AMPAS in Africa, Part One—Kakuma

Early on the morning of July 13, a United Nations World Food Program turbojet takes off from Nairobi  airport. The twice a week flight ferries supplies and passengers to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. A group of eight filmmakers from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ International Outreach program is on board, headed by Phil Alden Robinson and Academy Director of Exhibitions and Special Events, Ellen Harrington. Actress Alfre Woodard is in the group, as are Carol and me. We are already midway through the first week of  film workshops and seminars in Nairobi sponsored by "Ginger Ink" and Tom Tykwer’s “One Fine Day.” Today, we are visiting this remote camp of more than 70,000 refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, sited on an arid plain near the Sudan/Ethiopia border. We have come at the invitation of Liz Manne, executive director of FilmAid, an NGO that, among many programs, provides outdoor mobile screenings to East African refugee camp residents in Kenya and other communities in need around the world.

After landing on the unpaved runway, a jeep drive through the township of Kakuma leads to the entrance of the refugee camp, the gates of the UN compound and the offices of FilmAid.

Kakuma township, outside the camp perimeter.

We meet the office staff and are shown the video library for the screenings that are done nightly in the township and in different blocks of the camp, often in open fields that are well used soccer pitches.

Liz Manne with a trove of recently arrived videos.

An editing suite of Mac desktops with Final Cut Pro serves as a training platform for the camp's young filmmakers. Although FilmAid was begun by independent film producer Caroline Baron in Macedonia during the Balkan War, its ongoing mandate is to provide screenings for international refugees, including those in East African camps; it also has an active program of creating short videos made by resident filmmakers, stories dealing with many public and personal topics relevant to camp life. In addition to the nightly screenings of animated features for children and upbeat feature films for everyone, short films made by FilmAid in partnership with other humanitarian organizations explain to residents and new arrivals the logistics of camp life, their rights and obligations, patterns of food distribution, health and other services.

Parked just outside the office rests the white truck that houses the screenings’ sound and projection equipment, the portable screen (which is secured to the side of the truck itself) and the electric generator.

Here is a photo taken just before a screening begins, the truck with its screen set up in the background.

And a quick video of a cartoon:

Another FilmAid produced video affirms the overall mission. It was made several years ago and although the staff changes, its upbeat tempo catches the ongoing infectious “can do” spirit of the enterprise.

The Kakuma Camp is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its perimeter is about 2 km wide and nearly 22 km in length. A dirt road connects the half dozen separate areas. The closer the refugees are to UN services and to the township, the more densely inhabited they are, the outlying environs having more broad open spaces.

In addition to the nighttime screenings, a smaller FilmAid unit goes into denser areas of the camp in daytime hours with a small generator to power a CRT television. The rig is usually set up in a copse of sheltering trees or in a shaded corner. We encounter a group of kids and parents (even some teenagers) watching Sesame Street.

Sesame Street at Kakuma, Oscar at the wheel.
Fans of “Sesame Street.”

Many of the refugee shelters are built of simple wattle and daub construction using improvised roofing from scare tree branches. Molded, aggregate mud bricks are superseding the more ancient technique; metal siding is also now found. It comes from empty 5 gallon cooking oil cans that are hammered into flat sheets and used as siding and roofing, a durable protection against the onslaught of the rainy season. Most of these cans are emblazoned with the donation name of the United States, so many homes look like a patriotic clarion for the USA.

Back at FilmAid offices we are shown several films made by camp filmmakers from FilmAid's youth training program. The first is an “auteurist” piece by writer/director, cinematographer, actor Sammy Delesa titled Worst Day. Over the end credit crawl it even includes a “goodie reel” of outtakes of an elusive bicycle stunt. The film gives a good sense of the open spaces of the camp and of the upbeat spirit of its people amid the challenges of daily life.

The often-unexpected intersection of first and third world life here is beyond what I ever imagined. On the one hand, people are living at the edge of subsistence (even allowing for the provisions of the UNHCR, the UN World Food Program and NGO organizations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, Lutheran World Federation and International Rescue Committee.)

Donor nations to the UN World Food Program, storage tents in background.

On the other hand, some people have mobile phones with Internet access. And Facebook is a force for some youth as seen in this video produced by FilmAid students and staff. It profiles four Facebook friends and their stories; it reflects the same vicissitudes that their first world colleagues encounter. One young man, Abeich, relates the amusing consequences of his decision to post his mother’s photo on his page.

We make a side trip to one of the many open churches that are also centers for education and social services. An orientation class for newly arrived women refugees is in progress. Sexual intimidation and barter for goods and services in exchange for sexual favors are often pressed on women who have yet to be informed of the many services available to them and their children free of charge.

Such education is carried out in small numbers by these classes and by the many signs and billboards scattered alongside the roads, but it is the larger audiences attracted by the FilmAid screenings that gives the broadest based education opportunities, including amusing videos on condom use.

Of course, Alfre Woodward is a magnet wherever we go. Many of the children recognize her and she poses with some of the office staff.

A video titled FilmAid Through the Years documents the progress of the organization as it has expanded into many of the world’s crisis hotspots such as Haiti and Afghanistan. Picture Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz to hundreds of Afghani children in a Kabul open-air screening. The video ends with the voice of executive director, Liz Manne, explaining how FilmAid has come to one of the most dire refugees camps anywhere on earth, Dadaab, near the Somali/Kenya border.

The Somali famine coupled with Al-Shabab’s oppressive closing of border areas has created an even worse environment for the several thousand refugees arriving at the camp daily; they are faced with a month long wait to gain registered entry. Life in Kakuma is more stable than that at Dadaab and its residents can see a brighter future. Many of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” who immigrated to the United Sates and Canada came from the Kakuma camp. Hope lives in Kakuma. The lack of hope in Dadaab must be beyond imagining.

I find myself asking the same question posed by Paul Stromberg of the UNHCR in Kabul. Are these screenings by FilmAid merely a distraction from reality, or do they provide meaningful mental relief for the human spirit just as food and water do for the body? Though I still struggle with this question, I think, also, of the joyous children I see dancing after a screening of the film Africa, United on a soccer pitch in the Rwandan town of Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri), a site that seventeen years ago had been a killing field during the 100 days of the Rwandan genocide. As in many places throughout Rwanda, the entrance to the soccer pitch has a memorial plaque recognizing the horrific killing that took place there. "The Ghosts of Rwanda" still stalk many playing fields, churches and schools.

Musanze, in the shadows of Volcanoes National Park.
Children dancing after screening of “Africa United,” Musanze July 19, 2011.

Before Carol and I travel with the Academy group to East Africa I am already acquainted with several organizations like FilmAid that are recipients of AMPAS grants from the Academy’s Institutional Grants Committee which distributes over three-quarters of a million dollars annually to international film organizations and film schools. FilmAid is one of the most dynamic and broad-based of these.

At Kakuma’s FilmAid office a young man comes over to me and says he wants to become a cinematographer. He asks me how he can use some simple household lamps for lighting and how to control light even when you have no electricity. An interesting challenge, one that is not uncommon in places like the East Africa refugee camps. I confront the question again the following week when our AMPAS group is in Kigali, Rwanda, and we are working with a newly emerging film community. Since returning to Los Angeles I have received a number of emails from my African students asking more about what is called “3 point lighting”—when they have only one light. A worthy subject for a future blog piece. So, hang in there, Andrew. I’m working on it. After all, we make movies with our imaginations, not just our equipment.

FilmAid cinematographer Andrew Sanai Pieny with blog author.

If you want to be a part of FilmAid here is how to make a donation:

FilmAid International link

Next week: Part 2 of AMPAS in AFRICA: a look at a two week workshop in Nairobi for students from nine African countries.

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