COMMENTARY: Once again, Refugee Film Fest bridging divides

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

The Cairo Refugee Film Festival started last year as an initiative to celebrate World Refugee Day in June in a much more coherent and meaningful way. This week, the festival is back for its second edition, featuring screenings scheduled from June 17-20.

As one of the fest’s organizers, I have to attest that the challenges of organizing this festival are unique — considering that we are a team of people who had come together in our individual capacity, independent of any organizational structure. Apart from the fact that we all work with refugees in various capacities, what had brought us together last year was the team’s shared experiences about constantly having to explain who a ‘refugee’ is, when talking about their work.

As individuals, we have the advantage of not having to ‘tow the company line’ and we can maintain our ‘independence’ in the selection of films and programming. But we have also collaborated with associations and organizations that are willing to offer us institutional support — in terms of providing space, acting as our financial umbrella — and a quasi-identity.

Through the line up of films this year, we hope to break the myth that all refugees are Africans and concentrate on triumphant refugee stories and the indefatigable human spirit.

The Somali Bantus who had moved to the United States in 2004 are the subject of the film “Rain in A Dry Land.” It focuses on the optimism of two such families as they combat racism and discrimination in their new home.

“Das Fraulein” won awards at the Sarajevo Film Festival, the International Film Festival in Spain as well as the Swiss Film Prize for best script in 2007. A work of fiction, it deals with women camaraderie and explores the physical and the emotional displacement of three women from the erstwhile Yugoslavia, who now live in Switzerland.

The much-feted and much-awarded “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is the story of Liberia, another African nation torn to shreds by decades of civil war. The documentary combines interviews, footage from present-day Liberia and some rare images from the past to recount the story of women who were at the forefront of the struggle, against the country’s tyrannical leaders and warlords, to bring peace to their fragmented country.

Audience Award Winner at the Amnesty International Film Festival, “Dreaming of Tibet” infuses hope in the millions of exiles, living away from their motherland, about the possibility of keeping alive their culture despite great hardships and loss.

This year, there are fewer films from the region with the exception of “East to West” and “Last Days of Tanf.” Unlike last year, when there was a surfeit of movies reflecting Palestinian stories, this year the festival has chosen to showcase stories from a number of geographical locations. A prime example is “Refugees from Russia,” the story of a Russian family who had to move from country to another for more than 100 years until the grandson of the family finally returns to his native town. “Cambodia Dreams” is about the hopes and dreams of a family that reunites 12 years after being separated due to the Thai-Cambodian border.

The festival has a new venue this year: Cinema Al Fourn at Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center. Summer evenings are best enjoyed outdoors and the unique open-air theater at Darb will provide the perfect setting for the film fest.

Economic independence is a prerequisite for integration into the host country and a number of refugee women — Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Iraqi — have used their skills to become bread-winners for their family. Their success is limited by the opportunities to showcase and sell their products. The Film Festival seeks to address this lacuna by holding a two-day bazaar at the venue of the screenings where such entrepreneurial women will offer handicrafts, artworks and food for sale.

Ending the festival on a musical note will be a group of Sudanese musicians and singers with their brand of ‘democratizing music’ that will include blues, reggae and folk.

Are film festivals, especially ones dealing with refugees, relevant? Can they really create an impact? Sharmarke Mohamed, who is from Somalia, feels that such festivals have an important role to play since “everyone has to know about the others so that we could break the barriers.”

He has been staying in Egypt for the last 10 years and is part of the festival’s prganizing committee this year.

“Refugees are here to stay, they are going nowhere,” continues Mohamed referring to the drop in the number of refugees being repatriated or resettled. “The film festival can serve as an eye-opener to the fact that most of us are here due to persecution and not out of choice.”

For more details about the festival, visit



“Das Fraulein” explores the physical and emotional displacement of three women.



“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is the story of Liberia.

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