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INTERNATIONAL REFUGEE FILM FESTIVAL

Screenings on behalf of 33 million

by Jeff Kingston

From July 18-26, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) will sponsor the 2nd International Refugee Film Festival in Japan. The program of 30 movies over nine days at four theaters includes feature and documentary films that focus on the lives, trials and triumphs of people forced to leave their homes as a result of persecution and war.

The RFF is a creative part of UNHCR’s efforts to raise awareness about the plight of the world’s nearly 33 million refugees.

Featured films include one by Sudanese refugees in Kenya, a retrospective tribute to Cambodian filmmaker and former refugee Rithy Panh, and a spotlight on Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul to Lithuania who helped save the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

The RFF is happening largely due to the efforts of Kirill Konin, an enterprising young Russian with long locks, the look of a poet and an engaging smile. He works at the UNHCR and managed to convince his bosses that films would be an effective medium for reaching a wider and different audience — one that may know little of refugee issues.

In May 2006 Konin arrived from Cambodia, where he staged film festivals in 2005 and 2006, the first to focus entirely on refugees. There he met Rithy Paanh, one of Southeast Asia’s leading directors, who has agreed to a retrospective of his works at this year’s RFF.

Though he arrived in Tokyo with no network or significant support, Konin pulled it off, and the 2006 RFF drew decent audiences — a tribute to his charisma and energy.

One of the best films from 2006, “Refugee All-Stars,” which is about a group from Sierra Leone, will be reprised this year. Following the 2006 showing, Warner Brothers bought the soundtrack rights and the music is featured in the Hollywood hit, “Blood Diamonds.”

Konin says, “The films are not just documentaries — we wanted a fusion of different styles to help raise awareness among people who might otherwise not be interested in social issues like refugees. We give a platform to refugees and filmmakers to share their stories. The numbers are numbing — when people see a figure of 33 million refugees it is hard for them to comprehend.”

He adds, “It is important to help people understand that refugees are not just people with problems; they are people who have experienced the depths of the human condition and know how difficult it is to navigate discrimination, isolation, culture shock and new languages.”

Asked about the festival’s impact, Konin is modest, noting that people always tell him how moved they are by the showings.

The total audience of 2,500 in 2006 was small, but in his view the impact is amplified by the favorable media coverage and because the films are stirring curiosity. He is hoping to double the audience this time around.

“Given that Japan is the third-largest donor for refugee-related activities, it is important to connect the hand that gives to the mind and heart. Japanese must not allow themselves to think that by sending money they have done their share and this is not our problem. People should know that these are not just depressing films. On the contrary, one can see people who lose everything except hope and how they cope with great dignity and respond to adversity. These are stories in which people can find encour- agement.” It is also hoped that understanding the plight of refugees will make Japan more welcoming to refugees.

What are the goals of the RFF?

“By raising awareness and educating people, the UNHCR is bridging the gulf between people and the U.N., creating a more accessible image. It is also a way to thank the Japanese government for its generous support, giving something back and swaying public opinion in favor of continued support for one of the world’s great problems.”

RFF 2007 is at four venues from July 18-26: LInstitut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo near Iidabashi Station (www.institut.jp/apropos/acces.php); Goethe-Institut Japan near Aoyama Itchome Station ( www.goethe.de/ins/jp/tok/knt/anf/jaindex.htm); Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Tokyo, near Kudanshita Station (www.iictokyo. esteri.it); and the Embassy of Sweden, near Kamiyacho Station (www.swedenabroad. com/pages/general-4608.asp). Entry is free. For full details visit www.refugeefilm.org/en/index.html