FilmAid is an innovative nonprofit organization that works to redefine humanitarian assistance through film. At the end of April 1999 during the Kosovo War, 600,000 Kosovars had become refugees and 400,000 people were displaced inside of Kosovo. To escape the conflict, many were forced to move to Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Producer Caroline Baron saw the news coverage of the situation and realized that all of the humanitarian aid came in the same form.
Large agencies like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) handled essential issues – providing food, medical aid and shelter. However, these hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees needed emotional and mental assistance as well. They were losing hope. And Baron decided to do something about it.
Baron brought films to the refugee camps, hoping to counter the emotional toll and traumatic effects of the war. Initially, her crew stayed in Macedonia for eight weeks and presented a wide range of films and cartoons: Charlie Chaplin, E.T., Mrs. Doubtfire and Tom & Jerry. Later, they added films about topics like HIV prevention and land mine awareness. FilmAid seeks to not only entertain but also educate the refugees. FilmAid’s early efforts in Macedonia and Kosovo established the future framework of the organization and proved the powerful humanitarian impact of film. For the refugees, FilmAid’s movies became a glimmer of hope for the future.
Baron hoped to “feed the imagination and the soul while providing life-saving messages on the big screen to people with little access to crucial information.” And she did. Since its inception in 1999, FilmAid has grown exponentially. Liesl Spitz, FilmAid’s Development and Communications officer, stated that FilmAid provides the “psychological relief” that is absolutely essential for the well-being of those who have been traumatized by war and natural disasters. Feel-good films like Doctor Doolittle and Mr. Bean’s Holiday unfailingly boost morale, but FilmAid insists that the educational value of filmmaking itself is invaluable. As a result, FilmAid began implementing several programs to hold filmmaking workshops and encourage refugees to create their own films.
FilmAid later added more didactic films about health, hygiene, public safety and civic education. All were well-received by outside humanitarian organizations and the refugees themselves. With the support of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the UNHCR, FilmAid was able to expand to Africa. In September 2001, the organization brought the joy of film to thousands of refugees who arrived in East Africa from nations like Sudan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Many of those refugees were former child soldiers and survivors of genocide.
In addition to its work in Africa, FilmAid now has programs and activities in Haiti, Thailand and Kenya. In 2008, FilmAid began to work in non-refugee communities like Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Other areas of impact include Tanzania, the Gulf Coast and Afghanistan.
As IRC’s Gerald Martone said, “diversion is a luxury we afford ourselves without sacrifice. Why would we deprive it from refugees?”
— Kristy Liao