ASW talks to Kirill Konin, director of the International Refugee Film Festival, about the impact of film, the plight of the refugee and how we can make a difference.
Q. What exactly is the Refugee Film Festival and how is it related to the United Nations?
Kirill Konin : The RFF is a film festival supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to create a better understanding about who these 33 million refugees are. I usually explain why I run this festival by paraphrasing what Andy Goodman said in, Storytelling as Best Practice: “Numbers numb, jargon jars, but stories touch us.”
Q. How and why did you start the Refugee Film Festival?
KK: I started the RFF because I was touched, touched by the lives of refugee parents and children I worked with while I was in Thailand running a small educational project for those who are not allowed to go to schools just because they are refugees. I often remember the joy of a six-year old Palestinian refugee boy in Bangkok, when I took him for his first day at school. Abdullah now lives in Canada where he was re-settled with his dad. Having lived in Africa and Asia for almost ten years, I witnessed a lot of stories of forced migration and I tried to do what I could to help. I love film and I thought it would be great to have a human rights film festival in Asia, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Film Festivals in NY and London. So I started networking. In 2005, while I was doing legal work for the UN in Cambodia, I used my experience in the commercial film industry to start the first RFF with twenty films in this former refugee-sending, and now refugee-accepting, country. In 2006 the UN invited me to move the festival to Japan. We have just finished our second RFF in Tokyo and 7000 people came to see over 30 films during the nine-day main event and a few preview screenings. This was an increase on 2500 people last year. In addition, over thirty million people read and heard about the RFF via many national and foreign newspapers, radio stations and TV programs in Japan.
Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone on screen
Q. Given Japan's famously small refugee population, why did you choose Tokyo as a host for this year's festival?
KK: The vision of the RFF is to be a traveling film festival with an annual event in Tokyo. It’s true that Japan is not too welcoming to refugees; however, part of the reason for that could be misunderstandings and stereotypes that exist about refugees, not just in Japan but in many other countries. We see the RFF as a tool to influence people’s attitudes towards refugees both here in Japan and in other countries where we will be taking the event.
Q. What other countries have been involved with the RFF?
KK: Since the birth of the RFF in 2005, we had had five film festivals in Cambodia and Japan. This year the RFF partnered with human rights film festivals in Italy and Australia by featuring part of the RFF film program. Next, the cities where we would like to organize events are Paris, NY, Hong Kong, Bangkok…
Q. Tell us about the greatest story/anecdotes you’ve heard come out of certain films being screened?
KK: There are many stories to tell as at every screening we try to create an interaction between organizers, filmmakers and the audience. Here's a couple of stories connected to the same film that I am sure some ASW members may know about:
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars (RAS) is a film about reggae refugee musicians who continued to sing in spite of the war that took their homes away (The film got many awards and the music was featured in Blood Diamond). This film opened our festival in Japan last year.
After a packed screening of this film, a lady stood up and said that she was originally from Sierra Leone and had lived in Japan for about ten years and hadn’t been back to her country for a long time because of the war. And then she added that after watching this film, she wants to go back and visit her country. For me, it was incredible that a film could touch people in such a way that it encouraged them to consider reconstructing something that once was broken.
Another moment with this particular film was during the Q&A, when these refugee musicians, who were with us at the film festival, asked the audience to sing a traditional Japanese song (Japanese people don't usually do such things in public) and the whole theater started singing, which was followed by a reggae acappella of refugees.
Q. Have you faced many obstacles/much controversy in trying to screen certain films?
KK: The festival is a platform for filmmakers and the refugees themselves to share their stories, it is not an event where we show films made by the UN or NGOs (although of course a lot of the films are supported by these organizations). We show films that are a mixture of good cinema and a clear message on the issue. My main obstacle right now is a lack of resources. For example, we need support to invite more filmmakers to be at the festival and another huge expense is the subtitling of films in the local language. The next step in this project is to be able to support and give grants to filmmakers who are refugees themselves.
Q. Where did you grow up? How did your upbringing affect your work today?
KK: I was born in and grew up all over Russia: from Moscow to Kamchatka. My family lives in France and for almost the last ten years of my life, I have lived and worked between Africa, Asia and Europe. I call home wherever I live at the moment and, as a lot of ASW members – as well as almost all refugees – can relate to, I live the life of, “Today we settle, tomorrow we pack.”
Q. The concept of ‘refugee’ has existed for thousands of years, as people have been forced to flee their native lands due to war, persecution, and natural disaster. Do you think the position of refugees will change as we globalize? Do you see an increased sense of tolerance and respect?
KK: There has been a 56% increase in refugee population since 2005 and more to come, especially “environmental refugees” with global warming. I am sure there are some ASW members who feel somewhat like “refugees” or “stateless”: we settle in one country today, tomorrow we move to another one. The only difference is that we choose to move to that new country and learn a new language. Refugees are forced to leave their homes and everything they have for a land they don't know. My only hope is that the more we travel and see the beauty and the pain of this world, the more we’ll become not just more tolerant, but more compassionate..
Q. How do you think film can make a literal impact on social politics?
KK: UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie, has expressed her support for refugees and film stating that: “Film is an important medium to introduce the many aspects of the lives and circumstances of refugees across the world, and through this entertainment vehicle we create better awareness and understanding.” And that is exactly why we organize this festival. Our aim is to give a voice to the seldom-heard stories of hope, despair and courage and to inspire the involvement of the public to make a difference.
Q. What do you think we can do as individuals to make a difference to the refugee cause?
KK: You don’t have to be Angelina Jolie or Giorgio Armani (who is also a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador to help refugees). We can all start by learning a little bit more: meet a refugee, or if they are not welcome in your city watch a movie about them. We are all human beings and when faced with the suffering of others, we have a choice to be indifferent or to respond with compassion. No matter what you do: fashion, music or banking, you can contribute to the lives of those people who were forced to become refugees. Still not sure? PM me :)
Q. What are the upcoming projects and plans for the RFF?
KK: I am off to the Venice Film Festival where I am on the jury for the human rights award, and I have already started looking for new films and sponsors for RFF ‘08.
After that, the next big thing is to look for partners to do PR & event management for social change: connecting the world of entertainment and its resources with solutions to various social issues, from education to AIDS.
Q. Do you ever take any time off? Where do you like to relax?
KK: I fly to France to spend time with my little sister and travel to countries where I lived before to catch up with old friends.
Q. What is your greatest vice?
KK: The same as my passion: work
Q. What are you most afraid of?
Q. What's one thing you would like to change about yourself?
KK: I want to finally finish studying the Chinese and Arabic languages that I have been trying to pick up for years.
Q. Who inspires you most?
KK: People of creativity and passion. Currently I am really encouraged and inspired by Lynne Charles, an international ballerina, a good friend and a founder of ‘Dancing 4 AIDS orphans in Africa’. For this project, I just finished putting a film program on AIDS.
For more information about RFF go to: www.refugeefilm.org
— Laura Jakobovits