Film festival to shine a light on refugees' plight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am


Rwandans confronting the men who killed their families. Myanmese families trying to restart their lives in Britain. Palestinian youths defying Israeli occupation with hip hop. These are stories, and people, that rarely grace cinema screens in Hong Kong.

However, they will be centre stage next week at the Refugee Film Festival, alongside the tales of the reporters and activists dedicated to bringing their tribulations to a wider public.

Organised by the Hong Kong office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the annual festival was aimed at enhancing awareness among Hongkongers of the predicaments of displaced populations around the world, said Rosina Shing Suk-han, who has co-ordinated the event since 2008.

'More and more people are rallying to our support by coming to see the films - I could actually recognise faces who appear at nearly all of our screenings,' she said.

The five-day festival, which begins its run this year on Sunday at the Broadway Cinematheque, features As We Forgive, a documentary about reconciliation between killers and victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994; Moving to Mars, which follows two Karen families' struggle to acclimatise to life in Britain after years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmese border; and Slingshot Hip Hop, in which music provides emancipation for internally displaced youngsters in Gaza and the West Bank.

Making up the selection are Reporter, a documentary about American reporter Nicholas Kristof, who first wrote of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan; and Sergio, a film about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative in Iraq who was killed by a bomb in Baghdad in 2003. Vieira de Mello was well known in Hong Kong for his work as UN envoy looking at problems related to Vietnamese boatpeople who remained in the city in the 1990s.

The festival is part of a series of events the UNHCR will host until June 29 to commemorate World Refugee Day, which falls on Monday. Apart from the film festival, there will be a photographic exhibition at the former Central Market celebrating the UNHCR's 60-year history and an event on Sunday at the Harbour City mall that allows visitors to experience life as a refugee trying to flee armed rebels while looking for lost relatives.

Shing's job title reveals another of the events' roles. As a private-sector fund-raising associate she aims to generate more revenue from the public, who 'might not have even known we try to raise money here'.

Shing's position was only established as recently as 2007, when the UNHCR's Hong Kong office began to establish a permanent unit dedicated to publicising the organisation's work and solicit financial support from beyond merely national governments, NGOs or private corporations. 'Hong Kong is a big market for raising public funds,' she said.

The first refugee film festival in the region began in Japan in 2007, and that edition remains the biggest - a few dozen films are screened annually - compared to the events held in Hong Kong and in Thailand, a country which has also been engaged in the issue on its borders with Myanmar and Cambodia.

The festival has moved on from screening hard-hitting fare - such as the Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback and the activists' treatise Screamers, both shown in 2009 - to films that look beyond immediate humanitarian crises and towards individuals' reconciliation and recovery from their ordeals (like As We Forgive and Moving to Mars this year). Shing said she and her team were attempting to provide a more layered and nuanced approach to tackling the issues.

'Just like in the film Reporter,' Shing said. '[Kristof] is shown ruminating on how he should attain a balanced way of reporting what he saw - should he just take the victims' word as the truth, or is there a bigger picture as well? This film may not touch directly on the experience of refugees, but it still broaches the issue we want people to understand.'