In Daphne Matziaraki’s documentary short, 4.1 Miles, she several times breaks the fourth wall, as her arm stretches out in front of the camera’s view, to grasp an outstretched hand or a rope. These instances are not born simply out of artistic choice, but rather grave necessity, as life and death bob against the ocean currents surrounding the Greek island of Lesbos.
The anguish of survival is constantly present in 4.1 Miles, whether explicitly in scenes of boats nearly capsizing with Syrian refugees on board, or in vague traces on the face of a beleaguered coast guard captain daily tasked with saving these lives. The documentary—the thesis film of Matziaraki, who graduated in spring of 2016 from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism—brings us to face-to-face with the sobering perils of the Syrian refugee crisis. Her powerful work has been shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Matziaraki returned to her home country of Greece in the fall of 2015 and spent three weeks with a coast guard captain and his team, filming daily rescues of displaced emigrants crossing the roughly 4.1-mile distance between Turkey and Lesbos
“I was continuously reading about people arriving in terrible conditions, and I was reading stories about the refugees,” Matziaraki says. “Despite the coverage that was so overwhelming, I really kind of felt a really big distance between us—here in a safe place as the United States is—and these people. … So I really felt the need to go and kind of witness.”
There was no way to prepare for what she saw, but the same was true for the captain she shadowed. Since the crisis began, Greece’s coast guard has been ill-equipped for the sudden waves of refugees desperately crossing the ocean in search of a safe haven in Europe. In Lesbos, many of the coast guard officers didn’t even have CPR training.
“I’ve been a journalist and I’ve covered various emergencies…But I’ve never, ever seen or witnessed anything like that in my life.”
“I found that these people in the Greek coast guard are not doctors. They are not volunteers that go there to help in emergencies,” Matziaraki says. “They’re just really common people caught in a huge crisis, and their lives have completely changed.”
The captain—suddenly thrust from low-risk border patrols to countless missions dealing in fatality—can serve as a kind of mirror, Matziaraki hopes, in which we must confront our own preconceptions. While the refugee crisis is often reflexively considered in detached political rhetoric by those of us far away, she presents plainly the stark reality that those like the captain heroically choose to face.
“I’ve been a journalist and I’ve covered various emergencies,” she says. “But I’ve never, ever seen or witnessed anything like that in my life. I’ve never been in war, and I had never seen people coming from war. Those were people coming from war, and you can really see it in their eyes.”
This visceral nature of Matziaraki’s footage—the desperate cries for lost family members, a young boy being revived, the utter chaos of refugees frantically reaching for stable ground—makes 4.1 Miles an unflinching record of the current humanitarian crisis. The timely film no doubt deserves its spot on the esteemed Oscars shortlist.
Upon hearing of the recognition, Matziaraki was “completely thrilled and honored.” Because it was her thesis film, she qualified for consideration by first winning the top documentary prize at the Student Academy Awards in August.
Matziaraki’s film is joined on the shortlist by her own instructor and advisor on 4.1 Miles, Dan Krauss. Krauss, a J-school alum as well as lecturer, made the cut with his film, Extremis. Krauss previously earned an Oscar nomination for his own J-school thesis film, The Death of Kevin Carter, in 2004, so this is a kind of passing of the torch. The tag-team recognition seems to be further confirmation to Matziaraki of the J-school documentary department’s status as the best in the world.
In January, Matziaraki will hear whether she made the official nomination cut, but any spotlight matters most of all to her for its potential to expand public consciousness of the refugee crisis. She hopes 4.1 Miles can alter the way we understand the ongoing tragedies taking place in places such as the coast of Lesbos, which she notes is but one outgrowth of the humanitarian emergency as a whole.
“We seem to kind of forget when there’s this political conversation about refugees. And especially now in the United States, immigrants are a very big political issue,” Matziaraki says.
“When the conversation happens, I feel what’s missing is the reality of the situation. These are real people and what’s happening to them is very real. And it’s very tragic, and it’s very traumatic. It’s something that I don’t think anyone would wish for their children.”