model and activist lily cole on her refugee crisis documentary, 'light in dark places'

Led by Lily Cole, 'Light in Dark Places' is a one-off documentary focusing on Samos – the Greek island at the center of the refugee crisis.

by Matthew Whitehouse
01 March 2017, 1:05pm

Lily Cole didn't set out to make a documentary. Arriving on Samos late last year, the model-turned-activist simply wanted to visit the Greek island for herself, understand the situation firsthand, and figure out what she might be able to do to help. She thought she'd take a camera because, you never know, she might find an interesting story.

Samos, of course, has become one of the center points of the ongoing refugee crisis. Closer to Turkey than it is the Greek mainland, the island is an important crossing from East to the West. What Lily found, in fact, was a remarkable number of stories: from the refugees themselves to the volunteers attempting to help them. Here, we talk to the former i-D cover star about the process of documenting those stories, and the awareness she hopes to raise in one-off documentary Light in Dark Places.

What makes Samos so significant?
For me, it's a microcosm. We honed in on one place, but it's not singular. It's happening in several other places such as Lesbos and Kos and some of the other islands that are very close to Turkey too. It's quite surprising when you actually look at a map. I wasn't aware until the trip, just how close those islands are to the Turkish mainland. Much closer than they are, for example, than to Athens or the Greek mainland. And therefore it's this kind of interesting nexus point between the East and West — where the kind of Christian territories end and the Muslim territories begin — exemplified by a refugee crisis where there's been this line, I guess, that people have crossed over trying to get to reach Europe.

What were your initial reasons for making the film?
We weren't even sure we were going to make a film. I'd had a baby at the time that the crisis was kind of at its peak in the media and I was really, like many people, disturbed by what I was seeing happening in the news. But didn't feel like I was really able to engage in any physical capacity. Because I was having a baby, I couldn't make a trip or get involved as much as I might have otherwise liked to. And so what happened last year was, I got to a point where I was in a position in which I could think about traveling and leaving my baby for a few days and the situation hadn't gotten any better. There were so many different mixed messages in the media about immigrants and migrants that I think I really wanted to better understand for myself what was happening. I asked a friend of mine who had been volunteering in Samos on and off over the last two years, if he could help organize a trip that we could go on to see it. And I thought I'd take camera because, you never know, we might find an interesting story while we're there. And we did find lots of interesting stories and met lots of interesting people and remarkably, had enough material from a relatively short trip to make the film that you've seen.

How prepared were you for what you saw?
I came back feeling deeply demoralized and, I guess, really affected by it. I think what struck me most is how little Europe has done and how weak the political reaction has been to what's happening. It's quite baffling. In the camp that we were in, I think it's 37% children. So lots of kids there. Lots of families. And they're just living in conditions that I would pray me and my family never have to live in. And I think that's really striking when you're in Europe. It's is one of the richest regions in the world and is considered one of the most advanced political systems, so how have we not managed to deal better with the situation? It kind of raised a lot of questions for me, which is why when I came back I reached out to a few different experts and people who'd know a lot more than I do about what's going on. To try and learn, basically, to try to get different perspectives and to try to understand why it is as it is.

Who should be taking ownership of the problem?
It's a very good question. I mean, unfortunately there's not a silver bullet answer. I'd say there's a lot of finger pointing. One organization will blame the government. You have to feel sorry for the Greek government, who've been through economic and political crises and who, by and large, have sent messages that they've been left alone to deal with the problem.

Institutional failures. I mean, the reason why the grassroots response has been so important and so amazing is not only the humanity of it, but also the agility that it has. Grassroots people and organizations can respond really immediately to the direct needs of what's happening and what's going on. Whereas, you know, a lot of kind of bureaucratic organizations, a lot of the time, have red tape that makes it more difficult to operate or respond quickly to something that's changing in a very rapid way. One of the most interesting interviews that I did was with somebody who works at the Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick, and I was kind of asking him about the cause of it. He said, "everyone's finger pointing, I don't like to finger point. It's a collective failure on lots of parts." But we've also got to recognize that there is a growing political trend, globally right now, towards what he calls "containment," away from an open policy to refugees. The biggest refugee camp in the world in Kenya is now being shut down. Apparently refugees in Pakistan are being sent back to Afghanistan. So you're seeing this trend reverberate globally. Which makes it all the more troubling when you think of the reality for people who are trying to escape conflict.

With that in mind, how much truth is there in the statement by the volunteer in the film who says that the situation is not only political, but that the conditions are deliberately poor so as to discourage others?
I mean, interestingly, that's something that almost every single person that I interviewed said to me. At one point in the edit, we included quotes from nearly everyone we interviewed saying that same thing, just because I found it shocking the first time I heard it from the volunteer and as more and more experts said it, it rang true even more. What Patrick Kingsley said when I interviewed him was it would be too much to say that there was an active plan of deterrence there. What definitely is happening, however, is that there's a lack of political will to fix the problem. Which is almost the same thing. If there was enough political will to solve this problem, we would be capable of doing so.

What's the single biggest issue facing those in the camp?
What struck me were the kind of practical failures. So the fact it was unbelievably cold. The fact that there was no security. The fact that the kid were just running around in the street. The food's pretty awful. Someone sent a pictures through of maggots in it one day. A year ago apparently it was very different. The refugees would arrive there and spend a few days at a time waiting to be processed before they were sent on the Athens or other parts of Europe. But since the EU deal with Turkey, they're all being held in what are otherwise detention centers. So I think what comes with that, from what I can see, is a real hopelessness that they're there indefinitely. It's one thing putting up with bad conditions when you're there a week or a few days, it's another when it's indefinite.

What can people do to help?
On a practical level, we're connecting the film to a fundraiser. So we've partnered with Help Refugees and they will be giving money directly to Samos and some of the people and organizations connected. Probably my primary motivation with making and sharing the film however is awareness. Which is a subtle thing. You can't really have a success metric for that. But I feel like our political decisions mirror our public consciousness and unfortunately the conversations around refugees and what has happened have been polarizing. I think just trying to raise awareness of what's really happening, with the hope of having a drop in the ocean of compassion for thinking about and dealing with the situation.

VICE and Help Refugees are coming together to support refugees across Europe in 2017 Their first joint venture will raise funds for Samos, in collaboration with weareone: collective and Lily Cole. More information is available here.


Text Matthew Whitehouse

refugee crisis
lily cole
light in dark places