28 January 2019

The Refugee Filmmaker

I never really thought the labels “filmmaker” and “refugee” could be used to describe the same person, but this past summer I was proved very much wrong.

In Kakuma refugee camp, young refugee filmmakers have very different stories of how they found film. Each of them share tales of overcoming horrifying experiences, some barely escaping with their lives. Others were born there and are now learning how to survive in a place that confines them  geographically and economically. However different their narrative, they all have one common goal – to find a peaceful place to thrive, not only to survive. Until they find that place, Kakuma is where they call home as they pursue their passions any way they can.

The Kakuma refugee camp is regarded as one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It’s a temporary home for almost 150,000 refugees migrating from 17 different countries in Africa. It’s located in Turkana County – a dry, hot, and dusty region in northwestern Kenya.

I first went to Kakuma in early September of 2017. I was there working on a docu-series highlighting the plight of refugees around the world. The series is a follow-up to my documentary film, Refugee: The Eritrean ExodusDuring my stay, I was introduced to people who worked at FilmAid, an organization created to provide refugees with skills in media, writing, and a focus on storytelling through filmmaking. This year I was invited back to Kakuma to work with the students of FilmAid as an instructor. It was an honor to be asked, so I packed my bags and reached out to my friend Chris Harley to join me as a fellow instructor and DP.

Kakuma refugee camp is made up of 4 zones. Each zone has slight differences in shelter structures, size, and community. The ethnicities inside those zones are are mixed: Somalis, Congolese, Sudanese and people from the other 14 countries all living as neighbors. The camp director explained that mixing the population helps keep tribalism violence down within the camp and promotes a larger sense of community. The Kenyan government has also just opened an area of Kakuma, Kalobeyei, resetting refugees into the Turkana territory. The Turkana people now rely heavily on the businesses of refugees and work from the organizations who support the camp.

Kakuma is like no other refugee camp I’ve seen. Being there feels more like a small city than a refugee camp. There are bustling downtown areas, ramshackle neighborhoods, and buzzing motorcycles shuttling people from zone to zone. Refugees start businesses and raise families as they wait for what the future holds for them. They pray for resettlement, peace in their homeland, or any opportunity that could be better than living in their current state of refugee limbo. It’s a place filled with cinematic landscapes and photogenic people, each of whom carry a powerful story.

Chris and I spent two weeks in Kakuma as guest instructors teaching students interested in journalism and film production. We discussed camera techniques, interviewing styles, and storytelling. We took turns interviewing each other and went into the field to give our students hands-on time with our gear. We laughed together as we tried to learn each other’s skills and customs, and we supported each other when the stories being shared got serious and troubling.

We were responsible for roughly 20 students in Kakuma. Most of them were focused on journalism and documentary film. I was happy to see some friends I had made on my first visit to Kakuma, so not all of them were strangers. One of whom was David. David was born in Kakuma and has lived there all his life. He learned English by watching movies, reading books, and talking to anyone who would listen. He says he has a sort of “Hollywood English” and sometimes his friends tease him for sounding too American. Watch as David tells us about what inspires his writing as he performs his spoken word piece, Refugee Boy.

Our class was mostly men, but we did have one bright woman who was mostly interested in writing. Before we left, she told us that our time together had shown her how well the written word and visual storytelling can play together to create an even more dynamic and powerful work. Nyamad has a delicate, poetic style and she is an intellectually confident interviewer. Naymad is also happens to be a spoken word artist. Here is a beautiful piece she wrote illustrating her struggles and the struggles of the modern day refugee.

If we had the time we could have made a film for each FilmAid student, each shop owner, each NGO, mother, father, and child.

Chris and I would like to thank FilmAid for providing us the opportunity to work with such inspiring young people and our students for welcoming us into their camp. We are proud of our students for their efforts and continued strength as their futures remain uncertain. I went to Kakuma thinking that I was going to be the instructor, but what I learned from the refugees of Kakuma were far more valuable. Their courage, compassion, and unity are lessons I reflect on every day.