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Powerful Film & Creative Cultural Exchange: Updates from Kenya

Powerful Film & Creative Cultural Exchange: Updates from Kenya

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Greetings from Nairobi, where I’m at the halfway point in an extraordinary two-week trip to Kenya. Far better than my words, however, please watch this 10 minute film made by refugee filmmakers from FilmAid’s participatory video program.

Iliane Ogilvie Thompson (FilmAid’s President) and Sian Sutherland (member of the FilmAid UK board of trustees) were here for a week and returned home to London Thursday night. They had a jam-packed visit including Kakuma, Dadaab, Mathare, Kibera, and opening night of the FilmAid Film Festival. Odell Mays II (our NY finance director) arrives Wednesday, carrying a new inflatable screen, arriving in time for closing night of the film festival (not to mention the closing of the FY2011 books).

The FilmAid Film Festival, which we have held in Kakuma in Dadaab before, but never before in Nairobi, runs July 15-21, screening throughout the city in upscale arthouse venues as well as on inflatable screens in the Kibera and Mathare slums, and also in the UNHCR refugee camps Kakuma and Dadaab. The festival features short films made by refugee filmmakers from FilmAid’s participatory video program and Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue, an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities, presenting a suite of international independent feature films and workshops to audiences worldwide to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding (FilmAid is the program’s presenting partner in Kenya). Film Forward brought the American filmmaker Jennifer Arnold and her Kenya-based documentary feature A Small Act and New Zealander Taika Waititi with his film Boy (which I can’t wait to see dubbed into Swahili). Thank you Keri Putnam, Meredith Lavitt, and Brittany Ballard of Sundance for making this happen. You have no idea how much the audiences and artists here are appreciating Film Forward – and you’re only halfway through. Wait till you see your films projected on a gigantic screen hung on the side of a truck under the desert stars in the middle of Kakuma camp for an audience of 2,000 refugees.

And as if that weren’t enough of a bounty, earlier in the week there was a delegation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated film artists, who are connecting creative communities around the globe though the art and science of film. Stephanie Allain, John Bailey, Willie Burton, Ellen Harrington, Carol Littleton, Phil Alden Robinson, Wynn Thomas, and Alfre Woodard were all on the East Africa Outreach trip.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are funders of FilmAid’s work in the refugee camps in Kenya, and we were able to bring them up to Kakuma camp for a day to visit our work there. What a gift to have two-time Oscar winning sound mixer Willie Burton sit down with our guys there to help design a production sound system and mixing studio for the refugee filmmakers. And the great DP John Bailey taught a rapid speed mini lighting workshop. Production designer Wynn Thomas and I took a walkabout with some of our local staff in the Mathare slum, sans camera; he captured the indelible images in his mind’s eye. Producer Stephanie Allain mentored our program director, Victor Ombonya, in the One Fine Day Film Workshop, and writer-director Phil Robinson did the same for Kate, one of FilmAid’s many talented refugee writer-directors. The great editor Carol Littleton was there, too (ET– are you kidding me? Can you please come back and show the film next time?).

And the great actor (and member of the President’s Committee of the Arts and Humanities) Alfre Woodard spoke so movingly at the film festival’s opening night ceremony (along with Iliane, Keri, and U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Scott Gration, who weren’t too shabby themselves).

Thank you, Academy members, for coming and sharing your experience with us. And huge thanks to Ellen Harrington for bringing the Academy to Africa! (Ellen is the Academy’s director of exhibitions and special events and put together the entire East Africa trip). FilmAid Kenya’s country Director Stella Suge and Program Director Victor Ombonya and their teams in Nairobi, Kakuma, and Dadaab have been working 24/7 and doing a great job. Thank you all for everything, including teaching me how to do my still-new job.

A very special thanks to our Kenya advisory board – Charles Otieno, Soiya Gecaga, and Mark Somen – not to mention Soiya’s sister Nana Gecaga, who somehow got caught in our net and was drafted as Volunteer Friend in Chief this week (henceforth to be referred to as FilmAid’s VFIC, since we are in the land of acronyms). All of them have made us feel incredibly welcome and supported. I will be traveling to Dadaab tomorrow with Victor, Mark, and Cajetan Boy, the writer/director of Sita Kimya, FilmAid’s sex- and gender-based violence feature film made in Kibera.

I wish you all could be here so you could experience what we’re experiencing – not just the films and the workshops, but, profoundly, to be here as the famine crisis in the horn of Africa unfolds, and where Dadaab seems to be ground zero. Everyday we witness firsthand what is going on and are in a rapid reassessment of how we can be of the greatest help and make the greatest impact – from informational films for the new arrivals to getting the refugees’ stories spread out to the world.

Nana told me a story today, which Iliane and Sian had told to her. By the registration center in Dadaab, where there is a backlog of some 20,000 starving people, they saw a great gigantic pile of clothes. And they thought, that’s so nice, it’s not food, but it’s something CARE or the Kenyan people perhaps donated for those who arrived in complete tatters from their unspeakable journey. But no. They were gifts from the refugees of Dadaab themselves to the new arrivals – people who have nothing giving to those who have even less.

Talk about inspirational.