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Walking on fire water: how a whisky maker put its brand to work for refugees

Walking on fire water: how a whisky maker put its brand to work for refugees

Who best to try to change the narrative around Syrian refugees? A new film by a Sundance-winning director to raise donations for the international NGO Mercy Corps has been funded not by a traditional media organisation – but a well-known whisky maker.

Johnnie Walker, part of consumer giant Diageo commissioned Talal Derki, best known for his award-winning feature documentary Return To Homs, to make a film about the island of Lesvos, which last year helped around half a million refugees making the dangerous voyage across the Aegean Sea.

Some of the islanders (who are featured in the film) were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their actions. These included fishermen Stratis Valamios and Thanassis Marmarinos, and 85-year-old Aimilia Kamvisi.

The film Ode to Lesvos has had 31m views since its launch last month, according to Johnnie Walker, and Mercy Corps says the film has raised almost £1,500 for the charity so far. From my conversations with Johnnie Walker, Mercy Corps and director Talal Derki, the message all three want to push is that the film is a way of repositioning the story of the refugee crisis that has dominated the news agenda over the past year.

“My point of view was as a Syrian refugee and exile,” says Derki. “For me, I wanted to do the story in a positive way to show it as inspiration … This is a work about finding out who can change things around themselves.”

The subtitled four-and-a-half minute film, which features several islanders speaking about their experiences in rescuing refugees and which includes dramatic pictures of piles of abandoned lifejackets, is resolutely upbeat and beautifully shot. You can view it below:

For Selena Victor, director of Policy & Advocacy at Mercy Corps, the message was key:

There is so much rhetoric that is anti-refugees, anti-outsiders about closing borders and political debate. But when people come face to face with refugees, it’s not the case. From our perspective it is really interesting that this film harnesses the goodwill people show in life and death situations. We wanted to challenge the media portrayal that sees refugees as either those drowning, or generating a dangerous security threat.

Unlike in his previous documentary, Derki made a conscious choice in Ode to Lesvos to focus on the Greek islanders, rather than the refugees who were helped: “I wanted it to be about the Greeks and their experience and their reaction.” This, says Guy Escolme, global brand director for Johnnie Walker, fitted well with their new Storyline programme which works with writers, directors and photographers to create “inspiring stories of positivity and progress”.

So far, Storyline has released a film about a post-war art project in Colombia, plus a perhaps more typical one about an Edinburgh-based whisky blender travelling to New York with a limited edition rye blend. Says Escolme:

We’ve always sought to tell inspiring stories of the human spirit. The Keep Walking campaign is really about people doing extraordinary things … And we wanted to tell the story of how the Lesvos residents responded to a crisis in front of them and we thought they would inspire other people … We hope people are inspired to reflect what it would take to be a better person, and also as a call to action, people can go ahead and make a donation.

Diageo and Johnny Walker have involved themselves in other humanitarian campaigns.

Some may feel uneasy that an NGO should be working in such close contact with a company that’s primary aim is to sell alcohol. Victor, however, is adamant that Mercy Corps, which has a long relationship with Diageo, has no ethical problems with this:

We partner with enormous range of people at Mercy Corps – civil society, local NGOs private sector, think tanks, everyone has something to contribute. Of course, we had a conversation about it and we respect everyone’s position on how they feel about alcohol but this was a really positive film brought to us by a company we had worked with and respected in the past and it was just such a good and important way to get the message out.


Donations can be made here: www.mercycorps.org/johnniewalker