«The first issue that struck me was that of invisibility.»

For her documentary film The Remains – After the Odyssey, Nathalie Borgers proceeds from the statistics on refugees attempting to reach Europe and adds an individual, human dimension to the sober facts and figures. In her film, shot on Lesbos and in Vienna, she investigates the visible and invisible traces left by attempts to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing – on the coastlines, in the survivors and in those who provide what humanitarian help they can in exceptional circumstances.
About 30,000 people have met their deaths in the Mediterranean over the last 25 years while attempting to reach Europe, as you mention in the closing titles to The Remains – After the Odyssey.  Existences, families, life stories have vanished forever without leaving any trace. Was it your intention in The Remains – After the Odyssey to draw attention to the individual and very concrete aspects of people's disappearance, which is summarised in the media merely by numbers?
NATHALIE BORGERS: The first issue that struck me was that of invisibility; if you are dealing with an unidentified corpse, there's no way at all to inform his relatives of his death. So when that person disappears it means no identity, no story any more. I started my research in 2014, before the big wave of refugees began in 2015, and I met a woman on Lesbos, Efi Latsoudi, who had been working as a volunteer assisting refugees for many years. Even then refugees coming from Turkey were a major problem, although they weren’t arriving in the numbers that were seen a few years later. Shipwrecks presented the island and its inhabitants with situations that nobody was prepared for. During my research I became aware that although we hear numbers in the media we find upsetting, we tend not to give any thought to the individual destinies involved, to what misfortune like that means for the dead people, their relatives and the people who are confronted with it either professionally or simply because they live on the island.
You structure your film on two parallel narrative strands: one on Lesbos, and the other in Vienna. Which issues did you explore in each of these places?
NATHALIE BORGERS: One of my motives was, without any doubt, sheer admiration for the people who have taken the initiative to address the problem and try to help these people. An island like Lesbos is confronted with refugees arriving on a daily basis. For some, like members of the Coast Guard, it's part of the job, but many other people volunteer to help. I chose Lesbos as a destination because the "new" route, as it is called, brings many people through Lesbos. In the autumn of 2015 there was a bad shipwreck, and on my second research trip I discovered how difficult it had become to find people who were willing to talk to me. Data protection regulations have blocked access to important information, but the people whose work involved dealing with the refugees weren't prepared to talk on camera either. To identify the dead, which they did sometimes manage to do, would have been completely impossible if everybody had adhered strictly to the regulations. As a result, a lot of these people were not prepared to let anybody watch them work. And there's a new cemetery on Lesbos, but despite all my efforts, I was not permitted to film there. In my opinion, a lot of what is done unofficially there is kept secret. It would have been very interesting to show these things, but unfortunately nobody is prepared to go on record. My original aim was to show the human, social, logistic and legal challenges facing people who deal with the arriving refugees and those who have died on the way.
The difficulty you faced trying to capture the story also seems to reflect a situation that combines chaos with exaggerated regulation.
NATHALIE BORGERS: It reflects great fear, and the need to evade a lot of the regulations. A fisherman is really supposed to contact the Coast Guard rather than acting himself spontaneously. I wanted to depict a reality, to depict people who are trying to help others in a completely exceptional situation. Somebody who is trying to help isn't the heart of the problem, and it will never be his story. The perspective of the helper alone isn't enough. I'm concerned with people who died trying to escape; people who lost close relatives or have no idea where they are: we are dealing here with dead bodies who can't be identified and whose life stories are lost forever. When I finished my initial research on Lesbos in 2014 this subject hadn't been addressed at all. A year later, due to the huge numbers of refugees involved, suddenly all hell broke loose in terms of media coverage, and you couldn't get anybody to speak into a microphone – partly because there were too many journalists around, but also because it didn't help the people concerned to speak to the media. I also shot some research material in Turkey, and it was even harder there to find people who were working with the missing and the dead. That prompted me to try and get a perspective on the subject from the very heart of Europe instead of from its outer border. It was an incredible coincidence that the family I found in Vienna experienced a reunion between the father and the three sisters – who had survived a shipwreck – just a few days after we met. As a result of that special situation the members of the family also opened up to me. Otherwise that would have been much harder.
By telling the story of the Jamil family you were able to put concrete facts and faces to an individual family destiny. Were you able to predict the immense emotional force you would be confronted with? What challenges faced you in that situation? How important was the camera as a witness of the suffering, for those people involved?
NATHALIE BORGERS: When I decided I also needed a family for the film, it made sense to shoot in Vienna, because I would be able to react very spontaneously from here. The Missing Persons service of the Red Cross helped me a lot, and in comparison with other NGOs I encountered, especially on Lesbos, it wasn't at all complicated to deal with them. Farzat's family was amazingly generous, permitting us to be present during those incredibly emotional scenes. You can often see them fighting back the tears. Farzat himself was more composed, because at the time of the accident he was already in Austria, and as the only son he hadn't lost any children. Now, though he's the youngest man in the family, he has become the oldest, because he bears responsibility for everybody, and he is a fighter by nature. The camerawork itself predominantly involved being present but discreet. And of course you become overwhelmed by the emotions yourself. Finding the right distance was one huge challenge, and the other was to sense when it was time for us to leave the people to themselves. They would never have thrown us out. I can't really say exactly how important it was for Farzat's family to express themselves on camera, but I think Farzat, his father and his brother Imad certainly wanted people to know how the people-smugglers behaved, how lenient their punishments were even though 13 people had lost their lives, and how abandoned and helpless the family were in that situation – and still are. They clearly wanted to express their indignation about all this. It really does get under your skin when Farzat's father repeats intently: "There is no grave in the sea"!
At the beginning you use a quotation from Antigone by Sophocles. She is a character who disobeys her uncle the King by insisting that her brother should be given the fundamental human right of a burial. Antigone is convicted and loses her life, which brings about the downfall of the entire family. What was the thinking behind establishing this link?
NATHALIE BORGERS: The idea in Antigone which particularly appealed to me is that you can judge a society by the way it treats death. Antigone wants her brother to have a funeral, even though he fought against his family. I think there is a parallel here with people who, as illegal immigrants, break the laws of the society they try to enter, so nobody feels responsible for ensuring they get a decent burial. Most of them are completely normal people. That's one aspect. The other is how incredibly important it is for relatives to be able to bury the mortal remains of their loved ones. It also makes Farzat furious when he is forced to recognise that his brother and his father can't get over their grief and refuse to be comforted. And that breaks up the family. Everybody has to find his own way. Within the family people are not always in a good position to help, and help from outside is refused.
You were involved in filming material which must have been extremely emotional for you. After that experience, which finished over a year ago, how would you describe the "remains" that have stayed with you?
NATHALIE BORGERS: I can't forget Farzat's family, and I visit them regularly, even though we can't communicate very well on a purely linguistic level. One thing that has stayed with me is the constant awareness that I can't help enough. And the other is the realisation of just how tough these people are. I don't know whether I would be able to keep on going and fight in the same way. It's virtually impossible to learn a new language after going through such a severe trauma. Imad seems devastated by this experience, but Farzat – who has now become a father as well – is a tireless fighter. It's important to me that this film should not encourage a sensation of being powerless but instead should offer the opportunity to experience something, to participate in something, even though it's extremely sad. I want to keep in mind those few people who simply stick to their own ethics and go out there to help. Working on this film hasn't given me any clear answer to the question of immigration: how many people should be allowed to come and be accepted by the society here. But I want to reduce my approach to filmmaking to the purely human element. The people I encounter in my film represent the strength to carry on.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
March 2019

Translation: Charles Osborne
«Although we hear numbers in the media we find upsetting, we tend not to give any thought to the individual destinies involved, to what misfortune like that means for the dead people, their relatives and the people who are confronted with it either professionally or simply because they live on the island.»