The Greek feature-length documentary The Longest Run [Ο πιο μακρύς δρόμος] by Marianna Economou, on two underage irregular migrants detained as smugglers of irregular migrants in the prison of Volos, premieres in Greece at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Images of the World on Wednesday 16 March at 20.30 at the Olympion Theatre and on 18 March 2016 at 13.30 at the Stavros Tornes Theatre, Warehouse 1, Port. Dimitra Kouzi spoke with the documentary’s director, Marianna Economou.
The film began about two years ago, when Marianna came across the book At school I forget the prison by Prof. Kostas Magos, which features accounts by underage migrant prisoners from the storytelling workshop run by Prof. Kostas Magos at the Volos prison. “This book shocked me,” says Marianna Economou. “At the same time, it filled me with questions. How can it be possible for these kids, who are struggling to flee from their predicament in their countries of origin, to find themselves in prison, to be tried by a foreign court in a language they do not understand, and many of them to end up serving extremely long sentences of up to 25 years?”
The professor was the first person she met at the prison. “If you manage to get a filming permit, I’m in for the documentary,” this extraordinary teacher told her. Next stop was the prison director’s office. Marianna needed his permission, as well as permission from the Ministry of Justice, before she could film inside the prison. The Director was positive from the outset, since the film would publicise juvenile prisoners’ training. It took six long months to get the coveted filming permit from the Ministry – an authorisation that had never before or since been given, and this was only made possible by circumstances and people. There was “an extraordinary woman at the Ministry, Eftychia Katsigaraki, says the director, who had been involved with the issue of children’s victimization by irregular migrant traffickers; another contributing factor was that prisons were packed full of child migrants and refugees. The issue had begun to attract European attention; it had been brought up in Brussels.”
YET, HOW DO THESE CHILDREN GET IMPLICATED AND END UP IN PRISON?
“The borders have become harder to cross, especially in Evros because of the fence. Traffickers are organised in a pyramid: the head trafficker at the top and the local ones below. The last smuggler, the one to bring them into Greece, does not want to risk further. He is well aware that if he is caught, he faces prison for life. So what does he do? He brings the people to the border, finds an easy victim – a child or a minor – and blackmails them in different ways. He will say, ‘If you don’t get them across and come back to get the rest of them, we will go to your village and kill your mother.’ Or, ‘Do you see that woman and her child? I will drown them if you don’t go.’ That’s the kind of blackmailing techniques that they use. And of course the other thing they often use is to say, ‘If you take people across, you will not have to pay for your own passage.’ And so they convince these minors, who are in effect caught doing this job and are arrested by the Greek authorities. The Greek law is very strict: for each person trafficked, you get 10 years in prison.”
“I started filming during classes. That’s when I started to identify the most interesting stories and the children that were able to bear the weight of this film.” Jasim was the youngest; he was 17. He was totally lost and scared, unable to grasp what had happened and how he had found himself spending four months in prison waiting for trial. “He was just an inexperienced child,” remembers Marianna Economou. “He came from a small village in northern Iraq and found himself in Greece, a country that he did not even know existed; he thought he was going straight to Germany to his brother. Alsaleh from Syria had already been in prison for 14 months waiting for trial. He spoke Greek well, so he helped Jasim with the language. They also shared the same cell and became friends during their months in prison.”
VOICES ON THE OTHER END OF THE LINE, FROM ANOTHER WORLD
The film begins with children waiting in line to phone their parents. For Marianna Economou, this was the most shocking of all the scenes in prison. “I saw how anxiously they waited for their turn to phone and struggle to get through to Iraq or Syria. In the beginning, I did not understand a word; I only watched their eyes and expressions, and when I asked, they replied, ‘Our parents are in terrible condition. They are worse off than we are. They are in a war.’ It was the time when Kobani was being bombed, while Isis was beheading the Yazidis in northern Iraq, the ethnic group from which Jasim comes. His whole family had to flee into the mountains. I decided that these phone calls were decisive when I heard their parents’ voices on the other end of the line, from another world, speaking with such intensity, such despair, telling them about the war and at the same time asking them, ‘ Are you all right, my child? I love you! I cannot live when you are so far away from me. Take care of yourself!’ It was always a mother talking to her child. These kids have left a family behind; they are not just ‘irregular migrants’; they all had a mom and a dad who cared for them, who loved them. They could be our own children.”
The film achieved something unprecedented: it received a filming permit for the trial of one of the two characters before the court of Komotini, in northern Greece. “The legal and judicial framework for these minors in the courts of Greece is a huge issue. Very few children have legal representation. The court appoints a lawyer five minutes before the trial begins. Good interpreters are scarce,” says the director. “I felt that there is a serious human-rights issue. Social workers are doing their best to support these kids at prison, but it all stops there.”
The film began, like most films in Greece, with two funding applications: one to the state broadcaster, ERT, and one to the Greek Film Centre (EKK). Shortly after, ERT was closed down. When filming was completed, all you could do was to get in touch with foreign channels, funds, etc. As always, however, they came up against the question: “What funding have you already received from your own country, Greece?” Then came the first prize at Docs in Progress at the Thessaloniki Festival and participation in the co-production meetings of Dok Leipzig Festival, where the prevailing response was: “Go ahead; keep us informed, and we will see.” What tipped the scale was the fact that the refugee emergency had broken out and the issue was already in the news. Thus, the film had to come out and the story of these children ought to be heard. They went into editing, using their own funds, in order to submit the film to Leipzig. The film was indeed accepted by DOK Leipzig and premiered on 27 October 2015 in the International Competition for Long Documentary and Animated Film. It won two awards – the PRIZE OF THE UNITED SERVICES TRADE UNION VER.DI and the INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION LONG HONORARY MENTION.
The Longest Run has officially participated in the festivals:
DOCPOINT (Finland), TEMPO (Sweden), CROSSING EUROPE (Switzerland), ONE WORLD Prague (Czech Republic), and DOCSBARCELONA (Spain).
The film premieres in Greece at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2016, on 16 March 2016 at 20.30 at the Olympion Theatre and on 18 March 2016 at 13.30 at the Stavros Tornes Theatre, Warehouse 1, Port.
In Athens, the film will be screened by CineDoc on Friday 22 April at 20.30 at the French Institute (Institut français de Grèce à Athènes, Sina 31, Athens) and on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 April at Danaos Cinema.
“Leipzig was a revelation after all, adds Marianna Economou: It was a great vindication for us and, thanks mainly to the help of Sabine Lange and Madeleine Avramoussis, the film was acquired by ARTE and aired on 2 February 2016. Eventually, the Greek Film Centre also approved the proposal. This is not the way to do things, though. I hope this film opens up a path abroad for me. Yet, if the possibility for co-productions and international productions with ERT is not re-established, I don’ t know how things will be for documentaries in Greece.”
In the Volos prison for minors, Alsaleh from Syria and Jasim from Iraq are awaiting trial, facing heavy charges for irregular migrant trafficking. From inside the prison, they talk on the phone with their parents, who live under the terror of war and ISIS raids while struggling to save themselves. The Longest Run closely follows the story of the two friends in prison and in court, revealing how innocent underage refugees often fall victims of coercion by traffickers and serve heavy sentences in Greek prisons while traffickers continue to operate undisturbed. Alsaleh and Jasim know that if they are convicted, they face imprisonment for up to 25 years.
Interview translated into English by Dimitris Saltabassis