Refugee Filmmakers Shine at Film Festival

When people talk about refugees and life in the camps, the image that comes to mind is what the news channels have been feeding us over the years. Malnourished children, endless fights, hunger, tents not worth living in and general harsh environmental conditions. As much as this could be true, what we never realize is that within this camp, ordinary lives are going on! Children are born and go to schools, talents are nurtured, businesses are thriving, and boys are hitting on girls… You know, the usual stuff that happens in any other modern society.

“We always forget that these people have talents and are just human beings like any others” Says Duc Mallard, a 19 year old Burundian refugee filmmaker now living in Kakuma. Duc was speaking at the closing ceremony of the recently concluded FilmAid Film Festival at Alliance Française in Nairobi where his film “Kakuma can Dance” received the award for best documentary film.

A passionate dancer, musician and filmmaker, Duc Mallard was able to bring these three elements together in his short documentary Kakuma Can Dance. This video portrays the life of young refugees who are not only obsessed by hip hop dancing but use the dance for recreation and as a way of interacting among themselves. All they want is a chance to be able to showcase their skills against those of Kenyans at the national level.

Speaking during a discussion panel in Nairobi, Duc together with renowned Kenyan film and TV producers; Judy Kibinge and Mburugu Gikunda, talked about how they hope the films would portray various aspects of life in the camps and break down some of the stigma attached to refugee life.  The panelists were drawn from the media, human rights groups, UN refugee agency (UNHCR), academia, film industry and the refugee community. The audiences engaged in lively discussions and Q&A sessions on topics such as: media and human rights, displaced persons, xenophobia, racism and tribalism

Mohammed Sheikh Bashir is a budding journalist, blogger and Filmmaker who has been living in Dadaab since 1991 when he was the age of 4. His documentary film “Pesa” saw him bag the prestigious award for best director from Dadaab. His film is about a character called Pesa who has lived in a rural village all his life. He understands bartering to be the way of life, as no other form of currency exists in the village. When he decides to move to an urban town, Pesa must come face-to-face and understand the true value of money.

Also screening from Dadaab were: “Ibramina” and “Towards the Light” by Hassan Jimale; “Shattered and Restored” by Fu’ad Abdi Affey and “Lacag (Pesa)” by award-winner, Mohamed Bashir Shiek, for best director.

The line-up from Kakuma included: “Love Worthy Suicide” by Akolom Fredrick; “Larme (Tears)” directed by John Thomas; “Ayang (Hero)” by Majok Mabil; “The Edge” by Ebenyo William Eloto  and “Bitter Tears” directed by Lowot John Peter.

The FilmAid Film Festival is an annual event that provides a platform to the young and talented filmmakers living in and around Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya to be able to showcase their work in the community as well as national and global level. These youth undertake a one-year film-training program where they are taught basic skills in filmmaking after which they produce their own films. The FilmAid Filmmaker Training Program is a youth and media arts program that targets young refugees from the surrounding host communities with media training that equips them to use media for social good.

This year, the seventh run of the FilmAid Film Festival was held over one week  (12-16 August) in Kakuma and Dadaab, and three days (21-23 August) in Nairobi’s informal settlements of Mathare and Kibera, and at Alliance Française. The festival showcased 16 refugee films and 6 foreign entry submissions under the theme “The Right to Tell Our Stories”.

Speaking to local journalists in Dadaab, John Kilungu, (Programs Manager, FilmAid Dadaab) said, this years` theme provides the youth with an opportunity to tell their stories in their own voices to the rest of the world. “Unfortunately most of the content shown in Dadaab is predominantly from local and international media that is mostly shaped to fit a particular audience and therefore we hope that the event will help increase local content for people leaving in Dadaab” he added.

The featured international entries were an award-winning collection from the USA, Rwanda, Sweden, India and the UK. These films were “Finding Hillywood” by Leah Warshawski & Chris Towey; “The Last Day” by Siddartha Gigoo, “A Testimony” by Marta Lefler, “Rain is Beautiful” by Marc Silver & Nick Francis, “Nickel City Smiler” directed by Scott Murchie & Brett Williams and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” directed by Benh Zeitlin.

Fresh from its success at Cannes and Sundance film festivals, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” took the premier spot in the screenings in Dadaab, Kakuma and Nairobi. This daring, atmospheric and richly textured film, is shot through with raw emotion in a forgotten but defiant bayou community that has been cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee. The ten-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy, exists on the brink of orphan hood, buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination; she believes that the natural world is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm transforms her reality. Desperate to bring order back to her world by saving her ailing father and sinking home, this tiny hero must learn to survive unstoppable catastrophes of epic proportions. Check out the trailer here.

In the camps, the festival consisted of much more than mere screenings, students from the Filmmaker Training Program, together with FilmAid staff held several filmmaking clinics where eager youth were introduced to the basic skills of handling a camera, shooting and given tips in video editing. This helped to encourage more people to sign up to be a part of the next generation of young FilmAid filmmakers.

In addition, a team from My Start Project from the UK, held a two-week workshop in Kakuma to teach young students skills in filmmaking, painting, drawing and photography to help them express their stories in more creative ways.

Ismail Shallis, a member of My Start says, the complete art works are taken back and exhibited in schools in Europe and America, so that the kids in those countries can learn about the life of a refugee in the camps and hopefully to remove some of the stigma in the West about what is it like to be a refugee.

“Young people in the camps have limited opportunity for creative expression, which is crucial for young people who have lived through distressing experiences and face uncertain futures” said Tania and Amy Campbell Golding, Co-founders of My Start.

At the closing gala, residents of Kakuma were treated to an electric performance by one of Kenya’s rising hip-hop stars, Octopizzo. Among others singles Octopizzo sang, Ivo Ivo, Swag, BilaMic, and Mama, his favorite hit. During his three-day visit in Kakuma, Octopizzo met with the music artists living in the camps where he encouraged them to work hard, continue their art, and overcome the challenges their environment presents.  Meanwhile, Octopizzo is planning to produce a music video in Kakuma, which will include some of the talented music artists living in the camp.

We would like to thank our wonderful audiences during our mass out-door evening screenings in Kibera and Mathare Informal settlements. Special thanks to the filmmakers, panelists, Chris Cooper our projectionist!, Charles Otieno for braving the heat in the discussion panels!! And OCTOPIZZO for his electric performances and great hits .We are most grateful to U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Population, Refugees (BPRM), and Movies that MatterMy Start and UNHCR for supporting us!

Looking forward to a bigger and better FilmAid Film Festival 2014!