After her bachelor in Cultural Anthropology, Linda Sloane went on to study Social Policy and Social Interventions at the University of Utrecht. Her primary interests lie in integration, intercultural communication and visual anthropology, which are closely connected to the subject of the DIY documentary that Linda writes about in this review. 

documentary directed by Laura Heinig (2017, 55 minutes, colour)

‘Lesvos: Beautiful prison’ is a documentary about the precarious situation of refugees on the Greek island in 2017. Beautiful cinematic shots, intense interviews and undercover footage capture the lives at the edge of Europe – and how individuals of a vulnerable group reclaim autonomy in cooperation with locals and activists. Informative, moving and with the charm of a Do-It-Yourself (DIY)-mentality – this documentary is an astonishing debut film of anthropologist, filmmaker and activist Laura Heinig.

The sound of a car opening, closing, and then the starting of an engine. The sentence “in spring 2017, I went to the Greek island of Lesvos”. The highway, a traffic jam, a place to sleep, Heinig at the coast. She can move freely to the island whereas those who she is about to meet are stuck.  

Lesvos is one of the main arrival points for refugees coming to Europe. In 2015, 45% of all refugees crossed the Aegean Sea by boat to reach the Greek Island. Refugee Housing Unit Moria was built by the UNHCR to accommodate 2,000 people, but got quickly overcrowded. Since the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, the situation on Lesvos stagnates as the public administration is overwhelmed with processing the vast amount of asylum requests.  

Heinig spent two months on the Greek island. She accompanied refugees and activists who make the standstill more durable by living together in squatted houses outside camp Moria. The result is a 55 minutes long documentary divided into five parts: Ordinary Life, Camp Moria, The Locals and the Past, Another Way, and Supporting Each Other.

The first part shows the daily life of refugees and activists who live out of the sight of the public eye – like Ange. She is an activist from Canada and lived, amongst other activist and refugees that left Moria, in a squatted building called Chapati House. She points out the importance of sharing mundane life with refugees, for instance baking chapati, a thin, pancake-like bread, and having dinner together. Everything, she says, seems to run around the “chapati clock”. Here, Heinig proves her cinematic eye, as the camera pivots from the big paella pan, where somebody bakes chapati, to a group of people sitting together. A simple, yet important moment – and without using big words, Heinig reveals a big message: togetherness is essential.

Camp Moria is about pregnant refugee Alice who points out the vulnerability of woman in pregnancy at the camp. She also describes the feeling of waiting, uncertainty and routine. Her mantra “mange, dors, mange, dors, mange, dors” (eat, sleep, eat…) echoes in the ear of the viewer as we move on to the next part.

In The Locals and the Past, Heinig portrays Xenia, who was born and raised on the island. She talks about the emotional stress volunteers can experience – especially as locals since they will not leave the island as volunteers from other countries do. The message is clear: refugees are unhappy and the (local) volunteers are worn out. Heinig concludes that letting Moria “simmer like this, is good for no one”.

The following two parts Another Way and Support Each Other present a movement to counter the status quo. Caesy, an activist from the UK, points out the dehumanizing mechanisms of waiting for a decision and the importance of having a hobby. She teaches a drawing class at Mosaik Support Centre in Mytilene. The course provides moments of tranquility, reflection and creativity for refugees. Hooman, who is a refugee, discovered drawing as his passion this way. He also teaches Kung-Fu and self-defence for activists like Caesy. This shows the reciprocal bond between refugees and volunteers that is closely connected to the feeling of autonomy.

The importance of autonomy and self-determination overcoming isolation ‘in small things’ such as sharing dinner; the power of togetherness and reciprocity are vital for the people that are portrayed. One must “reclaim open structures” and “smash the fear” as the local islander Xenia puts it.

This shows a DIY-mentality, just like the documentary itself. Heinig went to Lesvos on her own account, is director as well as writer and producer, and crowdfunded the endeavour. The intended audience then is the public that is interested in activist movements and people who want to engage themselves in solidarity networks outside the realm of official help channels.

However, it is the anthropological quality of the documentary that stands out. Heinig spend a considerable amount of time ‘in the field’ as she lived two months on Lesvos. The closeness she developed to the people that are portrayed – and to the issue itself – is mirrored in the film. She is not an outsider. However, she explicitly places herself and her camera in the documentary without taking over the storyline. By doing so, Heinig accomplishes to create an intimate setting and make the viewer feel nearby.

This is also supported by the well-chosen soundscape. By combining original sounds with the music of the band Alcalica, Heinig captures and communicates the atmosphere of a situation. For instance, during the food distribution at Moria, the viewer first hears the people. Then, a song by Alcalica gradually fades in. A slow, dark beat with electronic tones and a monotone voice saying: ‘desert, wars, weapons, earthquake, dictatorship, persecution, isolation, prison or exile’.  

Heinig has a great sense of putting sound and image together. This works well for the storytelling, because it helps to make clear transitions from one topic to another. The story itself is a bit repetitive and bumpy at times. For instance, Camp Moria is introduced on several occasions, and some footage is not clearly placed on the timeline of the story. However, we can dismiss this as the charm of a DIY-project: it is beautiful in its imperfection.

Nevertheless, this documentary is a comprehensive, anthropologically inspired and aesthetically photographed description of a very complex and frustrating situation. Lesvos: Beautiful Prison is a great debut film and it will be interesting to see on which future endeavours Laura Heinig is about to embark.

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For more information about the documentary and contact details of Laura Heinig see the website of the documentary. More information about Lesvos (today): BBC short-documentary about Moria (August 2018), Article by Aljazeera on far-right on Lesvos (April 2018), In-depth article by Spiegel about overall situation on Lesvos (November 2017).