of losing any one of them to drowning and desperately despondent at his failure to find a reliable route by land.

At the panel about filmmaking and trauma at Doc/Fest, I saw what I realised was a clip from a later episode in this same series, shown in the context of discussing how filmmakers cope (or fail to cope) with seeing and filming people in often horrendous, life-threatening situations and conditions. The panel talked insightfully and at times emotionally about how to balance self-care with care for others and a recognition of the role(s) of documentary makers. This, along with an excellent panel discussion about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, did a lot to reveal the extent to which the industry is aware of such issues, something not always evident when series such as Exodus: Breaking Into Europe are described as covering ‘the biggest story of the decade’.

There are very positive aspects of these stories, too. Something that didn’t get the recognition it deserved, even at Doc/Fest, is that one of the men featured in Exodus has received a scholarship to study for a postgraduate degree at SOAS – no mean feat from someone improving his English from a phrase book whilst making the perilous journey from Syria to the UK.

But there seems to be some lack of willingness to talk about the more ‘positive’ aspects of migrant experience. Although this is understandable in terms of people (me included) wanting the horrendous experiences of so many recognised and represented, interestingly a number of recent migrants in the films I mention do also want more positive messages communicated, too. Hamsa does open with its central protagonist talking about a terrifying part of her family’s journey to Germany, but the film then focuses on positive aspects of their new home. The audience at Migration Matters enjoyed the film, but queried the focus on the positive, wanting to know why more wasn’t made of the difficulties the family faced both in their journey and settling in Germany, and those faced in their new home.

Ultimately, it’s perhaps hard to know – because there’s no definitive answer – whether the tendency to focus on the negative is because of a genuine desire to express some of the horror that so many migrants are experiencing at this time, forcing them to migrate when they otherwise would not, or whether it’s primarily because such upheaval makes for a better story.

Either way, there’s a wealth of documentary out there about the plight of refugees and other migrants, and we’d do well to pay attention to those stories in an attempt to understand more about not just our fellow humans, but what many governments and other powerful bodies are currently doing to our shared world.

The positive is that numbers making ‘dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean into Europe are lessening in 2016′. The negative remains that of those, the vast majority are not economic migrants, but are ‘fleeing war, conflict or persecution’ (UNCHR), and that approximately 2,510 refugees have drowned on their way to Europe already in 2016.

Documentaries can at least, whether offering harrowing or more positive views, keep us alert to these realities, and remind us of the individual lives behind such shocking figures.

Samantha Holland