The Moria Film School – "...and here we are"

Homepage banner of the Human Rights Festival in Berlin 2021.
Homepage banner of the Human Rights Festival in Berlin 2021.

German actress Katja Riemann has made a short yet impressive documentary about a special project in Moria. In her directorial debut, she shows how young refugees learn the basics of filmmaking. The film, part of the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin programme, can be streamed until 3 October. Rene Wildangel reports for

By René Wildangel

Moria is notorious for its dire conditions. Usually, says Katja Riemann about her first film, it is seen from a distance: endless rows of tents, overcrowded facilities and queues of people. The original camp was, after all, designed for just 3000 people, but it soon became inhabited by well over 20,000 people – including up to 7000 children.

Moria has become synonymous with the squalid conditions that prevail in numerous other camps, especially on the Greek islands. The inadequate accommodation and care, as well as the severely restricted freedom of movement, are classified as "extremely worrying", with serious consequences for the physical and mental health of the refugees, many of whom are already severely traumatised.

Little is known, however, about the efforts to make life somewhat more bearable for the many young people in Moria. Katja Riemann hopes to change this with her debut documentary "...and here we are", which portrays the "Refocus Media Lab" on Lesbos and its two founders. In 2018, a film school for refugees was set up by the American Douglas Herman and the Pole Sonia Nandzik. The perfect venue already existed, the One Happy Family Community Centre (OHF), a social institution for youth and families where the film classes could take place.

"In our first year, we had just one woman," says Sonia Nandzik. But soon this one film student attracted so much attention and curiosity with her camera and her enthusiasm that the film school could barely cope with the flood of enquiries. The following year's intake was already gender-balanced. "Gender is not an issue here," says Douglas Herman, "nor are cultural differences – and we had students from twelve nations!"

"Moria 2" refugee camp in Greece (photo: infomigrants)
Das Lager Moria auf Lesbos ist ein Symbol für Europas desaströse Flüchtlingspolitik. Einen Monat nach dem Brand in Moria wurde im Oktober 2020 das neue Übergangslager Moria 2 in der Nähe des Ortes Kara Tepe eingerichtet. Hier sollte alles geordneter und besser zugehen. Doch nach starken Regenfällen herrschten in der neuen Zeltstadt wiederum katastrophale Zustände für die rund 10.000 Bewohner. Es bildeten sich riesige Pfützen, die Bewohner versuchten das braune Wasser mit Schaufeln aus den Zelten zu schöpfen, oft vergeblich. Unter den Plastikplanen der Zeltböden sammelte sich das Regenwasser.

One of the best projects in Moria

For the participants, many of whom come from Afghanistan, learning in a mixed group does not always come easy. But any reservations quickly disappear in the face of their shared enthusiasm for filming. And their self-confidence grows quickly. The young film students write scripts, learn how to work with film and sound, implement their own ideas. Just like in a "real" film school.

Some of the teachers are themselves refugees. Like Ahmad Ebrahimi, who made a documentary film about the Taliban in Afghanistan with Hassan Fazili and then received death threats from them. He owes a lot to the film project. "I think Refocus Media Lab is one of the best projects on the island. Douglas and Sonia have brought knowledge, but most of all distraction and hope to the monotonous lives of the people there," Ahmad says. He knows what he is talking about. He processed his own time in Moria in the impressive film "Citizen of Moria", in which Douglas Herman and the school also feature. Many of the film school's network are now spread all over Europe as photographers, filmmakers or journalists.

The experience of these young adults is already very different to that of film students who have grown up in Europe. They have life experience that they would have liked to have been spared. "What interests me, for example," says participant Yaser Taheri, "is how people react in extreme situations. How do they behave then? Do they cheat their fellow human beings?" And then he says, "I saw that. On the boat."

The young people are supposed to use their artistic endeavours to learn how to deal with completely different issues. "Our intention here was to create a cathartic place for the students. Not for them to necessarily process the misery into which terrible circumstances have pushed them cinematically," says Douglas Herman. Participant Yaser agrees: "We want to make art that has nothing to do with migration."


A series of dramatic events

But in light of the dramatic events in Moria, things turn out differently. Firstly, in March 2020, the One Happy Family Community Centre is gutted by fire. At a time when radical right-wing protests and physical attacks on aid workers in Moria are on the rise, arson is suspected. All that remains of the learning and development centre for thousands of children and its equipment, created with the help of the Red Cross, is charred debris. A harbinger of further horrors.

The day after the fire, the students ask Douglas Herman and Sonia Nandzik to continue the film project, which had previously taken place outside in another camp, in the middle of the Moria camp. There they continue the courses in a kind of garage. Then coronavirus arrives; the camp is soon in lockdown and the refugees subject to even more extreme restrictions regarding their freedom of movement than they already were.

Even though they actually want to escape the camp's everyday life, the film students with their knowledge now become important witnesses and also supply the international media with voices and images. For during lockdown, the camp continues to be completely sealed off. Even if dealing with other issues is no longer possible – at least, according to Douglas Herman, the young media makers can now act for themselves and are not just victims of circumstance.

When it comes to the ultimate catastrophe – the blazing inferno that destroys the entire Moria camp – the filmmakers are in constant action. Their statements are prominently published, international journalists are no longer on site. Nazanin Foroghi, Yaser Taheri and their colleagues give their assessments on Al-Jazeera, BBC and other media.[embed:render:embedded:node:41560]

On 17 September 2020 – after eight days without a roof over their heads – the transition camp "Moria 2" opens on a former military site. The construction of a new camp with more tolerable facilities has still yet to be completed. Hit by torrential downpours, the transition camp is also severely affected by flooding – like a biblical plague, as Katja Riemann notes.

For the organisers, this is all incredibly frustrating. "2020 was nothing but a string of obstacles," says Herman: the fire at the family centre, lockdown, COVID-19 in the camp, ever tighter lockdowns. He is close to tears in the interview. But it gets worse: because of a critical report, Herman is arrested by the Greek police and has to leave the island. Since then he has been living with Sonia in Warsaw, as he himself says, "in exile".

Some of the graduates are still stuck on the island, but many of them work for non-governmental organisations and continue to pursue their dreams. Nor is the project at an end; 30 students are still being taught daily via online sessions. And there are plans to extend the activities to other refugee camps.

The young people's respect for the film school organisers is boundless; they are family substitutes and teachers at the same time. Katja Riemann creates a monument to their courage, as well as to the creativity and irrepressible joie de vivre and curiosity of the film students. Her film is not only full of empathy; it is also lovingly crafted, with wonderful music and superbly filmed images from the camps, which, despite the destruction and suffering, sometimes allow the actual beauty of these places to shine through. One would hardly expect anything less of a documentary about a film school.

Rene Wildangel

© 2021

The film "...and here we are" by Katja Riemann can still be streamed until 3 October as part of the Berlin Human Rights Film Festival.