How Exodus: Our Journey to Europe was filmed – and why it might have prevented Brexit

We asked director James Bluemel about the challenges of constructing the groundbreaking documentary

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“The camera is like a Kalashnikov,” says Hassan Akkad, one of the refugees in Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. 

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The documentary, airing Monday-Wednesday this week, has been pegged as the most moving account of the refugee crisis to date, because the contributors – who are all refugees – went where regular film crews could not go: on boats crossing from Turkey to Greece, in the back of lorries entering the Eurotunnel, or on open trucks driven by people smugglers across the Sahara.

The production team behind the film armed refugees with memory cards, including Akkad who was prepared to film his 87 day journey from Syria to the UK on his mobile phone. Akkad was an English teacher from Damascus before he was jailed for taking part in an anti-government protest and forced to flee. The documentary also follows the impossible brave Isra’a, 11, and her family who are on the move after their home in Syria was bombed, and Ahmad, an English teacher from Aleppo who had to leave his wife and daughter behind.

Exodus is touching because it unearths details you could only know if you went on the journey. For example, the fact that fake lifejackets that make you sink rather than float are sold to refugees in Turkey. And that smugglers are often drunk when they are driving vans crammed with people, so that they can feign ignorance if caught and get a lesser sentence. But it’s also the acts of kindness that are revealed in the documentary that make it unique. At one point in the film, Isra’a’s father Tarek is expressing his gratitude for the welcome he received in Austria: “I send my greetings and thanks to this country… Put religion to the side. Humanity is more important.”

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Isra’a with her father, Tarek

We spoke to the director of Exodus, James Bluemel, about the logistics of making such a groundbreaking documentary and what its reception could mean for post-Brexit. Here’s what he had to say…


How did you conceive the idea of refugees filming the documentary?

A photographer I work with went to Morocco to photograph migrants trying to get into Spain. He came back with all this footage he’d taken off their cell phones. They were filming their attempts to get to Spain and that’s when we found out that this was happening. People were filming their journeys anyway. So we thought let’s make a film incorporating those elements.

How did you find contributors?

Finding people at source is very difficult because they don’t massively advertise the fact that they’re about to leave. Finding people near to source, however, is simpler because they’re already on the road. In episode one there was a guy called Anas who was planning to leave Aleppo. It would have been very difficult and dangerous for us to go into Syria, so instead we contacted journalists who were already on the ground. We used the Aleppo Media Centre and asked them for leads on potential contributors. They found Anas. They filmed him leaving Syria and we picked him up at the Syrian-Turkish border and followed his journey from there. In places like Gambia we could meet our contributors through a people smuggler. 

Presumably people smugglers aren’t very keen to disclose information…?

People smugglers in Gambia aren’t like the human traffickers in Turkey who put people’s lives at risk for profit and exploit people’s vulnerability. In Gambia the term smuggler kind of means travel agent. Although they are illegal they have various services and give a thorough list of details about how you’re going to travel through the country. They’re not regarded as criminals by the population. 

How did you build trust with the contributors before filming began? And how long did that take?

The majority of people we met had already left their homes and were on the road. If I met someone in Izmir and they were planning to leave that night, that only left 12 hours for us to suss each other out. Usually, when you make documentaries you have weeks to cast and build those relationships, on this film we had hours.

Did you train people how to film?

Most of the people we met already had smartphones because as a refugee it’s the most useful tool to have: you’ve got a way of sending messages home, downloading maps to figure out your routes, and finding out which borders are open. We just gave them extra memory cards. I sat down with each person and said: “This is a very quick lesson in how to film usefully for us: Please remember to film in landscape rather than portrait, these are the shots that make up a sequence, and good luck, off you go.”

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Hassan Akkad filming the perilous sea crossing

How many refugees did you give memory cards to?

Roughly 60. And then after editing we ended up with six main contributors in the series. 

Your risk assessment for the project must have been very thorough…

Because we tried not to intervene that eliminated much of the risk. We had to pause our natural impulse to help people because we didn’t want to affect the story. So for example if it was raining and someone I was with was soaking wet and I put them in my hire car and crossed the border, I could get arrested for people trafficking.

Did you have any big scares?

There was a moment when Ahmad, an ex-English teacher from Aleppo, was in the back of a lorry. He texted me to let me know he was there and after that I didn’t hear from him for three days. There was this horrible radio silence and my mind filled in all the blanks in the most fearsome way. I was thinking: “Crikey, something must have happened. Why isn’t he responding to any calls? Why is his phone completely dead? Where is he?” 

And it’s very literal actually – I didn’t know which port he was going from because he didn’t. Therefore it was very difficult to figure out how to find him. When Ahmad got to Britain the police took his mobile so he had no means of communication until they gave it back. Then he phoned me and he said: “I made it. I’m in the UK.”

How did you keep track of the footage?

This documentary was unique in that if a phone got damaged or went missing, all of the footage went with it. So it was important to keep collecting the memory cards and giving out new ones. When people were going through the Sahara Desert we would send local stringers to them and say: “We need you to go to the desert on this day and meet this guy. Here’s his phone number. Can you give him some new cards and send his old one to us?”

What impact do you think this film will have on viewers post-Brexit?

People will watch this film in light of that decision. Will it change people’s minds about Brexit? It’s hard to say. The documentary is from each refugee’s point of view, so it humanises an issue that has been all about scale and numbers until now. Who knows? If this film had come out before the vote, things might have been different.

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Have you stayed in touch with the contributors?

We’re still in touch with all of them over this broadcast period – it’s important to be. All the contributors have seen the film as well and signed off on all of their various parts. It’s their voice and we wanted to make sure we got it right.

How do you feel having made the documentary?

It’s very strange going on these journeys with these people, and seeing how desperate they are in their search for somewhere safe to live. Accompanying them on a journey like this, you see it all: the anxiety they feel about risking their lives on the sea crossing, their jubilation when they arrive in Europe, and then their frustration that Europe is chaotic and not set up to deal with the situation at all. Every journey was like that, and it was a privilege to see it so closely.

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The last episode of Exodus is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.