Paste: Is it difficult as a documentarian, then, to witness something and to not “help” with it, to become involved with it?
Fitzgerald: Frederick Wiseman spoke at this great documentary conference called Getting Real, a biennial conference for the global documentary community, and he was one of the guest speakers—he’s a legend, right, he’s certainly a legend to me. He spoke about [finding] that line within your role as a documenter of an event. Can it be called into question by the urgency of a crisis? Wiseman’s response, he showed this clip of some police officers basically threatening a prostitute, they were kinda slapping her around, beating her, and Wiseman didn’t intervene. Just filmed it. And the last thing I would do is question Frederick Wiseman’s choice or justification for it, but I have to say that I made a different choice. Because I guess the line that I was faced with was: Is it worth filming that event if it meant someone was going to die because you didn’t put your camera down? That was a very real choice we were faced with. Because people were drowning, and every had was needed. Despite this idea that you are there only to document, when a moment occurs when you are filming something vs. not filming it will result in someone living or dying, I’m going to put my camera down. And that’s what we did.
That was a conversation that came up even before we went on the boat. Because space is at such a premium on these search and rescue vessels, some of the hardest work that I had was actually talking our way onto the boat and gaining the trust of the search and rescue operators. We had to satisfy their understanding that if we were in a life or death situation, we would act first and foremost as human beings, and second as filmmakers. Wiseman would maybe have a different tact than that, but that’s the path we took and we’re completely at peace with it.
Someone watching your documentary, who is affected by that feeling of empathy, what would you say if they were to then ask, “What can I do now?”
Fitzgerald: The easy, low-hanging fruit of an answer is: Donate to organizations like Sea-Watch. All the current political opposition they’re receiving—and it’s stiff; they’re really struggling under far-right nationalism throughout Europe: They had a boat that had 40-something asylum seekers that was held at sea for a couple weeks until very recently. And as soon as the found a port of call finally to disembark the asylum seekers, they’re being held in port by the authorities and charged with all these fallacious charges. They really need all the support they can get.
My sort of 30,000-foot view on this is that we’re going to look back on this moment in history and really regret some of the political rhetoric and some of the ways that bonafide asylum seekers were treated not only at our own southern border, but also in Europe. Someone doesn’t leave their country of origin and risk their life with their child unless there was a legitimate reason. I think we need to get back to documents that were created post-World-War-II because we had this horrific global tragedy where so many people died and there were so many IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees that we needed to create a set of principles by which most nations act so that we don’t have this horrible treatment of refugees again. That was Leopold’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we were following those principles right now, then each discrete asylum seeker case would have a chance to be vetted through UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] right now after they cross the Mediterranean, and that’s not happening right now.
So back to your question: I think we need to exert political pressure on all of our leaders. I think we need to speak out against any time that a genuine asylum seeker is not allowed to seek and enjoy asylum, which they’re given under the Declaration of Human Rights. I think each of us needs to look in the mirror, and ask, “Do I believe this is something that is wrong? What can I do?” Because each of us have a different skill set, a different sphere of influence. And each of needs to leverage that so we can get back to a place where people treat each other properly.
...there were just people on the Sea-Watch boat we were on who were just regular people. I’m just a regular person with a camera. But I choose to intervene in my own small way. And every person on the boat was doing the same thing. Even Jon Castle, who arguably was one of the best-trained and prepared mariners that you could possibly find to do this kind of work, he didn’t think of himself in that was necessarily. He just thought of himself as another human being who saw something in our modern day that was absolutely against his principles of how he wanted to live his life. People were drowning; the resources were there to prevent that. There’s something to be done. What he had to offer were his skills as a mariner. So he went and volunteered as a ship’s captain. We all have something to offer; if you just look—maybe all you have to offer is maybe you’re going to be a cook on that hypothetical boat. Whatever it is you believe in, if you listen to your heart, as Jon says, there’s a way to make a difference.
Paste: Again, watching 101 Seconds, Paul [Kemp, the brother-in-law of one of the victims at Clackamas Town Center, and gun safety activist] says something along the lines of “I don’t understand how anyone can witness 20 kids being murdered and not be outraged.” Pessimistically, and based on personal experience, I feel like simply presenting the “other side” with facts is futile today. You are much closer to the people who are affected, to these events. How do you approach such pessimism?
Fitzgerald: Do I think my work is going to dramatically change the course of history? Hell no. But do I hope and think it makes small incremental changes in my sphere of influence, my circle of people I touch with my films? Absolutely.
Right after we premiered 50 Feet from Syria in Canada, I got an email from a woman who’d been at the premiere, and she told me she was so moved by the film that she formed a group in Toronto sponsoring three families from Syria, refugees, to immigrate to Canada. I read that email, and printed it out, and put it on my wall. All the effort that I put into that film was worth it. Because three families from Syria were able to enjoy asylum in Canada. All that work was worth it because it affected those three families positively.
At the premiere in Telluride, for Lifeboat, right after we finished we did a Q&A, and somebody in the audience told me that he’s a doctor, he saw 50 Feet from Syria when it premiered at Telluride, and he was so moved he volunteered with SAMS [Syrian American Medical Society Foundation], as a surgeon after he saw my film. Now, I’m not so full of myself to think I’m going to do anything like change history, but it is affecting person by person, and if that person acts, then I’m happy with that.
Paste: That comes through in so many ways in your films: This really is about the individual.
Fitzgerald: How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece, right? I can’t change the face of immigration, but I can certainly change some people minds, engage more people to engage with the issue. With Lifeboat, I got an email just a week ago, and there’s a great effort in Germany where the biggest ad agency in Germany has taken on a campaign to support Sea-Watch because they believe in what they’re doing, and because Sea-Watch has labored under such strong political opposition. They’re gonna do this experiment, and they reached out to me to ask if they could use the name “Lifeboat.” They’re going to film it next month, and what they’re going to do is take 100 German volunteers—all very white—and put them in a raft, just like the raft you see in Lifeboat, and put them in an enormous wavepool, and have them experience what it’s like to be on the sea for an extended period of time—what the sensations are, what it does to your body, and then they’re going to do these post interviews, and wrap it up in a massive ad campaign shown throughout Germany. They feel like the next key thing that needs to happen, because how rhetoric and the view of asylum seekers has changed in Europe, they need to put a different face on the crisis. They need to force people to understand how they would feel in this situation. They’re hoping to build empathy.
You can watch Lifeboat on the New Yorker’s site, or on YouTube. We very much recommend you do.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.