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Interviews

January 2017

What would you say to a refugee?

We are bombarded with media reports and political rhetoric on the influx of refugees in Europe. Naturally, our opinions on the matter crystallise before we have even met a refugee. But what would happen if we were to have a face-to-face conversation with somebody facing displacement? Take away labels and instead meet Rashad, Hasan, or Birvan. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim speaks to the makers of the film ‘The Island of All Together’ which makes a heart-wrenching case in point for talking with, not about, each other.

‘The Island of All Together’ is the latest collaboration between documentary photographer Marieke van der Velden and advertising agency owner Philip Brink. The 22-minute film brings strangers together to have a simple conversation on a humble bench, just as happens all around the world on any given day. Only this particular bench is on the island of Lesbos – a famous tourist destination which, in 2015, also saw 350,000 refugees arrive by way of rubber boat.

© Marieke van der Velden
© Marieke van der Velden

Rashad and Otis meet for the first time and have a conversation together on a bench in Lesbos, Greece. Rashad (51) is a baker, a father of three and a refugee from Damascus, Syria. Otis (19) is a student at a nautical school in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and a tourist. After his vacation in Greece, Otis emailed the makers of 'The Island of All Together' to say: "Thanks for the beautiful experience, I will never forget this, it has hit me hard."

Philip shares: “A lot of people are angry or scared of refugees coming here but they’ve never talked with a refugee. We saw in the process of making this project what half an hour of conversation can do. For everybody it was a life changer, for them and for us as well.”

A creative partnership

Since first picking up a 35-euro analogue camera in her small village in southern Holland, Marieke has photographed the world over. In fact, she has been abroad on assignment for NGOs over 45 times. While accustomed to following an NGO’s focus, with time, Marieke began to see coverage for non-profits as “one-dimensional” and felt the pull towards subtler stories. Her partner Philip lives on the other side of the fence. Philip has been a creative for agencies for over ten years, driving international commercials for brands like Heineken. In 2013, Philip left Wieden + Kennedy – a major agency with 1,100 employees – to start his own agency ‘this that + the other’ with a desire to be closer to the creative process.

‘The Island of All Together’ is the realisation of Marieke and Philip’s shared affirmation. In 2011, the duo vowed to create one project a year together sans client. Philips shares: “We have the idea that a lot of things are left out: everything that’s in the middle. Everything that’s not extreme – for example in advertising, everything that’s not extremely beautiful or, in news, everything that’s not extremely hard. The everyday kind of stuff when ‘nothing’ is happening. It feels like that is not important but it’s very important to get a more complete image of the world. So that feeling for us is why we started doing these projects and diving into these subjects.”

© Marieke van der Velden
© Marieke van der Velden

In addition to filming ‘The Island of all Together’, Marieke van der Velden also took portraits of all participants after their half an hour conversation together.

Having worked on a few projects together by now, the couple recognise their common thread as “connecting people”. When it comes to concept creation and execution, both creators cite the other’s distinct take on storytelling as pushing their work to the next level.

Philip explains: “Normally what happens is Marieke is like ‘OK, we have to do something’ and then I’m like ‘OK, but what are we going to do then?’ She’s the one who pushes us to really go somewhere. So she had the idea that something is happening on the Greek islands and we have to make a project about it but we didn’t know what yet. And that’s my role. I’m always asking why and what and how. Marieke sometimes gets a bit annoyed saying: 'I don’t know let’s just make it!' and then I say 'No, we don’t just make it. We come up with a great plan and then we go do it.' And that’s why it works so well I think.”

Marieke agrees. “We [documentarians] are always busy with the content but they [advertising professionals] are very strong in thinking: how can you communicate this story? All the concepts are because Philip is always saying what is the specific idea behind this and I hate it but it really pushes me further.”

Thinking big, working small

‘The Island of All Together’ was created with just a four-person crew and a 12,000-euro budget: a two-day location search, a six-day shoot and three months editing. Having reached a certain stature in their professional lives, Philip and Marieke are used to certain luxuries (e.g. drivers, producers) which are not afforded to them in personal projects. Upon arriving in Lesbos, Marieke, Philip, sound engineer Bob and translator Reem had ten days to do everything themselves.

© Marieke van der Velden
© Marieke van der Velden

'The Island of All Together' was filmed with a small four-person crew including: Sound Engineer Bob (left), Translater Reem (left, centre), Filmmaker Marieke van der Velden (centre, right) and Filmmaker Philip Brink (right).

But first things first – they had to find participants. Grabbing wandering tourists on the streets or in their hotel and approaching refugees who were waiting in a parking lot for a bus to take them to the registration centre... it wasn’t an easy ticket. “I was the one who did the “casting”. So I was running after tourists saying: ‘Hello, we’re doing a project!’ In the beginning it was difficult because people thought, is this a school project or something? But then when we did it once we made a photo of the film set and we said, ‘It looks like this...with three cameras.’ Then people became more interested and in the end we had a list of people who wanted to participate,” explains Marieke.

The set was simple because of budgeting reasons but it also made for a welcome incognito setting. “We had three DSLRs so it looked kind of small which was actually really good that we didn’t bring too many people and that we had a small set. And they gave great images,” shares Philip.

Philip operated two cameras, while Marieke focused a third camera on close-up shots and also took photographs. “We had three EOS 5D Mark IIIs with a 70-200mm lens and a 50mm fixed lens and we had one EOS 5D Mark II as a back-up. I can imagine that if you really want to make films then Canon’s digital cinema cameras are easier because with the Mark III you can’t walk around so much, but for doing interviews and for making fixed film shots it’s beautiful,” shares Marieke.

One for all and all for one

Back at home in Amsterdam, the editing crunch began. To keep production costs low, Philip edited 18 hours of footage himself; editing before work, after hours and every weekend for a solid three months. He did ask for help where needed. Once a week, Philip would visit a professional video editor who gave him “homework” to consider.

“This is the most pure form of creativity which I really like. It’s so nice to be hands-on and be at home and show Marieke. I would edit a part, show it to her and she started crying or she had to laugh and I thought: ‘this is a good part’. Or she said ‘I don’t really get it’ then I’ll start over again. It’s a beautiful way of working. And with modern equipment you can do it yourself. If you have just a few cameras and a computer and then you can make a film,” Philip confirms.

© Marieke van der Velden
© Marieke van der Velden

‘The Island of All Together’ was filmed with three EOS 5D Mark III’s. Philip and Marieke were happy to have a small set to not intimidate participants or draw unwanted attention.

When debating distribution channels, the duo decided to meet an Impact Producer for lunch. But he failed to calculate that the film is not for sale or for festival recognition and so they quickly dismissed his advice. Marieke and Philip’s aim is for everyone with an Internet connection to be able to watch ‘The Island of All Together’. As such, they made the full film available online from day one and also handed it free of charge to teachers who want to organise a ‘bench afternoon’ to get their students talking with ‘an other’.

In terms of accessibility, ‘The Island of All Together’ is effective enough to soften the hardest of hearts. Still, the creative team is always looking to improve and Marieke drew some important lessons from the experience. She says: “Next time, if we do a film, we’ll do: one and half minutes, four minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes and 45 minutes. Because we found out television is a fixed 45-minute block and on the Internet sometimes 22 minutes is too long. For our next project, we want to give a lot of layers for people to choose from. So I’m the three-minute viewer or I’m the 45-minute viewer – they are different people.”

So what is next for this magnetic couple? Marieke says, “Philip always says if you can’t explain it in three sentences then your idea is not good enough. At this moment we are researching a new project and I wrote five pages of ideas but I still don’t have it. But I know it’s just one click and then you know. It’s frustrating but we have to do it like this because it’s the only way I can work now.”

Biography: Marieke van der Velden and Philip Brink

Marieke van der Velden and Philip Brink

Marieke van der Velden and Philip Brink have been working in the documentary and advertising industries respectively for over ten years. Marieke van der Velden photographs projects and campaigns for NGO’s such as UNICEF, CARE International and Aids Fonds in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Philip Brink created viral campaigns and commercials in major agencies for the likes of brands like Heineken, and has since started his own agency ‘this that + the other’. Together, they produce one personal project every year.



Showcase

Husam (24) and Selma (24) pose for a portrait after their conversation on a bench in Lesbos, Greece.