Review: The Other Half
- Greek photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis delivers a personal, authentic and honest refugee documentary that puts a multitude of award-winning films to shame
After more than 15 years of the refugee crisis, we have seen dozens of documentaries dealing with this topic. Most have been made from the European angle, and a few by African or Middle Eastern filmmakers. But those that possess an authentic and completely honest perspective are few and far between, and one of them is The Other Half, made by Greek photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis. The film has just world-premiered in the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s International Competition.
Indeed, Moutafis is not a film director, and this is what allows his picture to be what it is: a personal account of 12 years of following the plight of refugees. Actually, it started even earlier. He tells us that the first time he was introduced to Kurdish refugees was in 1996, when he was serving in the Greek Navy in Patras. Back then, he didn't even know what Kurdistan was. And as a kid, he says, he hated foreigners. He didn't know why; that was just how everybody acted.
In 2006, he returned to Patras on a professional assignment and found a new generation of refugees: this time around, they were Afghans. In his voice-over, he explains how he started wondering who these people were, where they were coming from and why. His words are accompanied by the kind of footage we have already been numbed to, due to all the TV reports and documentaries we have seen over the years: dire conditions in camps, and people lost in the woods between Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, trudging on with determination, alternating with despair on the roads and railway tracks.
But as a photojournalist, he shot many other images, often of poor quality, with a shaky camera: people being saved from boats, traffickers being shot at by the coast guard, refugees being arrested by the police on the streets of Greek towns. This is high-tension material that kick-starts an adrenaline rush in the viewer, but it is nothing compared to the horror of dozens of corpses washing up on the beaches. The Red Cross, Greenpeace and NGO volunteers try to resuscitate young children as their families cry and wail. There’s a story about a baby washed up on a rock, which the emergency services refuse to come and get because it is hard to reach, so Moutafis and his colleagues scramble down to retrieve it, risking their lives. It is as heavy as a piece of marble, as the director says through tears.
When he speaks to Syrian refugees trying to cross the Evros river, or when he briefly interviews a young Pakistani man who seems to speak very good Greek near the Axios river, their eyes light up because here is a man genuinely interested in who they are, where they are coming from and what their hopes are. Not a border guard who interrogates them or a police officer who beats them up and takes away their possessions, not a TV journalist with a crew ticking off their three or four subjects for their daily report, and not a volunteer who, despite all their good will, has inevitably hardened to the multitude of cases. Just a man with his photo camera.
In the wider industry, this kind of harrowing material can actually be seen nowhere in the feature-length form that Moutafis has given the documentary. It is edited with urgency and undeniable emotion by Georgia Bempelou into a coherent 75 minutes. For TV news, this is too graphic. For most festivals, it is too lo-fi, perhaps not even considered "proper cinema", and kudos to the Thessaloniki programmers for putting it in the festival's main competition.
The Other Half is a Greek production staged by Moutafis himself, and it was supported by the Athens-based Incubator for Media Education and Development (iMEdD).
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