ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Kurdistan Region, sheltering 1.4 million people fleeing conflict in Iraq and neighboring countries, is the ideal location for a film festival about the plight of refugees, argue organizers of the International Organization of Migration’s (IOM) second annual Global Migration Film Festival.
The festival takes place in 100 countries around the world and showcases films that depict the hopes, fears, and challenges that come with migration.
“There are a lot of documentaries to show what migrants and refugees go through and how they contribute to their communities socially and economically and the richness of the societies that they are moving to,” said Sandra Black, spokesperson for IOM, speaking in Erbil on Thursday, the first night of the festival
Dozens of film-goers showed up for opening night at La Dolce Vita Café’s theater, enjoying food and drinks while watching the films on offer.
Films related to the struggles of refugees were also screened at Qushtapa refugee camp on Tuesday night. And some 400 people enjoyed an animated feature shown for children at Ashti camp for displaced Iraqis.
“The overall goal of the migration film festival, which is part of the United Nations TOGETHER campaign, is to promote dignity and safety for migrants and refugees,” Black explained.
The UN TOGETHER campaign launched in September 2016 to “promote respect, safety and dignity for refugees and migrants” and aims to counter the rise of discrimination and xenophobia.
Curator and Kurdish filmmaker Jano Rosebiani hosted the first festival last year in his cinema café and was asked again by IOM to coordinate this year’s event.
“I selected the films that I thought were appropriate for Kurdistan,” Rosebiani said.
“Perhaps we are the only section of this festival that showed films in the [IDP and refugee] camps so we wanted to do something different,” he added, noting that most countries around the world may not have the opportunity that the Kurdistan Region has to connect directly with refugees and IDPs.
The films showing on opening night to a packed crowd in the 70-seat theatre hall included a short film by Turkish filmmaker Ramazan Kilic called ‘Refugee’ which shows a Syrian refugee family trying to hold on to their joyful memories from the past through a toy camera.
The night’s feature selection was a film by Catalan film directors David Fontseca and Arantza Diez called ‘To Kyma: A rescue in the Aegean Sea.’ It’s a documentary about a group of Spanish volunteer lifeguards working in Greece during the refugee crisis to help rescue the thousands of refugees trying to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece.
Two films from Kurdish directors will also be shown.
‘Arrived’ by director Dilgesh Rojbeyani is a short film that tells the story of refugees who arrive in Belgium but are locked up by smugglers until all payments are finalized.
'The Circle' directed by Ruken Tekes is a reflection from the world of children, addressing various layers of oppression towards diversity that aim to impose monotypic ‘coexistence’ for all those who are different than the ‘majority’ in power.
“We are undergoing hardships [in Kurdistan] but nonetheless that doesn’t mean giving up festivals, giving up life and besides the subject matter is timely,” Rosebiani said about hosting the festival. “We’re in the midst of a place that has close to 2 million refugees and IDPs so I think it’s appropriate to have the festival here in the Kurdish region.”
It’s also an opportunity to encourage art in a region surrounded by conflict, he added.
Rosebiani had a message for the Kurdish people: “They have to keep up their good spirit. They have seen many lows but they have also seen highs and I think this is one of those trying times. I’m very optimistic about the future and about the region for the Kurds, especially in Kurdish cinema and development.”
The theme of the festival hit home for its audience. Amed Demirhan, a Kurdish American, said the festival was interesting because he has been a migrant and a refugee.
“It’s very important that everybody be conscious and think about the war which has a cost in multiple dimensions,” he said. “Millions of people have been displaced and we should never forget about them.”
“These events that are organized here are great and we should have many more events like this to remind people of what could happen,” he added.
Dana from Kurdistan was happy for the attention the festival could bring to the issues of refugees and host communities.
“Kurds have always been victims and refugees or displaced and to be honest, almost no one noticed us,” he said. “Meanwhile we have always opened our arms for everyone and our experiences have taught us to care for others who have suffered.”
Sylvie, an Armenian-Lebanese NGO worker who has only been in the Kurdistan Region for one month, was excited to attend the festival.
“I love film festivals and was really attracted to this event that was happening in Erbil. It was an amazing decision to come here tonight,” she said. “These types of movies are not usually available to the public. I noticed some of the audience members were actually crying to see what is happening.”
The five day event runs through Monday, December 18 and will present films from 30 countries.