The UNHCR Refugee Film Festival finds increased focus on Europe for 11th edition

The status of refugees and displaced people continues to worsen since the European refugee crisis first gained widespread attention in 2015. In the news refugees may be portrayed as powerless victims, but the tremendous strength they show in taking strides toward a better future is anything but. The U.N.’s Refugee Agency hopes to tell those stories through film.

Taking place in Sendai, Sapporo, Tokyo and Osaka, the 11th UNHCR Refugee Film Festival will run from Sept. 17 to Oct. 23. Thirteen films will be screened in total, focusing on countries such as Syria, Germany and Congo. The festival does not feature a competitive component, as its mission is to raise public awareness regarding refugees, displaced and stateless people.

“This year’s Refugee Film Festival is more important than ever before,” says Dirk Hebecker, the UNHCR representative in Japan. “There is more conflict and displacement around the world today, and at the end of 2015 we saw the highest number of refugees since World War II with over 65 million. We may easily hit the 70 million mark at the end of 2016.”

While there has been no deficit of attention on the issue of refugees in the media, in practice only a few nations have come on board with assistance.

Japan, despite being the fourth largest donor to the UNHCR, has been extremely reluctant to accept asylum seekers. Out of the 7,586 applicants seeking asylum in Japan last year, only 27 were accepted into the country.

This disappointing statistic is part of the reason why the UNHCR is eager to bring the stories of refugees to audiences in Japan. Hebecker believes that film can help overcome the physical distance between Japan and countries in conflict by creating a sense of solidarity.

“We want to show refugees not as a burden, but as people just like you and me — people with hopes, dreams and talent,” Hebecker says.

Saburo Takizawa of the Japan Association for UNHCR says that 1 in 46 refugees dies while traveling across the Mediterranean Sea.

“I’ve talked to Japanese officials working in humanitarian aid who can’t fathom the situation refugees are in and say they don’t understand how people can risk their lives,” he says. “The best way to understand is through film and drama; there’s a story behind every refugee risking their life.”

One of these stories comes from Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan refugee and aspiring rapper living in Iran. Followed by Iranian female filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami in the documentary “Sonita,” the Rihanna-obsessed 15-year-old fights the Afghan tradition of arranged marriage through a microphone. “Sonita” was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this year, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

Another film not to be missed at this year’s festival is “Fire at Sea,” a gripping documentary by filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi about the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first port of call for refugees traveling to Europe via the Mediterranean. The winner of the Golden Bear Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, “Fire at Sea” offers a captivating firsthand look at the European refugee crisis.

“This year, there has been a noticeable increase in films taking place in Europe,” says Daisuke Imajiro, the project manager of the festival and lineup curator. “Instead of pointing the camera toward places like South Sudan, the theme of many films has shifted toward the countries who accept refugees and the confusion, rejection or compassion of the European locals.”

On the growing success of the UNHCR Refugee Film Festival, Hebecker says that “it’s really encouraging to see that some venues are already full from registrations, because it tells us that people think what they see on the news is not enough. They want to learn more.” However, the enduring significance of the festival is not something Hebecker can genuinely celebrate.

“Eleven years ago we didn’t think the festival would grow this much. Ideally, we don’t want refugees or the Refugee Film Festival,” he says.

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