Can we show a little compassion? Filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald on trying to generate empathy with his Oscar-nominated short 'Lifeboat'
Fitzgerald documents plight of migrants risking their lives in a desperate quest to reach Europe
Last week I moderated a Q&A with director Skye Fitzgerald and producer Bryn Mooser after a screening of their Oscar-nominated documentary Lifeboat, a film that delivers a visceral experience of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The conversation took place at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, a place where one would expect no deficit of understanding for the dispossessed.
Yet even there some of the audience questions betrayed a lack of sympathy for migrants from Africa and the Middle East risking their lives in an attempt to reach Europe -- the kind of people whose dire circumstances are plain to see in Lifeboat. Referencing a statistic in the film -- that 1 in 18 who embark on the perilous journey wind up drowning in the sea -- one man suggested those were pretty good odds, and Lifeboat would encourage other would-be migrants to give it a go.
Another questioner expressed sympathy for the governments of France and Italy that are increasingly resistant to admitting migrants, and he accused the filmmakers of making the documentary only so they could "feel good" about themselves.
Peculiar sentiments to express at a museum dedicated to tolerance.
Why is it so difficult to feel compassion for those who would court death for a chance at a better life in Europe, fleeing war, persecution and other miseries?
"In the end, we have to remember that those are our fellows," says Capt. Jon Castle in Lifeboat. He's part of a team of volunteers aboard a Sea-Watch vessel who patrol the Mediterranean in search of migrants in distress. While Fitzgerald was filming, the volunteers rescued more than 3,000 people packed onto unsafe boats in imminent danger of sinking.
"One of my underlying principles and goals of making Lifeboat is to build empathy with those who are faced with such difficult choices that they're willing to risk their lives to cross an ocean rather than stay where they are," Fitzgerald told me when we sat down together recently at the Sundance Film Festival.
To his way of thinking, people everywhere are endowed with inalienable rights.
"I do believe that regardless of where you're born and what your nationality is and what your sexual orientation is or what your religion is that we all have certain rights as human beings," he states. "And those rights are enshrined in human rights law, the right to security, the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to privacy, the right to flee from war."
Lifeboat provides a face and a voice to some of those asylum seekers, allowing them to explain the conditions they fled. Nadine of Cameroon and Aisha of Côte d'Ivoire speak of large-scale human trafficking operations in Libya. They talk of beatings, rape and forced prostitution -- of women, girls and boys systematically victimized.
"I knew there were two options," Aisha says of her decision to flee, her words translated on screen. "Life or death (la vie ou la mort)."
There is a reason, of course, why these women from Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon, as well as a man from Algeria interviewed in Lifeboat, speak French. Their African countries were all colonial possessions of France. As for Italy, its colonies in Africa included the present-day Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia. It's evidently acceptable for those European countries to have subjugated their African neighbors (French colonial ambitions extended across the globe, and in the Middle East comprised Lebanon and Syria). But now when citizens of those former colonies try to reach Europe to escape conditions that France and Italy bear some responsibility for having created, they are rejected. The 'sovereign right' of European nations to determine their own ethnic and religious makeup are held as sacrosanct by some.
Fitzgerald's sensitivity to others in extreme need may owe something to his own background. He grew up in Eastern Oregon and as a teen moved with his family to a home without running water or electricity. His parents wanted Skye and his siblings to understand something about deprivation.
"That was my upbringing for better for worse, but I think it taught me a lot of things," Fitzgerald observes. "It taught me that you don't take things for granted -- hot water, a stove, to be able to drive from place to place without hiking. But also, an affinity for those who have less and I think it's driven most of my work since then, in some form or fashion."
The director's 2015 short film 50 Feet From Syria was shortlisted for the Academy Awards. It told the story of an Arab-American doctor who volunteered his services at the Syrian-Turkish border to help people wounded in Syria's civil war. 50 Feet From Syria and Lifeboat are part of what Fitzgerald dubs a "refugee trilogy."
"When the scale of the refugee crisis grew to what it currently is now, in the last decade really, I saw the numbers were so large, and the suffering was so great that I started to think about my (eight-year-old) son. And I started to think about what's he going to ask me when he's 12 and 16 and 18 about with this burgeoning crisis of so many IDPs -- internally displaced people -- and refugees," Fitzgerald explains. "When he asks me why we didn't do something, I want to at least say in my own very small, tiny way, I tried to do something. By building more empathy for those who have less than us. By trying to help us understand this problem in a different and hopefully more empathetic way."
Fitzgerald has settled on the subject matter for the third film in his trilogy, but says he's obliged for now to keep details under wraps.
"We've identified the story and we've identified the country and it's a delicate story to tell just like the first two were," he comments. "I can't really go public with where we'll be filming yet but it's a very similar story in the sense of the depth of suffering and I think the lack of outside eyes on that."
Since Fitzgerald finished filming Lifeboat in 2016 the situation for migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East has worsened, he says. A greater percentage are dying at sea, in part because of the growing reluctance of European governments to admit asylum seekers.
"I think of it as probably the greatest crisis that we're facing as a global community, and one that hasn't been properly addressed either from a moral or humanitarian standpoint," he asserts.
The Trump administration has proven deeply hostile to asylum seekers, whether at the Southern border with Mexico, or the Middle East and Africa -- official rhetoric notwithstanding.
"The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees," the U.S. State Department website declares. "The United States will continue to prioritize the admission of the most vulnerable refugees while upholding the safety and security of the American people."
In fact, the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and other countries has plummeted during the Trump presidency. "The United States admitted 22,491 refugees in the last fiscal year -- one of the lowest amounts on record," according to a CNN report.
Through his films, Fitzgerald will continue to make the case for a more compassionate response to those fleeing harsh conditions in their homelands, like the people in Lifeboat.
"I think there's a moral imperative that we do something, and I think it's the same thing with anyone who has made the choice to step onto a boat to try this crossing -- regardless of whether it's because they don't want to live on a dollar and a half a day with four children for the rest of their life because they see that as a really negative choice, or whether it's because they're fleeing persecution of some sort," he states. "I think the reasons are not as important as the fact that we need to respond in a humanitarian and moral fashion."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.