Aspen Shortsfest: In Eyes of Exodus,’ a tiny Greek island offers a window into the Syrian refugee crisis |

Aspen Shortsfest: In Eyes of Exodus,’ a tiny Greek island offers a window into the Syrian refugee crisis

"Eyes of Exodus" will screen during Saturday's 2:30 p.m. Aspen Shortsfest program at the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Eyes of Exodus’ at Aspen Shortsfest, Program Eight

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Saturday, April 8, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;" target="_blank">class="Hyperlink">

More info: The program will include eight short films. It will be followed by a filmmaker Q&A including ‘Eyes of Exodus’ director Alexandra Liveris. ‘Eyes of Exodus’ will also play in Sunday’s 5 p.m. program at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.

The baffling and heart-wrenching tragedy of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis gets a compassionate, intimate portrait in “Eyes of Exodus.” The short documentary by director Alexandra Liveris turns its sensitive lens on the idyllic and isolated Greek island Kastellorizo as hundreds of Syrian refugees arrive on its shores daily in late 2015.

The film won a Special Jury Award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in March and will have its U.S. premiere today at Aspen Shortsfest.

The 28-minute “Eyes of Exodus” offers a moving portrait of the refugees, along with the stark contrast between those who welcome them and those who shun them on this tiny island with a population of 300. At times twice that many refugees were arriving daily. Helping them fell largely on the good will of locals.

“Kastellorizo, I was hoping, could be a microcosm of what was going on at-large in Europe,” Liveris said. “Hopefully the film can be an entry point.”

In its brief running time, the film offers a host of perspectives — we meet Damien and Monika, shopkeepers who lead efforts to house and feed the Syrians. We see the viewpoint of refugees like Layla, who are running for their lives and leaping into the unknown. We hear from the Coast Guard, who process the asylum-seekers. And we get a sense of the emotional toll of the crisis on all impacted. As this week’s chemical attack made clear, the stakes could not be higher for Syrians in search of a peaceful new home.

“My purpose in telling this story was to humanize the experience,” Liveris said. “It’s not to parse out ‘this is the Syrian experience’ and ‘this is the Greek experience,’ but to try to find a common place in both stories.”

Some islanders reject the Syrians arriving on their shores. A brief scene of a man yelling “Go away!” at a one-legged refugee starkly portrays the fear-based, anti-refugee reaction of many in Greece and around the world (on Kastellorizo it culminated in a calloused act of terrorism against the volunteers).

Liveris, a New York-based filmmaker, found her subject by accident in Kastellorizo. Her grandfather is from the island, and she regularly visits family there. She’d seen the flow of migrants through the island as early as 2014. When she went to a family wedding there in the spring of 2015, the number of refugees had swelled.

After a few days, she knew she had to pick up a camera and share this story with the world. Liveris found a movie crew that was on the island filming a commercial for a local hotel and enlisted them to help her capture some preliminary footage and interviews.

Liveris returned in the fall, when refugees outnumbered the local population two-to-one, for a nine-day shoot, during which she captured most of what’s in the film.

In recent years, short documentaries have responded quickly and nimbly to events in Syria and to their global impact. “Eyes of Exodus” is the latest of several insightful short documentaries on the war and crisis — “The White Helmets,” “4.1 Miles” and “Watani: My Homeland” among them. Liveris chose not to polemicize or to tackle geopolitics in her film — it doesn’t delve into the regime of Bashar al-Assad or the varied international responses to the flow of refugees. She keeps her focus on this picturesque island and she tells a human story about the people on it.

“The film isn’t meant to polarize,” she explained. “My main goal is to get people to a neutral place. … To get to a place where people can see one another and feel connected with one another.”

As the film begins its festival run, Liveris and executive producer Christos Konstantakopoulos are exploring the possibility of adapting “Eyes of Exodus” into a narrative feature. She is also at work on a documentary about contemporary artists in Saudi Arabia, including some of those from last summer’s phenomenal “Gonzo Arabia” exhibition at Aspen’s Gonzo Gallery.

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