Delegate Phil Robinson:
On Thursday, we took some time away from the ONE FINE DAY (formerly FilmInAfrica) workshops for what will probably end up as the most grueling day of our trip, flying to the north-eastern corner of Kenya to visit Kakuma, one of the world's largest refugee camps. It's been in constant operation for 20 years, and today over 80,000 refugees live here - mostly Somalis and Sudanese. Some have been here a very long time. Some were born here and know no other life.
The purpose for our visit was to look in on FilmAid International, an organization we help fund through the Academy's Grants Program. FilmAid's core function is to use refugees living in camps to write and produce films for the camp's inhabitants.
The U.N plane left Nairobi at 7:30 this morning, and by 9:30, we were driving past a herd of goats in a dry river bed on the way to Kakuma. FilmAid's executive director (and Academy member) Liz Manne took us into their office - three small, over-crowded rooms in a building they share with other NGOs - to meet the staff. With great dedication and what we could charitably call "not the latest equipment", they are producing films that teach the refugees such things as how to exercise and protect their rights, how to access services like health and education, and how to combat sexual and gender-based violence.
The UNHCR has found that these films are the most effective ways of communicating these subjects, as the illiteracy rate here is high; perhaps as much as 65%.
Some films are shown in the daytime, in classrooms. We visited one post-film discussion among a group of women in a small, makeshift church.
Other films are shown at night, in soccer fields, projected onto screens attached to the side of a truck. Often, these nighttime screenings are purely for entertainment - sometimes popular African films, sometimes mainstream Hollywood films - introduced by cartoons, attracting crowds in the thousands. The UNHCR staff told us that every refugee has been traumatized by the experiences that drive them to places like this, and so the psychological value of these screenings cannot be over-estimated. They relieve stress, provide a chance to laugh or identify with others, or simply offer pure - and much-needed - escape.
Finally, we sat with some of the young refugees FilmAid is training to be their next generation of filmmakers. Their enthusiasm for the medium, and their passionate desire to learn a craft, was palpable. One director showed us a short documentary he made about how some of the young people in the camp use Facebook.
The kids access it on cellphones, not computers, and it provides a connection with the outside world that was impossible just a few years ago. "If I get out of here," one told us, "I won't feel so out of place."
In 1992 I was part of a WGA group that visited some other refugee camps in Kenya, as refugees from Somalia poured across the border from civil war and famine. It was a deeply moving experience, and it's sad beyond words to see that humanitarian tragedy continuing not just unabated, but at a greater pace. Refugee camps were then - and remain today - awful places to live. A lot of aid organizations work hard just to keep up with the influx of new refugees at camps like these, and I admit that making or showing movies can easily sound like a feeble or dilettantish way of approaching the problems. But to the thousands of refugees who gather in a moonlit soccer field four or five nights a week to watch "Up" or "The Wizard of Oz", and forget war and death for a few hours, I swear it's no small thing.