Winding up at a refugee camp means you’ve been through the toughest possible situations to get there. Often a scary, bleak place to be, Phoenix’s director Lukas Tielke was determined to create a positive spin on this story, telling one of determination, grit and ultimately using his short film to raise awareness of the situation that many face.
Set at the Malakasa refugee camp in Athens, Lukas and the team ventured in without filming permits and no idea of the story they would end up telling. What they came out with was the story of Sohalia, Zahra, Zeinab and Bahra, four girls who are using boxing as a way to train and achieve their dreams of becoming professional fighters. The inspirational Afghan women shared their ambition to spread a message of equality and give themselves a fighting chance for the future.
Telling us about sneaking footage out, escaping during a guard change and the incredible hospitality of everyone at the camp, director Lukas Tielke speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani.
LBB> How did you initially hear about these girls and what made you want to share their stories?
Lukas> We reached out to several organisations in Greece. Estelle and Nina from Yoga & Sports With Refugees came back to us. They understood our vision and approach from the beginning, as we wanted to focus on a positive success story, rather than showing people suffering and being hopeless. The energy and commitment from the girls were a huge inspiration from the beginning on. But honestly, before really meeting them in person we were nervous about everything coming together. It was more like booking flights and seeing what happens. After spending half a day with these incredible girls, we knew the story had a lot of potential.
LBB> We get an incredible sense of determination from the piece. What was it like spending a week at the Malakasa camp and what was your biggest takeaway?
Lukas> We never had permits to shoot inside the camp. So, we snuck in with our camera stuff hidden in random bags and pockets. Everybody was really stressed and nervous. On the last day, the police and security searched for us, as we hid in Sohailas container. If found, they would force us to delete all the cards and worst-case, keep the cameras. So we showed them stuff we didn’t need, which we were happy to delete and put the actual cards in our socks. Everything went well. The girls carried everything out and we snuck out during the security change.
The people in the camp are the nicest humans on earth. They have nothing and give you everything. Everybody is very friendly and wants to connect with you, they spend weeks, months and even years waiting on a decision there, so they are super happy to interact with new people. Even if you have seen it in the media, being there in person gives you so much more gratitude for the privilege we have in life. Things that are normal for us are pure luxury in those circumstances and we should be mindful to remember this every now and then.
LBB> You include an interview and also capture the stories through visual storytelling. Why was it important to hear from Sohalia’s perspective and have her largely narrate the piece?
Lukas> I’ve watched plenty of documentaries about the camps before and they all are very important, but I wanted to focus on something more positive. Humans are very social creatures, so sometimes it is the little personal story and experience which makes you change your perspective. The audience connects to Sohaila and is part of her journey, through all ups and downs. It was important to me that the film shows the energy and power of all girls.
LBB> You showcase the juxtaposition between the happiness the girls now feel and also the circumstances that brought them to the refugee camp in Athens. Which techniques (audio/visual) did you use to convey this emotion?
Lukas> There are parts in the film which feel like a music video. Strong aesthetic visuals with an impactful score. Those parts, in my opinion, make a huge difference because it creates a strong emotion and contrasts with Sohaila´s narration in a much stronger way. Documentaries can also be cinematic when you include parts that feel real and approachable.
LBB> The tempo changes a few times to aid the storytelling within the video. Can you talk us through how and where you decided to slow down and speed up the pace?
Lukas> I love the mix between fast cuts with energetic compositions and those long shots with field sound. I think the speed mix supports the intense journey the girls went through. They’ve gone through a lot of trauma in their young lives and I wanted to give each of their voices a place in the film. The long takes are where I believe this was conveyed in the best possible way. The girls’ passion and expression of feeling are their sports. It gives them control over the chaos around them. The fast parts in the film show that power and energy.
LBB> The piece feels very cohesive and the post-production process would have been where it came together. Did you face any challenges when it came to editing and finalising it?
Lukas> The editing process made me nervous. The story and the footage are so strong and there were hundreds of ways to stitch it together. We were afraid to choose the wrong one but we managed to find a good way to get closer day by day. Moritz Staub and his team from Staub Audio composed the music and after seeing the first draft with the music and sound design, I knew we did everything right.
LBB> At the end, we saw that Sohalia was granted refugee in Germany. Do you have any further updates on Zahra, Zeinab and Bahra?
Lukas> Bahra is Sohaila's Sister and with her in Germany now. We hosted a premiere of the film in Düsseldorf to raise money and awareness. Estelle and Nina from Yoga & Sports With Refugees came over from Greece and we chose to do it on the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It was unbelievable to have Sohaila and Bahra with us on that evening and listen to what they had to say. So many coincidences came together to make it possible.
Zahara and Zeinab are still waiting in the camp. It can be a long process and we’re hoping they can move on soon.
LBB> Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lukas> We would be really happy if you can share the film and help to raise more awareness of the whole topic. Everybody worked for free on that film. I want to thank Marvin Kühner for editing the film, Moritz Staub and Karin Pallier for that beautiful music. Johnny Thorpe and Glassworks for the stunning colours. Philipp Romppel, Steve Marais and Niklas Lemburg, who went with me to Greece and did some beautiful analogue and digital pictures.