The documentary 4.1 Miles opens to a bright, sunny day on the Aegean Sea. It’s October 28, 2015, and for a moment the setting is beautiful: blue sky, blue water, horizon tilting in and out of view. Then you hear the screams. A gloved hand reaches out of frame and returns pulling a young boy to safety aboard a coast-guard boat. Then the captain spins around with a baby girl in his arms. “Put the camera down,” he says to the person behind the lens. “Take this.”
Just over four miles from Turkey, the Greek island of Lesbos has been on the front lines of the global refugee crisis. Since January 2014, more than 1.5 million people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, with many fleeing the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and oppressive regimes and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Upwards of 12,000 have died or gone missing along the way, but many of those who’ve survived the short but treacherous journey have landed on Lesbos, which received more than 500,000 migrants in 2015 alone.
Daphne Matziaraki’s 20-minute Oscar-nominated film 4.1 Miles follows Greek Coast Guard Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos as he and a small crew on Lesbos head out to sea again and again to pluck desperate men, women, and children from the swells. Before thousands of Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis started setting out in boats in the hopes of finding refuge in Europe, Papadopoulos spent his days making routine patrols. But the film finds the captain thrust into the role of professional savior without any additional training or equipment—an average citizen trying to deal with a humanitarian disaster.