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Refugees Capture Hidden Parts of the Migrant Trail in New Documentary

Featuring footage shot by refugees last year, the upcoming Frontline documentary “Exodus” uncovers rarely seen aspects of the migrant trail to Europe. We speak to James Bluemel, the film’s director, about what happens when refugees get to tell their own stories.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
This image shows refugees sleeping in a port in Lesbos, Greece. Gus Palmer/Keo Films 2015

Some parts of the migrant trail through Europe became iconic images last year. Soaking families being hauled to shore. A drowned child. Crowds of people massing at border fences, trudging through fields and spilling out of trains.

But there are parts of the journey rarely documented on film. Places that only refugees themselves go.

The documentary “Exodus” takes you to those places, with the help of refugees and migrants who documented their journey using camera phones.

Hassan, a former English teacher from Damascus, keeps filming his dinghy as it fills with water and the men jump out in an effort to keep it afloat. Ahmad, also from Syria, captures long hours hidden inside a truck. Alaigie, a Gambian man headed for Italy, films migrant convoys careening through the Sahara desert.

The documentary producers followed them and several others on their journeys to Europe last year, shooting scenes along the way and equipping refugees with camera phones, SIM cards and memory cards to document parts of their journey that producers couldn’t join, such as meeting with smugglers, taking boats or stowing in vehicles.

The two-hour Frontline documentary airs on PBS on December 27, while a three-part version was broadcast by the BBC earlier this year. Refugees Deeply spoke to director James Bluemel about the making of “Exodus.”

Refugees Deeply: How did you find people to take part in the filming?

James Bluemel: Finding refugees is relatively straightforward once people are already moving. Finding people before they leave their houses is much more complicated. Once people are already refugees, if you go to any hotspot there will be huge numbers of them. Then it’s just a case then of talking to people and meeting people as you can.

The first place I went to was [the Greek island] Kos, where I met Ahmad. There was this mass of people and I was trying to work out, “Crikey, how do you tackle this situation to make a film?” There’s literally 1,000 people on this island, all vying to get off of it and I’m trying to understand it. Some people just don’t want to engage at all – people had fled traumatic experiences and they’re still in a place of uncertainty and the trauma is still in front of them in many ways.

We told people, we want to document this journey and we want to travel with you. When you leave here, I’ll go with you all the way to your end country. Ahmad really understood that and really wanted that to happen, he understood the grammar of making a documentary, he was engaging, and he spoke English, so all these ingredients meant he was the first one we started filming with.


This image shows an Afghan refugee family resting on the street in Athens, Greece. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films 2015)

Refugees Deeply: Did you ever lose touch with people?

Bluemel: Yes, all the time. When someone moves from Greece to Macedonia to Serbia and into Hungary, every country that they go through, that SIM card in their phone becomes useless. Just trying to find someone once they cross a border is ridiculously complicated, much more so than I’d considered. You’re relying on them getting credit and giving you a call and letting you know where they are.

Sadiq, the Afghan I met in Greece, initially moved much faster than I could move, because the borders were open for refugees but I still had to go through customs from E.U. countries to non-E.U. countries and vice versa. I’m driving around Europe in a rented Ford Fiesta asking Sadiq on the phone where he is, asking him to look out the window and see if there are any signs and he’ll say. “I think I’m heading to Berlin.” So I’d head to Berlin and about an hour away he phones me up and says, “I’m in Dresden.” I ended up driving like a maniac to get there. That sort of thing happened all the time. After the first few runs of it I found SIMs that would work across international lines to give to people.


This image shows migrants on abandoned railway tracks along the Serbia-Hungary border. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films 2015)

Refugees Deeply: Were there different challenges in working with people crossing from Turkey to Greece from those trying to make the journey from North Africa to Italy?

Oh, yes, I can pretty much follow them on the Balkan route. They may go on a train I’m not allowed to go on because it’s a refugee train, but I can follow them. For the African route, first of all it was really difficult to find a refugee who wasn’t a refugee yet. I went to Gambia because I’d been in refugee camps in Italy and there’s a lot of Gambians there. The only way to find someone is go to the smugglers themselves and ask them who’s paid you, because that means they’re definitely going on that journey. So I went through a smuggler, I asked him who’s on his books and is imminently leaving, which is how I found Alaigie.

Secondly, the Sahara is a massively dangerous place for him and for me to go. I could meet him in certain places along the way, like Agadez in Niger, to exchange SIM cards. But the next part of the journey – driving across the Sahara to Libya – is important to document but incredibly dangerous. You’re not only having to face up to the desert, you also have to face up to the fact that you’re a white Westerner in a land that is incredibly hostile. Instead, local journalists along the way met with him along the way to take the SIM cards. Then he was kidnapped, and any footage that he’d shot in Libya was lost. It’s also really hard to get footage from the boat journey from Libya, because often the smugglers will strip you of your clothes.


This image shows refugees in Presevo, Serbia, who have just arrived from Macedonia and are waiting for their papers to be processed. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films 2015)

Refugees Deeply: How did you determine the risks refugees were willing to take by filming?

Bluemel: I make it very clear that they are under no obligation to film for me at all. I left it up to them and some, like Sadiq, didn’t film at all and others filmed to various degrees. Hassan was our star cameraman. It was like a crutch for him. He filmed everything. Ahmad understood that filming was important but he didn’t enjoy doing it and often didn’t do it.

When Isra’a [an 11-year-old Syrian girl featured in the documentary] and her family went on the dinghy, they didn’t film their crossing. They had other things on their mind like the dinghy going down and the whole family drowning. [Isra’a’s father] Tariq is not going to get his phone out and start filming that. Most people wouldn’t. I absolutely understand and respect his decision. Hassan, on the other hand, filmed as his dinghy is being sunk, and that is unusual.

Refugees Deeply: What was the most tense moment for you during the filmmaking process?

When we filmed them making a crossing on a dinghy, our team in Turkey would say goodbye, good luck, and I really hope to see you in Greece. You know there is a chance – a real chance – that they may drown on this trip. People do every day. It was sickening to say those goodbyes and watch them take that risk, while you spent 22 euros ($23) and got on a ferry and arrived safely.


This image shows refugees waiting to board buses at the Austria-Hungary border. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films 2015)

Refugees Deeply: Was there anything that surprised you or challenged your assumptions during the filming?

I went in with my eyes open about desperation. It’s not the first film I’ve made about migrants and refugees. What did surprise me was that even in the darkest, most hopeless moments, people still maintain a sense of humor. It can come out when there’s really nothing, nothing to be laughing at. When Isra’a’s mum is walking in the rain rejoicing about the fact that she’s tasting this freedom, for example. In amongst great tragedy, the human spirit can just surface and show itself to be a strange and robust and unusual thing.

Refugees Deeply: How have the refugees who shot the footage responded to the film?

Everyone in the film got a chance to view it before it was broadcast, in case there was anything in it that could put themselves or their families in danger. Every contributor been very grateful for us taking the time to tell it with nuance and care, and giving them a voice to tell their own stories. What you’re seeing is what they went through. It’s been condensed, but it’s not been sensationalized, twisted or manipulated.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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