TV and film help UNHCR to raise refugee issues awareness in China, Ukraine as well as Japan

by Andy Kozlov

“I’m asking the many gifted storytellers in our community to help us tell our stories. Together I think we can help the world see and believe in a better future,” quote from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the website of the United Nations Creative Community Outreach Initiative

Andy Kozlov (left) with Sebele Mokoka, first secretary of the South African Embassy in Kyiv, during 2013 Mandela Day celebrations in Troeshchyna-located integration centre for refugees. (Photo: UNHCR/Mykhailo Khoryshov)

Today is the day when my contract with the UN Refugee Agency expires.  Time for a moment of reflection. 

When I joined the UNHCR team as a UN Volunteer in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv almost a year ago, one of my goals was to popularize the idea of engaging local video content creators among my public information colleagues. I didn’t have to start from scratch.

Although many of us public information professionals working with UNHCR globally do not specifically think in terms of the Creative Community Outreach Initiative, over the years the UN Agency for Refugees has been pioneering closer collaboration with the film and TV professionals by providing the latter with access to UN experts on global issues, advising them on script authenticity as it pertains to the work of the UN and its issues, assisting with research on UN issues and storylines.

The following two examples well illustrate the trend. Many of you know about the great work by Angelina Jolie to raise awareness of refugee plight worldwide. But did you know that the first UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in China, Yao Chen, is also an award-winning actress who mobilized support for refugees among millions of her countrymen and -women.

Award-winning actress Yao Chen mobilized support for refugees among millions of Chinese people. (Photo: UNHCR)

In Japan during the period straddling 2009 World Refugee Day, millions of NHK viewers were expected to tune in to locally produced TV drama about UNHCR, “Plastic Sheeting in the Wind.”

At UNHCR office in Kyiv we also added our bit to the growing collaboration with film people. On October 23, within the framework of the Molodist International Film Festival, we held a screening of Aliens: Somalis in Transit, second refugee-related documentary film by Spanish director Paula Palacios. The Al Jazeera-produced film documents the story of a 15-year-old refugee Ali and his 16-year-old friend Yoonis who fled the conflict in Somalia. Having seen their fathers die and leaving their mothers and brothers behind, they hoped to get a better life in the European Union, but ended up in a Ukrainian migrant detention center, which had been built with EU funds.

Somali youth Ali interviewed before the premier screening of Aliens: Somalis in Transit. Kyiv, October 2013. (Photo Vladimir Shuvaev/

The local edition of Forbes published an announcement of the event a bit misleadingly calling the film an Ukrainian-Qatar co-production.

Just not yet.

In Ukraine — Post-Soviet transitional economy, where people still occasionally cite communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s “Cinema, for us, is the most important of the arts” — locally-produced movies are not faring well financially. International co-productions are rare and suffer from lack of competent internationally savvy Ukrainian creatives. Documentary films about refugees are clearly not going to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in local movie theaters, and, for the time being, special screenings may be the only feasible way to tell the refugee story in an engaging way.

Yuliya Yurova and Veronika Vashchenko, Communication Officers, UNICEF Ukraine watch trailer of Aliens: Somalis in Transit (Photo UNHCR/Andy Kozlov)

We at UNHCR Kyiv still believe that a niche group of dedicated viewers can be carved out.. frame by frame, step by step. And once that has been accomplished, more local film-makers will follow in Ms Palacios steps.

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