A coast guard captain on a remote Greek island is charged with the saving thousands of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea during the European migrant crisis.

“4.1 Miles” is a 2016 short documentary film directed by Daphne Matziaraki and is nominated for Documentary (Short Subject) for Oscars 2017.

“4.1 Miles” is part of the Emmy-winning New York Times Op-Docs series of short documentaries.

Filmmaker Matziaraki won in 2016 the Documentary Gold Medal at the 2016 Student Academy Awards. Born and raised in Athens Greece, she has lived and worked as a filmmaker and journalist in Europe, Africa, and the United States. She has a Master’s in documentary filmmaking from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Bristol, UK. She is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A note from the director

When I returned home to Greece last fall to make a film about the refugee crisis, I discovered a situation I had never imagined possible. The turquoise sea that surrounds the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, just 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast, is these days a deadly gauntlet, choked with terrified adults and small children on flimsy, dangerous boats. I had never seen people escaping war before, and neither had the island’s residents. I couldn’t believe there was no support for these families to escape whatever conflict had caused them to flee safely. The scene was haunting.

Regardless of the hardship Greeks have endured from the financial crisis, for a long time my home country has been a peaceful, safe and easy place to live. But now Greece is facing a new crisis, one that threatens to undo years of stability, as we struggle to absorb the thousands of desperate migrants who pour across our borders every day. A peak of nearly 5,000 entered Greece each day last year, mainly fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.

The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.

Suddenly, the crew was charged with keeping the small bit of water they patrolled from becoming a mass grave. Each day, thousands of refugees crossed the water on tiny, dangerous inflatable rafts. Most of the passengers, sometimes including whoever was operating the boat, had never seen the sea. Often a motor would stall, and passengers would be stranded for hours, floating tenuously on a cold, volatile sea. Or the bottom of a dinghy would only tear away, and all the passengers would be cast into the water. The coast guard felt completely abandoned, they told me, as if the world had left them to handle a massive humanitarian crisis — or allow thousands to drown offshore.

I followed a coast guard captain for three weeks as he pulled family after family, child after child, from the ocean and saved their lives. All the ones in this film were shot on a single day, October 28, 2015. Two additional rescues happened that same day but were not included.

The problem is far from over. Many of the refugees come from Syria, where Russia is intensifying bombings that are killing thousands of civilians and devastating Syrian cities. The United States is planning to respond. According to the Greek Coast Guard, thousands of families with children are lining up along Turkish shores to make the unsafe crossing to Greece.

In making this film, I was struck by the fine lines that separate us, the moments when our paths cross fleetingly, and we look at one another for the first time and sometimes for the last. This film shows that crucial moment between life and death, where regardless of political beliefs, fears or preparation, some people will go beyond themselves to save a stranger.

And it raises questions about our collective responsibility — the choices we all make for ourselves, and for others. We don’t all confront the refugee crisis with the same immediacy as the coast guard captain portrayed here. But as our world becomes more interconnected and more violent, we do all face a choice — would we act as he does, to save the life of a stranger? Or would we turn away?

About the captain

Kyriakos Papadopoulos is a 41-year-old local coast guard captain. He has two young daughters 15-year-old Vivi and 6-year-old Melissa. Before the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2014, his job involved routine border patrols on the island of Lesbos. He, like the rest of the crew, doesn’t have CPR training, and such rescues were by no means part of his job. Even though the coast guard boats on the island are not equipped with thermal cameras or other instruments to deal with such emergencies, and are tiny in size, captain Papadopoulos often disobeys central orders and goes out, to rescue people when a call is received, putting his life at risk.

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, captain Papadopoulos has saved thousands of lives.