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Movie Review: Samos on Fire - Songs in Asylum

The short film “Samos on Fire – Songs in Asylum” directed by Fareid Atta and produced by Cameron Brown, follows four young men with a passion for music living in the Vathy-camp on the Greek island of Samos during Atta’s nine-month stay in 2020-2021. Following its screening during Refugee Week (June 2022) in Cambridge, the documentary was shown across Europe and won international awards

Making Music in a Camp

Director Fareid Atta narrates the movie, introducing the viewers to each of the movie’s protagonists and providing some insight into his own experiences during his stay on the island. When spotlighting each of the four musicians, Atta does not linger on their backstories for long. After a brief summary of Yorro’s, Ezekiel’s, Emile’s, and Bozan’s main reasons for leaving their homes and embarking on a journey that eventually led them to Vathy, each man is filmed talking mainly about his personal relationship to music.

After all, this is the central theme of the short film. As Atta explains during the opening shots, it is about ‘people who have used music to make the most of a desperate situation’. Nevertheless, the filmmaker does not fail to remind his viewers that during the summer of 2015 alone, thousands of migrants passed to the island from the Turkish coast, which is about 2 kilometres east from Samos at the closest point. Using an estimation by UNHCR, he further emphasises that approximately one million displaced persons arrived in Europe in 2015. The numbers of people trapped in overcrowded camps remains high until today, and the struggles they faced did not decrease over the next years. In 2020, after moving to Samos to work as an Arabic translator, Atta chose to dedicate eighteen minutes to capturing the lives of four men from Africa and the Middle East who stood out to him because of their strong ‘ambition to make every day a little better than their last’ and to retain a connection to their home through their music.

Creating Community Amidst Disasters and Uncertainty

The outcome is a moving short film, which creates strong emotions, without resorting to clichés. Instead, the emotional impact swells slowly, and overcomes the viewer organically – in the same vein that music does. As for the music itself, Atta manages to use it to accompany many of his shots, but also to centre them. In the last third of the movie, the director explains in his voice-over narration that he witnessed many emergency situations during his time on the island: storms, earthquakes and two devastating fires destroyed large parts of the so-called ‘jungle’ of the camp, displacing over a thousand people. Additionally, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic naturally hit residents of the Vathy-camp harder than most other communities in Europe. The scenes of raging flames and the sounds of agonising screams do not last for long, however, as Atta chooses to move on rather quickly with a shot of two children playing guitar – ‘life goes on’, he observes. And the movie goes on too, as this was only a segway into the final four minutes of the film, which can be described as the most climactic.

During the last part of Samos on Fire, Atta films what he calls ‘a final performance, the gathering of musicians’ for a friend who is leaving the camp at the end of January 2021. Among the colourful make-shift tents, plastic chairs are being placed in a circle on the charred ground, and performers are setting up various instruments. For the next three minutes, there is no voice-over by Atta, only short clips of the protagonists are inserted into the sound of music which otherwise takes over. ‘It’s so wonderful’, Yorro says, ‘to see all these types of different countries’, as he reflects on how long the camp-residents, who are all from different backgrounds, have known each other, and how they come together through music. Ezekiel performs his rap song live, and a small crowd gathers around a young girl who sings along to the rhythms and melodies.

A Hopeful Yet Truthful Ending

Samos on Fire – Songs in Asylum is not a sad film, neither is it happy. It is a film about overcoming extreme adversities through music and community, and despite being less than twenty minutes long, it manages to be a three-dimensional depiction of every-day life in one of Europe’s most overcrowded refugee camps, during a time of multiple accumulating crises. Not least does the movie’s honesty come out during its very last shot, when the filmmakers inform viewers about each of the protagonist’s place of residence as of 2022. While all of them have left Vathy, none of them were able to leave Greece, yet. Emile and Bozan lived in other camps: Ritsona, which is approximately 70 kilometres from Athens, and Granitis, located 20 kilometres south of the Bulgarian border. Ezekiel had moved to Athens, however, and was due to start working on Greek islands over the summer of 2022. Yorro also relocated to Athens in May 2021, and was being paid for drumming four days a week.

Despite closing with mixed emotions – relief about the positive changes that occurred for Ezekiel and Yorro, agony about the fate of Bozan and Emile – a feeling of hopefulness lingers after the movie has ended. Viewers have witnessed the optimism and ambition these four men upheld during times of extreme distress and living under disastrous conditions, and how they prevailed through their strong love for music. This is exactly what Atta intended, as he views this documentary ‘as an attempt to show the positive side of the refugee experience’, and the ‘hopeful attitude individuals brought with them’. The director shared in interviews that he aims to be a part of positive political impact through this movie, by changing people’s perceptions of refugee-migrants in the EU and UK, and depicting their impressive resilience.

You can watch the full documentary here.

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