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The Island Bus
2013, 58m, documentary
15-year-old Saeed from Afghanistan took a boat in Izmir to come to Europe. Just off the Turkish coast, Saeed strands on a Greek island called Tilos. Fleeing a traumatic past, he is catapulted into a community with only 400 inhabitants - and one bus.
Saeed soon discovers that he is not the only one looking for a new home here. The passengers on THE ISLAND BUS come from over a dozen countries, and also have stories of dislocation to tell. This warm-hearted documentary adds an Aegean twist to the eternal question of how to be happy no matter what.
Produced by: Lindsay Goodall, Anja, Dehghan, Mike Dehghan
10 questions with The Island Bus director, Sibylle Meder at the half-way mark.
Saturday, May 7th, 2016
1Hi Sibylle! Thanks for being a part of our 2016 Spring Festival. First, how did you come to find the island of Tilos and what made you want to make a documentary about the people who live there? Thanks for having THE ISLAND BUS on Fandependent and this nice interview.
I have always travelled a lot in Greece and first visited Tilos in 2002. Then, I lived there for years. The idea about the film came about - not surprisingly - on a bus ride. I was watching what was going on around me, which was pretty similar to what you watch in the film, and it suddenly struck me:
Not only is this bus a microcosm of the island's society, but this tiny island and its people are a microcosm of present-day Greece and the world we live in.
It's all in there: the stories of migration, of hopes, economic despair and recovery, multiculturalism, a longing for a simpler, more meaningful life... All these topics you associate with the big cities of our times, they were all played out between row 1 and 8 of the island bus.
Since we first started filming, the story of the refugees - which back then you still had to explain to people outside Greece - has become especially poignant.
I feel like I watched the beginnings of what Greek citizens are now being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for, in action. It would be pretty hard not to want to make a film about that.
2So many of the characters on this island have troubled pasts, yet at the same time, many of them seem at peace with it. Were you surprised by this and how do you think they came to terms with their situation? This is one of the main themes I wanted to show in THE ISLAND BUS and I'm glad you noticed. Yes, I was surprised by it. It is hard to get your head around, logically. On the other hand, I had lived the "island magic" long enough to grasp what this is about.
It sounds like a cliché, but there is something about life in island Greece that just seems more human and therefor more satisfying and soothing than elsewhere. A lot of it has to do with the particular beauty and at the same time roughness of the nature. The climate. Which shape the nature of the people.
Of course, there is more to it than just sunshine, mountains and beaches and there are plenty of problems on Tilos, too. So how come people deal with this and find a balance?
It is a question I have pondered many times during the filming. I think it comes down to arithmetics: it is just the right size of society for this mix of people and stories to be contained and digested. It is still personal, everyone has a face and a name. If you try only a little bit, you really can get to know your neighbour and that makes it much easier to relate to their issues. In the end , it's the sense of community that helps.
3What was the biggest thing you learned from making this film? There are so many things I learned, like: asking for help and support - and then watch and be surprised how many amazingly talented and lovely people will come and join in if you truly want to do what you are doing, or finding the core of what you want to tell with your film - and then defend it with your life. Kind of.
But I guess the biggest thing I learned was that it is not just a saying, that making an independent film really means: make it in whatever way available to you and never give up - until it's finished. And that I could actually do that.
4This is your first feature film. How did you know you were ready to make your first feature? Good question - I have never thought about it like that. It was simply the way the film wanted to be made. Producer Lindsay Goodall asked me at the very beginning what length I thought it would be and the thought of it being a short film just seemed wrong. Or rather: the film I was already watching in my head was a feature documentary, not a short. It was an indie feature you would sit down to and relax and enjoy watching, at the pace of the island. As you see in the film, on Tilos things are not exactly hectic. An invitation to travel to this place and meet its people would have to follow the same easy pace.
And then having the film's scenes played out in front of me every time I travelled on the bus, before we even rolled camera for the first time, confirmed this: there is enough stuff in there for feature length.
5The true central character in this film is actually the bus. The bus ties all the individual stories together and makes the film a cohesive whole. When did you realize you could link all these individual stories together through the bus? It was the other way round: first of all, I wanted to make a film about the bus and its way of tying people's lives together. I loved how in the course of a half-hour ride, there where all these little dramas or comedies played out that related to deeper, more complex stories.
Trying to sell this idea to broadcasters and other financiers, we met with a lot of resistance. People didn't exactly jump at the idea of making a film about a bus. I think, they thought they would have to watch a technical report on mechanics. Which is wrong: that little bus carries a lot of emotions.
But that resistance - as frustrating as it was for us at the time - was good, cause it helped me shape the story. Yes, of course I wanted the characters to be in there. It was about their stories. But the bus is the means of meeting and getting to know them.
Fortunately, I had a wonderful producer in Lindsay who kept saying: "You know, I think, you should just make the film YOU want to make." She also kept pushing me to dig deeper why I wanted a certain person to be in the film. And then, midway through shooting the trailer, Saeed came along...
6Can you share a war story from the shoot? You mean the kind of tale where you shlep a camera and rig up a mountain covered in thorns at the crack of dawn for a 5 second shot? Or when you go snorkeling with an energetic teenager who makes you swim and dive along a rocky shore for 3 hours and in the end, sunburnt, you sit on a jellyfish and your whole leg turns into a Jackson Pollock inspired collection of red dots on even redder skin? Those moments happened.
But the most astonishing thing during the shoot for me was the scene at Menelaos's shed during the candle making. The very thing Saeed wanted so much was offered to him live in front of my camera. I couldn't believe my ears. It was totally out of the blue. We were there for some scenic shots - and suddenly the whole story became so much more important. Pure documentary gold. At the same time I knew what the outcome might be and I felt intensely protective of that boy to the point were I wasn't sure I wanted this to be in the film. In the end, everyone involved agreed the scene should be in. For me, this was one of the most intense moments during the shoot.
7You've shot a lot of films as well as this one. How important do you think cinematography is for a film and do you think it's easier or harder to wear multiple hats? For THE ISLAND BUS, this was the best option - if not our only one. With George Cameron Geddes, we had an amazing, award-winning cinematographer on board for some of the beauty shots. But he lives in Scotland. In fact, no cinematographer lives on Tilos. In order to film frequently, I often had to wear both heads. Which also helped with people easing up in front of the camera. They knew me. So the very intimate tone in certain scenes is due to the fact that it was just me with a camera.
I love cinematography. I know my limits, but I manage alright in some aspects. This film is partly about the beauty of this life, so I did my best for it to be beautiful, too.
Of course, the other really important aspect is the sound and the music. I was always aware of that. Sound designer Ali Murray who had to deal with a lot of sub-optimal conditions at least got that much acknowledgement from me.
I wouldn't favor cinematography over other aspects of cinema. I just happen to really like being behind a camera. For THE ISLAND BUS, I think filming a lot myself helped me get into that flow state where you select the story out of the everyday reality before you and shape it into a film
8What's the film that made you want to become a filmmaker? It wasn't one particular film. It was rather that I loved acting, in theatre, but realized at some point that in order to immerse myself into the whole story (not just one character) I would have to direct. And I loved photography and started with that as a teenager. In Greece, actually.
Apart from that, I watched a lot of films of very different genres, ages and styles from an early age on with my parents who were both enthusiastic cineasts. Films just seemed to be the most perfect thing to combine all of my passions. Took me a long time still to live up to that before I finally took the leap and made my first film.
9I love stories that deal with the topic of "home". Did you move around a lot as a kid? What drew you to this group of people all finding home in their own ways? Migration seems to be in my DNA. Even if I only moved house once while I was a kid and only within 5 kilometers of the first home. But none of my parents was from the place where I grew up, and they didn't feel it was their "home" town. My mum was a refugee kid in WWII, and her family had migrated to Estonia 300 years ago. It was always part of my family story - as I noticed after I finished the film. THE ISLAND BUS was filmed while I was making Greece my home. So in a way, it is my story, too.
In the end, I believe that home is a place within ourselves which we carry anywhere. It is a feeling of contentment and peace - but for it to be felt in a certain place, it has to resonate with that place and its people. Greece has always held this for me, long before I lived here.
It is a fascinating topic - and the question used to annoy me a lot when I still felt I hadn't found "home" yet, or people assumed I had to relate to a certain place as "home" just because I spent my childhood there. In a way "home" is also in children's books and the memories of friends. It isn't necessarily a place. To be honest, the more I think of it, the more I believe it is actually a feeling.
10What's next? A new documentary. Its working title is LABYRINTH after Musical Workshop Labyrinth, founded and directed by Ross Daly, in my new home Crete. The film is produced by Victoria Trzeciak of Tola Films. It is the "biopic" of a musical composition and explores the question whether the creation of a piece of music can create peace in the Middle East.
After THE ISLAND BUS, the topic of refugees - and more importably what causes people to flee their homes - didn't let me go. I wondered how as a filmmaker I could contribute anything meaningful. To stop people from becoming refugees, we have to stop the war. So how do we do that? Do we have ideas and images to refer to for that?
I looked for a topic that could deal with this challenge in an inspiring way that draws you in and makes you want to watch. I found it in Ross Daly’s Labyrinth where the shared culture of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East comes to life in various artistic collaborations. It is peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian, American and Afghani, Iranian and Turkish musicians in action.
The film is an attempt to delve into this shared culture that is more about life than war and terror.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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