Film festival hopes to present refugees as more than just victims


Staff Writer

From Syria to Afghanistan to South Sudan, conflict this year has pushed the number of people seeking refuge around the world to numbers not seen since World War II.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people forced to flee their homes due to persecution, human rights violations and conflict exceeded 51.2 million: 16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million who are displaced internally in their home countries and 1.2 asylum-seekers.

The Japanese branch of the UNHCR aims to educate people here on the realities of victims of conflict around the world, and hopes to do so by hosting its ninth Refugee Film Festival in Tokyo, Hyogo Prefecture and Hokkaido from this weekend.

“We believe that doing a refugee film festival is a very good way of getting a message and information across, and improving understanding of the many situations where people are displaced,” Michael Lindenbauer, the UNHCR representative in Japan, tells The Japan Times. “We take people, through these films, on a journey.”

This year, the festival will screen 13 films set in war-torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Libya.

The main feature is Italian director Alessio Cremonini’s film “Border,” which is based on the true story of two sisters who are forced to flee from their home in Syria to Turkey.

Cremonini says in an email to The Japan Times that he met one of the sisters, who goes by the name of Aya in the film, in a small town in Italy, and when he heard about the tragic circumstances surrounding her flight from Syria — her sister’s husband had defected from the Syrian Army to join a rebel group — he knew he had to tell her story on film.

“I have always thought that cinema is like a plane allowing us to discover worlds and tragedies that would otherwise remain unknown,” Cremonini says. “When I met (Aya) . . . I understood that hers was a story worth telling — that it was the means, the right ‘plane’ that would allow viewers to get close to one of the most dramatic humanitarian plights of the past few decades.”

The film doesn’t depict the politics, killings and war inside Syria, instead it focuses on the extremely dangerous conditions under which people are trying to escape the conflict.

Both Muslims, Aya and her sister wrap themselves in niqabs before leaving their home, headed for the Syrian-Turkish border. They are under constant threat of being discovered by military officials, who may see them as traitors, or falling victim to armed thieves who have taken to the lawless streets.

Aya’s “soul was deeply wounded by the war,” Cremonini recalls. “I have never in my life seen a woman so distraught and in suffering. When we said goodbye with a touching hug, she asked me to make a sincere and honest film. I tried to keep that promise.”

“Border” is Cremonini’s first feature film, and he says that he is keen on depicting true stories about human rights, religion and the situation in the Middle East.

“Peace is a good that we take for granted, but for many people of the world it is a luxury that is difficult to reach — a faraway goal, almost a mirage,” he says.

The current state of Syria is the UNHCR’s biggest challenge. More than 3 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and 10 million who remain inside the country are also in desperate need of help.

“That is beyond the capacity of anyone,” Lindenbauer says. “It’s really a massive emergency which draws lots of resources — financial resources, human resources — to make sure that we can respond to the ever-increasing needs of ever more refugees.”

The UNHCR representative also points out that refugees are often misunderstood as people who are just seeking a better place to live. The broader public, he says, is not aware of the risks an individual takes when they need to flee their home. This, he says, is why “Border” is an especially good film to feature at the festival.

“(The act of fleeing) is not just a journey and this film depicts that in a very strong way,” Lundenbauer explains. “We try to get the message across that people are taking huge risks to get to safety, away from war, away from persecution and human rights violations.”

Another highlight of the festival is the screening of U.S.-based Kai Sehr’s award-winning documentary “Skateistan — Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul.” The film is about a nonprofit organization of the same name and its founder, Australian Oliver Percovich, whose passion is to use skateboarding as a tool to help educate young people in Afghanistan.

His story began in 2007 when he arrived in Kabul with a skateboard.

“I’d realized what a great tool skateboarding was to break down social, ethnic and gender barriers. It was a tool that could really make a difference,” Percovich says in “Skateistan.”

The documentary reveals a completely different side to Afghanistan than what many people are likely used to. Children’s laughter fills the screen as they skate around an old, dried-up fountain. It shows how skateboarding, despite its foreign origin, has helped Percovich and fellow Skateistan members connect with locals.

“Most of the news that comes out of Afghanistan and makes it to the Western world is negative, so we have these really sad ideas about what the country is like, which are pretty two-dimensional,” says Alixandra Buck, development manager at Skateistan International. “It’s easy to forget when watching the news that this is a country where people are just living their daily lives, like anywhere else. The people themselves are absolutely incredible — never have I felt more welcomed into a country or experienced such generous hospitality.”

Since the film came out in 2011, Skateistan has expanded. It now boasts another facility in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif and projects in Cambodia and South Africa as well and works with about 1,000 children.

“What a life-changer Skateistan is for the people it reached, taking them out of misery and taking them to a different level,” Lindenbauer says. ” ‘Skateistan’ is a film that shows how important the contributions of individuals (and) civil society organizations (are and how they can make) a massive difference in the day-to-day lives of the engaged individuals.”

Other films that will be screened include “Last Chance,” directed by Paul Emile d’Entremont, which follows five asylum-seekers who flee to Canada to escape homophobic violence, and “The Road to Tawarghaa” by Ashraf Al Mashharawi, about the complex process of reconciliation in Libya after the 2011 war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.

“We don’t want to just show the misery and the dangers. We want to show through this film festival that people are very courageous, that they are very strong and resilient and that they have a lot to offer,” Lindenbauer says. “They are not people who need handouts. It enriches society when refugees are properly received, and (when) helped to integrate into society, they can make enormous contributions.”


Japan premieres abound at Refugee Film Festival

In a move that hasn’t been attempted since 2010, this year’s Refugee Film Festival will include extra screenings in other parts of Japan.

“The goal of the UNHCR is to have as many people as possible learn about refugees,” says Yuki Moriya of the United Nations’ refugee agency. “Instead of concentrating only on Tokyo, we would like to expand the venues to other parts of Japan.”

The new locations for this year include a one-day event in Sapporo and a weekend event in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 12 and Oct. 28 and 29, respectively.

“We were able to do this this time with the support of Hokkaido University and Kansai Gakuin University,” Moriya says, adding that the Japan Association for UNHCR and Japan International Cooperation Agency also helped. “If possible, we would like to continue expanding.”

The festival provides a chance to catch award-winning films on the topics of refugees and human rights, and 10 of the 13 selections on this year’s roster will be screening in Japan for the first time.

Screenings tend to sell out, especially on weekends, so organizers advise turning up to the venues well ahead of start times. (Emi Ando)

The Refugee Film Festival takes place in Tokyo on Oct. 4 and from Oct. 11 to 19; Sapporo on Oct. 12 and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 25 and 26. For more information on venues, visit