Filmmaker documents Huntington Beach lifeguards’ group as it aids imperiled Syrian refugees

Devyn Bisson, a Huntington Beach lifeguard-turned-documentary filmmaker, chronicled the efforts of the International Surf and Lifesaving Assn. to aid Syrian refugees traveling to Greece by boat.
(Scott Smeltzer | Daily Pilot)

Devyn Bisson had only been in Greece for six hours when the boat arrived.

The Huntington Beach documentary filmmaker had traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos to record a group of lifeguards in their efforts to prevent drowning deaths among Syrian refugees making the perilous journey to Europe.

She didn’t have to wait long to start filming.

When the boat reached the Molyvos Beach, Bisson saw about 200 people, mostly pregnant women and children, crammed onboard, on the verge of hypothermia after being in a waterlogged vessel for nine hours in the middle of winter.


“It was really hard to watch,” she said. “It looked like a bunch of walking dead people — they were so cold and so drained.

“I’ve never cried while filming something. But this was just a speechless kind of moment. It was the first time I had to stop filming and collect myself.”

The moment would become the centerpiece of her new film, “Lighthouse Molyvos,” which will premiere in May at the Lido Theater in Newport Beach.

Bisson, 24, grew up in Huntington Beach, where she surfed and worked as a lifeguard. Although she never dreamed of becoming a Hollywood director, filmmaking was always in the back of her mind — because of surfing.


“The whole sport revolves around film, because no one can watch our sport otherwise,” she said. “You can go to an arena and see what’s going on right there, but for surfing, the whole way we communicate the trials and tribulations of catching waves is from film.”

She entered Chapman University’s documentary filmmaking program and started traveling internationally to make short films. In 2015, she completed her first feature-length film, “The Wave I Ride,” about female big-wave surfers.

“I have a ton of adrenaline and I’m really addicted to the power of storytelling,” Bisson said. “I’m always looking for the next place where I can say something bold. I don’t make films because there’s an opportunity in front of me. I’m pretty stubborn about the topics, so I wait for that passion to pull at me.”

“Lighthouse Molyvos” became that passion.

In late 2015, Bisson heard that in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis — months after the photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy found drowned on a beach in Turkey shook the world — lifeguards with the International Surf and Lifesaving Assn. were massing in Greece to help boats arrive safely to shore.

She immediately knew this story would become her next project.

“This was the first time that to my knowledge lifeguards were at the front lines of a worldwide crisis,” she said.

So in January 2016, she traveled to Greece with ISLA — a group founded in 2008 by Huntington Beach lifeguards to provide lifeguard training and equipment donations around the world — to document the arrival of boats carrying Syrian refugees to Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea less than 10 miles from Turkey.


Even though it’s a short distance to travel, the boats being used made the trip dangerous.

“The boats are highly unstable, extremely dangerous, with no backup or anything if there’s a breech or pop or anything,” said Olin Patterson, co-founder and director of ISLA. “And they’d fill these boats up with people [to] well over capacity.”

As a result, what should be a two- or three-hour trip could take up to 10 hours. And even if the boat did make it across the sea — many did not — the refugees still weren’t in the clear.

“A big issue was the really dangerous, rocky coastline with swell, waves and currents,” Patterson said. “Boats would oftentimes come in at night, full speed, with way too many people on board, nobody knowing how to swim, and they would crash.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that in 2016 alone more than 2,500 refugees drowned while trying to flee to Europe.

The main scene in Bisson’s film shows the small, waterlogged boat packed with the couple of hundred people crash-landing onto shore. But one of the most powerful shots in the film, she said, is what she calls the “lifejacket graveyard” — a valley of 800,000 orange lifejackets that refugees wore while crossing the sea.

As Patterson explained, these vests are not flotation devices but cheap imitations stuffed with packing material like Styrofoam. Tests have proved them worthless, he said.

“They wrapped these life vests around rocks and threw them overboard,” he explained. “And there’s two to three minutes before water gets into the nooks and crannies of the packaging, and the life vests make you sink even more than if you weren’t wearing one.”


Now that the issue of Syrian refugees has become even more politicized, Bisson discovered that her own understanding of her film had evolved.

“Before, my go-to line was that I really loved that this film was made through the point of view of the lifeguards, because it’s nonpolitical,” she said. “If you’re drowning, we’re lifeguards. We’re not here to look at what your political background is, what your religion is. We’re just going to rescue you.”

But today she has a much different opinion.

“Of course my film is political. Of course it’s about love, culture, society and race, because that’s what being human is,” she added. “The reason I make films is because I want people to look deeper.

“And I don’t think that the level of storytelling our society is engaging with is at all parallel with our human capacity to love and give. And until those things match, we’re not going to be truly engaging with each other.”

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.