Nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, Skye Fitzgerald’s Lifeboat spends a few days in the Mediterranean with Captain Jon Castle and the non-profit Sea-Watch, an organization providing search and rescue operations, all volunteer-run, for asylum seekers and refugees fleeing northern Africa. Lifeboat is the second film in a trilogy Fitzgerald has planned to address global refugee stories—the first, 50 Feet from Syria, followed surgeon Hisham Bismar to the Turkey-Syrian border to assist with victims fleeing the Syrian civil war—though Fitzgerald, who grew up in Eastern Oregon, is a person seemingly well removed from such catastrophes.
Last year he released 101 Seconds (available on Amazon Prime), which begins in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Clackamas Town Center shootings, detailing the burgeoning activism of the victims’ family members as they try to push common sense gun legislation through the Oregon State government, opposed at every turn by pro-gun groups, protesters and the tides of American culture. One begins to understand a theme Fitzgerald returns to again and again in his films, one of incremental change and slow process fostered by a small group of dedicated individuals against seemingly insurmountable odds. In many ways, this is the story of his own documentary, however trite that may seems compared to its subject matter. Lifeboat, self-financed and made around a volunteer crew’s personal schedules, is struggling against the Academy Award winning current of films supported by the likes of Netflix.
Calling from LA, where the director is embarking on his first Oscars blitz, he spoke to Paste about the crisis he experienced first-hand, as well the process of documentary filmmaking and just what it means to tell stories like this in a world that appears to be built against having such crucial, humane, empathetic conversations.
Skye Fitzgerald: We just dumped our bags because I’m getting my tuxedo fitted—this is what you do I guess.
Paste: Have you always felt like you were outside of the industry?
Fitzgerald: The non-fiction piece of the Academy…it’s not the largest branch, of course. Being a documentarian automatically places you at a lower tier in a lot of ways, despite the sort of recent wave of success the documentary has developed. But just being outside of the major production areas changes that dynamic too. I’m not in LA, I’m not in New York, I’m not in London, I’m not in San Francisco. But that was a conscious choice when I first entered the industry; I really wanted a certain quality of life, a quality of life that Oregon had to offer, but it does mean there are fewer colleagues doing the same kind of work, so you’re a little more disconnected from all the events and networking that would happen if you were in one of the larger hubs.
Paste: So then how did you get involved in documentary filmmaking in the first place, especially going to Eastern Oregon University? Maybe I’m mistaken in assuming they don’t have a large film program? I’m curious about the trajectory of your career.
Fitzgerald: I actually didn’t study film at all in undergraduate, I studied theater. So I have a Bachelor’s degree in theater and creative writing from Eastern Oregon. I loved their institution; they have a really robust and vibrant thespian program. I really learned the skills, the creative collaboration—I sort of started my career as a director there. I learned the joy of drama, how to crack the story with others there. Then I refined those skills when I went to the University of Oregon and got an MFA in directing for the stage. I didn’t really do film until after graduate school, really—well, more accurately, what happened is I stumbled into a television directing graduate level course, because I needed an elective one semester, and I fell in love with directing for the rectangle.
The first thing I did really of any note was right after I graduated I started as a PA on one of Kate Hudson’s first features. (Ed note: He’s talking about Ricochet River.) She was like 18 or 19 at the time. I eventually worked my way up to second unit director on that. So my first couple years I cut my teeth shooting travel videos and working on a couple features, another one out of Oregon. Then the real story is that those first two experiences left me not liking the part of working in fiction films where, unless you were the director, you didn’t really have that much control over creative output, and for me personally I was not happy with the ultimate creative outcome of those two films. So I actually quit for a while and taught high school for three years outside of Portland, teaching kids how to do video production and teaching drama—Gervais High, it’s down by Woodburn.
But if I was going to go back into [directing], I needed it to do it in a way that would work for me—and the answer was documentary. I felt like if I worked in non-fiction with much smaller teams, where I had absolute control over the story and what I was putting out into the world, then I’d be sure I’d be happy with it.
Paste: What drew you to, for lack of a better identifier, “social justice” or “human rights” documentaries?
Fitzgerald: I felt that the media focuses on the same stories and retells them over and over again. And often they’re the stories that are right in front of us. I’m not talking about the local news, right, that’s sort of their task. I’m talking about our American media, for example. When that happens I tend to think that keeps us very self-focused, as a country, as a nation, as individuals. In high school I lived abroad for a year, and that broadened my perspective, turned me into a global citizen not just an American citizen, psychologically at least. And then the first couple years of my career I shot a bunch of travel programs, and travelled to 15 countries or so filming, and that continued that broadening of my perspective pretty radically. During those experiences I saw that there were so many pressing and urging events happening in the world that if you just turned on your television set or read almost any paper in America outside The New York Times, you wouldn’t hear much about [them]—even in the Times you wouldn’t. And yet there were these incredible stories unfolding [all over the world] about wonderful things and human tragedy as well, and I felt that if I was going to be a documentarian I would try to tell stories that I felt were important, and also that maybe wouldn’t be told, or heard, in America.
Paste: So then, since you’ve finished shooting Lifeboat [at the end of 2016], the conversation, especially in America, toward immigration, and more specifically the growing refugee crisis, has shifted pretty drastically to the right. I want to get your overall read on that: How has it changed, and why?
Fitzgerald: I’m not a political scientist; I’m not a politician. Certainly the conversation has worsened in terms to its impact on asylum seekers. That’s obvious at our own southern border; as I said to a New Yorker journalist: When teargas is thrown at children who are legitimate asylum seekers, that’s a bad moment in history—in my book. Right? [nervous chuckle] In Europe it’s changed as well, because of the rise of the right-wing rhetoric fueled by the Steve Bannons and the Trumps of the world, and in the case of Italy, Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister who’s staunchly and aggressively anti-immigrant, and who has really exerted his power and authority in extreme ways, to try to stop any flow or either economic migrants or asylum seekers to have and enjoy asylum outside of their country of origin despite that it’s enshrined in International Law that they have that right.
I think that the current rhetoric of the moment has gotten much more extreme than it was two and a half, two years ago, and I think it’s a direct result of the rise of right wing nationalism.
Paste: I recently watched your documentary 101 Seconds, and toward the end of the film you give some time to how your interactions with the pro-gun side of things devolved into violence, to the point that you were being pretty widely harassed. Given that with your other work you are venturing into incredibly risky situations, I feel like a throughline to your films is this idea of fear. The people you talk to, especially those who stockpile arms anticipating the government or worse will invade their homes, are practically guided by fear, but moreso, how do you deal with that fear? Putting your life on the line to make these films?
Fitzgerald: It’s a very real thing that you have to think through and have thought through extensively. I have always believed that fear is fundamental piece of the human experience. To pretend that it’s a negative thing is I think foolish. It’s an emotion that we are meant to feel and experience as human beings, because it protects us—so my view has always been to be aware of it, and embrace it. You can’t pretend you’re not experiencing it. So I’m going to know it for what it is, and be OK with it. For me at least, that’s the only healthy way to move forward with that emotion. But since I don’t view it as a negative thing, it’s a tool. I don’t let it prevent me from engaging with or pursuing stories that I think are important just because they’re dangerous; in some ways it makes the story more important and more vital and more important to get out to a broader audience, if it is dangerous, because more than like it’s been covered less and less thoroughly. Fear gives me an extra momentum or impetus to tell that kind of story, because usually it hasn’t really been addressed on a deep level.
Paste: What is the difference between being a journalist and being a filmmaker? How do you negotiate those two ends of the spectrum?
Fitzgerald: It has been an evolution over time; I don’t think of myself as a journalist, is the clearest way I can state it. A journalist is hypothetically bound to tell multiple perspectives, “both sides of the story,” so to speak, to use the cliche. To do the Who, What, Where, When, Why. A journalist needs to sort of check those boxes, right? The job of a filmmaker is very different as I see it. My job is to tell a truth. I don’t feel bound to necessarily tell the other side of whatever that story is; it’s not a debate. I’m telling the experience of a group of volunteers who believe that people shouldn’t drown in the Mediterranean in 2016. I’m telling the stories and experiences of people who have suffered through torture and rape and degradation in modern day Europe. Their truths are undeniable. And the last thing I want to do is turn it into an overtly political dialogue. The more powerful thing I can do as a filmmaker is to tell these peoples’ truths so others can feel them in a visceral way, can experience them and hopefully feel more empathy for those who are choosing to take this horrible journey [across the Mediterranean] because they’re facing torture and rape and poverty on such a horrible scale that they’d rather risk their lives than stay where they are.
Paste: Is it difficult as a documentarian, then, to witness something and to not “help” with it, to become involved with it?
Fitzgerald: Frederick Wiseman spoke at this great documentary conference called Getting Real, a biennial conference for the global documentary community, and he was one of the guest speakers—he’s a legend, right, he’s certainly a legend to me. He spoke about [finding] that line within your role as a documenter of an event. Can it be called into question by the urgency of a crisis? Wiseman’s response, he showed this clip of some police officers basically threatening a prostitute, they were kinda slapping her around, beating her, and Wiseman didn’t intervene. Just filmed it. And the last thing I would do is question Frederick Wiseman’s choice or justification for it, but I have to say that I made a different choice. Because I guess the line that I was faced with was: Is it worth filming that event if it meant someone was going to die because you didn’t put your camera down? That was a very real choice we were faced with. Because people were drowning, and every had was needed. Despite this idea that you are there only to document, when a moment occurs when you are filming something vs. not filming it will result in someone living or dying, I’m going to put my camera down. And that’s what we did.
That was a conversation that came up even before we went on the boat. Because space is at such a premium on these search and rescue vessels, some of the hardest work that I had was actually talking our way onto the boat and gaining the trust of the search and rescue operators. We had to satisfy their understanding that if we were in a life or death situation, we would act first and foremost as human beings, and second as filmmakers. Wiseman would maybe have a different tact than that, but that’s the path we took and we’re completely at peace with it.
Someone watching your documentary, who is affected by that feeling of empathy, what would you say if they were to then ask, “What can I do now?”
Fitzgerald: The easy, low-hanging fruit of an answer is: Donate to organizations like Sea-Watch. All the current political opposition they’re receiving—and it’s stiff; they’re really struggling under far-right nationalism throughout Europe: They had a boat that had 40-something asylum seekers that was held at sea for a couple weeks until very recently. And as soon as the found a port of call finally to disembark the asylum seekers, they’re being held in port by the authorities and charged with all these fallacious charges. They really need all the support they can get.
My sort of 30,000-foot view on this is that we’re going to look back on this moment in history and really regret some of the political rhetoric and some of the ways that bonafide asylum seekers were treated not only at our own southern border, but also in Europe. Someone doesn’t leave their country of origin and risk their life with their child unless there was a legitimate reason. I think we need to get back to documents that were created post-World-War-II because we had this horrific global tragedy where so many people died and there were so many IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees that we needed to create a set of principles by which most nations act so that we don’t have this horrible treatment of refugees again. That was Leopold’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we were following those principles right now, then each discrete asylum seeker case would have a chance to be vetted through UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] right now after they cross the Mediterranean, and that’s not happening right now.
So back to your question: I think we need to exert political pressure on all of our leaders. I think we need to speak out against any time that a genuine asylum seeker is not allowed to seek and enjoy asylum, which they’re given under the Declaration of Human Rights. I think each of us needs to look in the mirror, and ask, “Do I believe this is something that is wrong? What can I do?” Because each of us have a different skill set, a different sphere of influence. And each of needs to leverage that so we can get back to a place where people treat each other properly.
...there were just people on the Sea-Watch boat we were on who were just regular people. I’m just a regular person with a camera. But I choose to intervene in my own small way. And every person on the boat was doing the same thing. Even Jon Castle, who arguably was one of the best-trained and prepared mariners that you could possibly find to do this kind of work, he didn’t think of himself in that was necessarily. He just thought of himself as another human being who saw something in our modern day that was absolutely against his principles of how he wanted to live his life. People were drowning; the resources were there to prevent that. There’s something to be done. What he had to offer were his skills as a mariner. So he went and volunteered as a ship’s captain. We all have something to offer; if you just look—maybe all you have to offer is maybe you’re going to be a cook on that hypothetical boat. Whatever it is you believe in, if you listen to your heart, as Jon says, there’s a way to make a difference.
Paste: Again, watching 101 Seconds, Paul [Kemp, the brother-in-law of one of the victims at Clackamas Town Center, and gun safety activist] says something along the lines of “I don’t understand how anyone can witness 20 kids being murdered and not be outraged.” Pessimistically, and based on personal experience, I feel like simply presenting the “other side” with facts is futile today. You are much closer to the people who are affected, to these events. How do you approach such pessimism?
Fitzgerald: Do I think my work is going to dramatically change the course of history? Hell no. But do I hope and think it makes small incremental changes in my sphere of influence, my circle of people I touch with my films? Absolutely.
Right after we premiered 50 Feet from Syria in Canada, I got an email from a woman who’d been at the premiere, and she told me she was so moved by the film that she formed a group in Toronto sponsoring three families from Syria, refugees, to immigrate to Canada. I read that email, and printed it out, and put it on my wall. All the effort that I put into that film was worth it. Because three families from Syria were able to enjoy asylum in Canada. All that work was worth it because it affected those three families positively.
At the premiere in Telluride, for Lifeboat, right after we finished we did a Q&A, and somebody in the audience told me that he’s a doctor, he saw 50 Feet from Syria when it premiered at Telluride, and he was so moved he volunteered with SAMS [Syrian American Medical Society Foundation], as a surgeon after he saw my film. Now, I’m not so full of myself to think I’m going to do anything like change history, but it is affecting person by person, and if that person acts, then I’m happy with that.
Paste: That comes through in so many ways in your films: This really is about the individual.
Fitzgerald: How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece, right? I can’t change the face of immigration, but I can certainly change some people minds, engage more people to engage with the issue. With Lifeboat, I got an email just a week ago, and there’s a great effort in Germany where the biggest ad agency in Germany has taken on a campaign to support Sea-Watch because they believe in what they’re doing, and because Sea-Watch has labored under such strong political opposition. They’re gonna do this experiment, and they reached out to me to ask if they could use the name “Lifeboat.” They’re going to film it next month, and what they’re going to do is take 100 German volunteers—all very white—and put them in a raft, just like the raft you see in Lifeboat, and put them in an enormous wavepool, and have them experience what it’s like to be on the sea for an extended period of time—what the sensations are, what it does to your body, and then they’re going to do these post interviews, and wrap it up in a massive ad campaign shown throughout Germany. They feel like the next key thing that needs to happen, because how rhetoric and the view of asylum seekers has changed in Europe, they need to put a different face on the crisis. They need to force people to understand how they would feel in this situation. They’re hoping to build empathy.
You can watch Lifeboat on the New Yorker’s site, or on YouTube. We very much recommend you do.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.