January 15, 2009

Archive-The 3rd Annual Tokyo Refugee Film Festival: 38 Ways to Show the World

(Originally posted on June 14, 2008) 
Hear the words “film festival”, and you imagine the film industry in all its hype, glitz, and excess. Amid bidding wars, hobnobbing stars, and endless paparazzi, films are unveiled with the hope of garnering critical acclaim and a distribution deal. 
Then there is that other type of film festival. Generally smaller in scale and more modest in its aspirations, there are no prizes to win or deals to score. The films are merely presented to the general public with the hope of shedding new light on the human experience. 
Without a doubt, the upcoming Refugee Film Festival (RFF), held from June 20 to June 27, belongs in the latter group. Created under the aegis of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Japan for UNHCR, the festival aims “to raise awareness of the plight and triumphs of the world’s 33 million refugees and internally displaced persons.”
Now in its third year in Tokyo, the festival began as a pilot project in Cambodia in 2005. Kirill Konin, artistic director of the RFF, says that while Japan is not particularly well-known for its film festivals, “UNHCR in Japan had a particular interest in the project because of its very unconventional nature.” Drawing attention to the country’s status as a significant donor to the UNHCR but reputation of accepting few refugees, Kirill explains, “Here there’s quite a lot of involvement of the government in the issues of refugees, but there’s not so much understanding in the general public.” The RFF was seen as a way of bridging the gap. 
This year’s 38 films were assembled through open submission and partnerships with film studios such as Sony Pictures. The result is an eclectic lineup that showcases both the relatively well-known (The Kite Runner, Standard Operating Procedure, War/Dance), and films previously unreleased in Japan. Says Konin, “If we hear about a film that was shown, let’s say, at Sundance or Berlin Film Festival, we have some representation at different events, so we try to target those films and bring them to Japan.” 
The selection process is understandably complex, “based on hearing about good films and seeing whether they would be shown in Japan or not.” This year’s opening film is War/Dance, a documentary set in Uganda that follows the kids of Patongo refugee camp as they compete in a music and dance competition. The film rode a wave of critical and audience appreciation from numerous film festivals before being nominated for Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Oscars. Konin notes, “We’ve been trying actually, to get the film for a year and we eventually succeeded in getting it.” 
In telling the stories, the films utilize genres such as the short film, the documentary, and the docudrama, adopting a multitude of perspectives that range from those experiencing refugee life, child soldiers, relief workers, and people starting a new life after forced migration. Kakuma Camp Films was made by refugee filmmakers in the Kenyan refugee camp, while Heart of Fire, about a girl soldier in the Eritrean War of Independence (between the Ethiopean government and Eritrean separatists), features refugee actors. The participation of refugees in the filmmaking process adds to the films’ immediacy. 
Films take place in areas such as Algeria and Bhutan, countries that receive less media coverage in Japan compared to, say, Iraq or Africa. Comments Konin, “If you’re looking at films like Refusnik (a documentary about Soviet Jews) or The Promised Land (about the stateless Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh), these are stories that are not usually getting media attention. But you know, the Iraq and various Africa stories, they are covered by the media but I think what is lacking in covering all the statistics and other things is (the) personal stories.”
For those who view cinema as escapist entertainment, the RFF may not be something they gravitate to naturally. In this sense, the film festival is both for “people who are curious to know more”, as Konin suggests, but also “people who don’t care about refugees.” Last year’s festival had over 7000 visitors, and the RFF’s success obviously hinges on the number of participants. But beyond that, for the festival to have any lasting influence, Konin says, there is a necessity for people to ask themselves what they can do. “Different people take different paths on that one. But we really hope people would become a little bit more engaged, not just in refugee issues but in things that are happening around them.”
The Refugee Film Festival is from June 20 to June 27. Admission is free. For more details, including venues, timetables, and synopses of films visit: http://www.refugeefilm.org/en/

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