Lifeboat – Directed by Skye Fitzgerald

The following article appeared in the April edition of the Happy Valley Monthly. Join Skye Fitzgerald for a screening and discussion of the film at the library on June 20 from 6:30-7:45 pm.

Filmmaker Swims Against the Current

‘Lifeboat,’ by Happy Valley filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, tells the story of refugees adrift at sea.

By SHELLEY McFARLAND
Pamplin Media Group

On Feb. 24, Skye Fitzgerald walked the red carpet at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to attend the most prestigious film ceremony in the nation — the Academy Awards.

Since 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized exceptional cinematic achievements voted upon by the academy’s members.

Happy Valley resident Fitzgerald, founder of production company Spin Film, attended the award ceremony as director and producer of “Lifeboat,” which was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.

The film is the second installation of a three-film series about the global refugee crisis. The first film in the series, “50 Feet from Syria,” chronicled one doctor and his efforts to help victims of war over a two-week period. It made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short in 2016.

In “Lifeboat,” Fitzgerald documents the efforts of German nonprofit Sea-Watch to rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. Leaving from the Libyan port city of Sabratha with no belongings, the migrants hope to reach Europe where aid groups are set up to assist with humanitarian support.

The list of dangers to the migrants is astounding: unseaworthy vessels, not enough or defective life vests, unreliable navigation equipment, overcrowded rafts and the perils of too many nautical miles to cover with little or no food and water, all in seas with roving pirates.

Moreover, the human traffickers who arrange the transport, at exorbitant costs, rarely accompany the boats to their destination. The migrants are told which way to go on a journey that, under the best circumstances, would take almost two days to reach the toe of Italy. Thousands of migrants have died from drowning and dehydration. Many end up miles from where they intended.

“The rafts are completely overloaded and designed to hold 30 to 60 people, yet they have 130 to 150 people on them; they are completely unseaworthy and many of them fail. So many of these attempts to cross the sea are met with tragedy and people die. And yet they continue to do it despite the knowledge that the risks are so high,” Fitzgerald said.

The leaders of Sea-Watch, based in Berlin, heard about the migrants’ plight and rallied their all-volunteer team to assist in the emergency. Sea Eye, a 30-foot-long boat captained by Jon Castle, roams the sea path most migrants take, hoping to rescue as many as possible.

“One of the great challenges for us, with the search-and-rescue mission, was we were only 16 people on the boat to help, and when you discover thousands of people floating in the middle of the ocean, obviously, you can’t get them all on the vessel because it’s only 100 feet long,” he said.” So, from a triage standpoint, you have to respond proactively in terms of how you are going to address a thousand people in the ocean in rafts with half of them without life vests and we had only 700 life vests on our vessel.”

During each situation they encountered, the crew would start a medical triage for each raft to see who needed the most urgent care, such as those suffering from exposure. Filming a live situation, Fitzgerald was faced with a complex decision: only observe, or offer assistance when needed.

“When we went, I thought we would be fly-on-the-wall observers. That was the most likely outcome in my mind because I’ve done observational documentaries in the past. There is a decades-long debate asking, ‘What is the role of the documentary filmmaker?’ Is it purely observation or is there a line in the sand where intervention is called for?” Fitzgerald said. “I fell into the idea I am only observing, and if I intervene, I’m altering the course of the story and that changes the story. But once we found ourselves out on the boat faced with moments where someone could drown and die, we did intervene.”

In the midst of the human tragedy unfolding around them, Fitzgerald and Kenny Allen, the director of photography, put down their cameras and helped pluck people out of the ocean. Ultimately, Fitzgerald said, it was what they had to do morally, and they were fine with their choices.

The subject matter of “Lifeboat” is relevant today with the worldwide attention given to asylum, immigration and refugees. Fitzgerald hoped he would find inspiration while documenting why people are fleeing their homelands and at what cost to them personally.

“I was hoping when I did this film that there would be a hope of optimism. That there would be people involved that, not only in the search-and-rescue operation, but in the asylum seekers that we came to know, that they would be inspiring.

Anytime you do a film like this, the reality is you’re in the middle of a genuine rescue operation. You have to film what you discover. You’re in the situation where the stakes are life or death,” he said. “What I discovered were people who, of their own volition, took time out of their professional lives to deal with a problem in the world that wasn’t being properly addressed.”

Fitzgerald goes on to explain the incredulity felt in 2016 by the Sea-Watch volunteers who were seeing people dying by the thousands while the world watched and governments were reluctant to intervene, if at all, despite available resources.

“The volunteers are there. It’s a dark story about people drowning because they are seeking asylum, and yet, there are everyday heroes who are saving them because they know it’s the right thing to do. For me, I hoped I would discover that inspiration, and we did,” he said. “For me, it was incredibly affirming; it affirmed my belief that any room I’m in, there’s a hero and they’re doing amazing things. We can all be one if we simply take the time to do what we think is right in life.”

Fitzgerald is drawn to documentary filmmaking because he is interested in the subjects. He has produced and directed films about brutal acid attacks and the victims’ search for justice in “Finding Face” or the perilous task of searching for unexploded ordnance in Cambodia in “Bombhunters.” Fitzgerald’s 2018 film, “101 Seconds,” touches close to home. It chronicles the contentious gun debate after the 2012 shooting at Clackamas Town Center that left two dead and one seriously wounded.

“I’ve always been drawn to stories that are pressing humanitarian problems that, perhaps, aren’t getting the full attention they deserve. The more mainstream media tends to take the easiest stories to tell in their news cycle,” Fitzgerald said. “I value the investigative journalist who can go into the world and spend the time to research an issue and in a way that it becomes accessible to the general public and we learn something from it. I’m a filmmaker, not a journalist, and I draw the distinction between the two, but the parallel between it in the filmmaking world is going out and finding those stories that are really important that we should be looking at and doing it justice by covering them with intent and love and all of the skill-sets I can bring to the story.”

Fitzgerald grew up in small-town Oregon outside of Monument. With only a population of 160, Fitzgerald said “there were only 50 kids in my high school.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater with a minor in creative writing from Eastern Oregon University and took a graduate teaching fellowship at the University of Oregon. Afterward, he completed a three-year graduate program at UO where he earned a master’s of fine arts degree in directing for the stage.

“I paid for college by my bootstraps; I was a wildland firefighter for about eight years. I was on the hotshot crew for a few years and helitack crew and even bumper crew and on lookout crews. That’s how I paid for my college,” Fitzgerald said.

For many years after graduate school, Fitzgerald contracted out his services as a videographer. It was during this time that he traveled the world and saw firsthand how people live and struggle under different conditions. In 2004, Fitzgerald started his own production company, Spin Film.

“Lifeboat” didn’t win the Oscar in February, but Fitzgerald was thankful for the recognition his film garnered.

“Just being recognized by the Academy, which is made up of very accomplished professionals and people I have looked up to in my field for so long, it’s an honor. And accepting that the work you’ve done has been seen as worthy by that body, the Academy, is an honor, and we were thrilled to be there. Achieving that level of recognition, we were pleased,” Fitzgerald said.

Now Fitzgerald is working on the last installment of his refugee trilogy. And another film, “Behind the Bullet,” premiered in January at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. For future projects, Fitzgerald will likely find a catalog of interesting subjects simply by interviewing people.

“It catalyzes me as a filmmaker that if you sit down for an hour, with almost anyone, there is an incredible story that will emerge. Everyone has incredible life experiences. There are people living quiet lives who are heroes all around us and, as a filmmaker, I try to find those stories,” he said.

Currently, “Lifeboat” is streaming live on The New Yorker website, newyorker.com, “101 Seconds” is available on Amazon Prime at amazon.com, and “50 Feet from Syria” is available on iTunes.

For more information, visit spinfilm.org.