Last month, a heartbreaking photograph of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s dead body washing up on the shore of Turkey was published by media outlets worldwide. He had fled his home in war-torn Syria with his mother, brother and father. Only his father survived the journey.
Alan was just one of thousands of refugees who have died trying to escape conflict zones. Europe is said to be facing its worst refugee crisis since World War II, and around the globe there are currently 59.5 million forcibly displaced people including 19.5 million refugees and 1.8 million asylum seekers.
To give people in Japan a closer look at the harsh reality that these refugees are facing, the Japan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is hosting its 10th Refugee Film Festival from Friday in Tokyo, Sapporo and Sendai.
Michael Lindenbauer, the UNHCR representative in Japan, notes that when the festival began in 2006, the number of people who were forcibly displaced was around 40 million and says he never imagined it would become 60 million in just a decade.
“I believe that movies are a very good way to get people interested in issues that are not at the forefront of public debate or interest,” Lindenbauer says. “As I see it, our films have a very strong impact on the viewers and really help them to understand the issues involved. And only through knowledge and awareness, do people open their hearts and provide support.”
To commemorate the 10th edition of the festival 10 films will be screened, including “Young Syrian Lenses,” a documentary that introduces media activists in the Syrian city of Aleppo who have dedicated their lives to fighting against the civil war with cameras instead of guns. The documentary, codirected by Italian filmmakers Ruben Lagattolla and Filippo Biagianti, depicts the daily lives of the residents who are in constant fear of so-called barrel bombs used by the Syrian Air Force. The bombs are filled with explosives and sharp objects to maximize the number of fatalities.
Lagattolla first heard of these media activists at an exhibition held in Italy by photographer Enea Discepoli. When he heard that Discepoli was returning to Aleppo, Lagattolla jumped at the chance to follow him.
However, the situation in Aleppo was getting worse. Bombings had increased significantly and the venue that Discepoli was planning to hold an exhibition at was destroyed the week before. So instead, Lagattolla worked alongside the young Syrian media activists, running to bomb sites immediately after they were dropped and capturing the violence on film.
“The feeling was of constant fear,” Lagattolla says, recalling that he witnessed the bombs right in front of him on the day he arrived in Syria. “I saw (many) burned bodies … it was the first time I had such an experience, and I realized how equal we are and how the burned corpses on the ground could have been me.”
Lagattolla stayed in Aleppo between April 30 and May 9, 2014. He then returned to Italy where he sought help from filmmaker Biagianti in turning the video footage into a documentary film.
From the beginning, the two directors focused on trying to keep the editing minimal in order to tell the story from a participative observer’s point of view. Biagianti says they wanted to “let the images speak for themselves.”
“Our goal … was to show how life resists, forcing people to survive under the most difficult and terrible situations, in a city besieged and bombed at any time of day or night,” Biagianti says. “A bomb that falls not only affects the target, it kills people.”
Another film related to Syria at this year’s Refugee Film Festival is Saori Fujii’s “Loving Our Home, Syria, Forever.” The documentary is based on interviews with Syrians who have fled their homes for other countries. In addition to examining the hardships Syrian refugees have been through, the film also focuses on the country’s beauty and its rich culture and history.
“The Syria that I knew was about war, violence and conflict, but that image changed completely” after talking to the refugees, Fujii says. “I wanted to change the image harbored by Japanese people that Syria equals terror and show them its beauty instead.”
Fujii originally had been interested in visiting Jordan to talk to Syrian refugees and wound up joining a Japan-based nongovernmental organization called Sadaqa, which means friendship in Arabic. Together with members of Sadaqa and some university students, the documentary became a crowdfunding project to tell the stories of these refugees.
In the film, one Syrian man who made it to Japan looks back on his childhood of playing in the desert or oasis and riding camels. He finds pieces of memories of his old home in his new home, likening the cherry trees to the olive trees in Syria.
No matter where they are, refugees all hope for the same thing — to someday return to their homeland.
“Syria is always in their hearts … and I wanted to show how beautiful this is,” Fujii says.
Other films at this year’s festival include “The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman trying to help young Sudanese refugees integrate into American society, and the documentary “The Abominable Crime” about two gay Jamaican men who are forced to choose between homophobia in their homeland or moving to a new place.
UNHCR’s Lindenbauer says his staff went through more than 100 films before narrowing the selection down to 10. Coinciding with the festival, the International Christian University, Waseda University and other schools will also hold screenings of past festival films.
Japan has come under criticism domestically and internationally for the small number of refugees it accepts each year. In 2014, it recognized 11 asylum seekers as refugees while the previous year, it recognized only six — out of thousands of applications. Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Japan has accepted three Syrian refugees.
Last month, the Justice Ministry announced its plan to review its immigration policy to ease the current rigid refugee recognition system. Lindenbauer welcomes Japan’s efforts to improve the system, adding that there are many different ways to help refugees including accepting them through more flexible visa schemes or scholarship programs.
“I believe that this festival is a good moment to ask ourselves what can or must be done to help the displaced, the receiving countries and the refugee-hosting communities. Has our solidarity and willingness to provide refuge and protection been sufficient; and have we done enough?” Lindenbauer asks. “For this special anniversary, we would like to again invite the people of Japan to commemorate with us the strength and resilience of the 60 million displaced people throughout the world.”
The 10th UNHCR Refugee Film Festival takes place at Spiral Hall (Oct. 2 and 3) and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Tokyo (Oct. 10 and 12) in Tokyo; Sapporo Clock Tower Hall (Oct. 24) and Sapporo Plaza 2-5 (Oct. 25) in Sapporo; and Sendai Mediatheque on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Numbered tickets will be distributed before film screenings and given on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, visit www.unhcr.refugeefilm.org/2015.