The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) counts about 33 million refugees in the world today. There is an even larger multitude saddled with the chillingly bureaucratic title “internally displaced persons.”

Shocking as those numbers should be, they provide little insight into the heart of the issue. What is a refugee exactly? What does it mean to live as a refugee? What of the pain and sadness, the hopes and dreams of these many millions of human beings?

In the hopes of addressing some of those questions for Japanese audiences, the UNHCR launched the second annual Refugee Film Festival at venues throughout Tokyo on July 18. “The idea is to bring the humanity and experiences of people who are forced to leave their homes to life for audiences,” says the event’s founder and current head Kirill Konin. “How many people are touched when they hear on the news that another 100,000 people from Sudan crossed the border to Chad? Films on the other hand really touch and change people’s hearts.”

The former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who headed the UNHCR from 1991 to 2000, is in frequent attendance at film screenings and has praised the RFF’s attempt to present refugees as human beings who have all the rights to live with dignity, rather than as mere reports of misery.

The festival features 30 films from across the globe that are all directly or indirectly related to refugee issues. They range from relatively big-budget studio productions like this year’s closing film, “Shooting Dogs,” about the Rwandan genocide to rough-cut amateur productions made by first-time filmmakers like “Invisible Children,” shot and directed by three college students from the United States who went to southern Sudan, and then Uganda, in search of adventure, only to be confronted and deeply changed by the misery but strange hopefulness of Sudanese and Ugandan refugees, and child soldiers.

Konin first conceived of the festival while he was based at the U.N. offices in Cambodia documenting internally displaced persons. He has spent the last decade working on refugee issues in nongovernmental organizations including Amnesty International and the United Nations, and in Phnom Penh with several colleagues and support from the French Embassy he launched the first Refugee Film Festival in 2005.

Officials at the UNHCR in Tokyo were greatly impressed with the program and invited Konin to Japan to run the event from here.

Last summer, the festival drew an estimated audience of over 2,500 to see 18 films screened throughout Tokyo. This year the program has grown to 30 films, and though the U.N. still covers well over 50 percent of its operating budget, it counts several major corporations among its sponsors as well as the Italian, German, French and Swedish cultural institutions in Tokyo.

Among the highlights of the current program are a selection of short films made by Sudanese refugees from Kenya, a retrospective tribute to Cambodian filmmaker and former refugee Rithy Panh, and a documentary by an American director that tells the story of Chinue Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania during World War II, who at great personal risk helped thousands of Jews to flee Europe by illegally issuing Japanese transit visas. Though long recognized by Lithuania as a wartime hero, Sugihara has only recently received posthumous official commendation for his deeds from the Japanese government, which had long looked askance at his breaches of protocol.

Also of note is the highly acclaimed “Iraq in Fragments,” the winner of several documentary film awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which will have its Japanese premiere at the festival, as will four other feature films.

Given Japan’s well-known unwillingness to welcome refugees seeking political asylum, despite the fact that it is the third largest donor to the UNHCR behind the United States and the European Union, this would seem to be a rather unlikely place to find the world’s largest film festival devoted to refugees. But for Konin that seems to be precisely the point.

“Will the festival change Japan’s policy toward asylum seekers?,” he asks. “I don’t know. Will it raise awareness of what is an enormous and fast-growing problem? I certainly hope so. We see film as a wonderful platform to tell stories, and we see refugees as having many stories that are in terrible need of telling. Refugee stories are not just stories of despair and suffering, but stories of hope in spite of losing home and family. The films we show at our festival have the power to encourage us all.”

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