The Power of Movies
by Christina Frank
A group of kids watching The Wizard of Oz is hardly a remarkable sight--unless that group consists of one hundred street children in Kabul, Afghanistan who have never before seen a movie, let alone a young girl singing about rainbows.
"You could see these kids' minds just exploding with the images and the color and the music," says Caroline Baron, founder of FilmAid International, a program that brings movies to refugee camps and war-torn cities. "They were mesmerized, totally wide-eyed, their mouths hanging open, literally in awe. It was beautiful and touching."
Bringing the land of Oz to Afghanistan is only the most recent endeavor of FilmAid, which Baron, a 40-year-old movie producer, conceived of one Sunday morning in 1999 while lying in bed listening to a radio report about refugee camps in Macedonia. Some of the biggest challenges the refugees faced, stated the report, were psychological trauma, monotony and boredom--gnawing, soul-stifling problems that linger even when more obvious, concrete needs like food, shelter and medicine are being met. (Worldwide, 33 million people currently live in refugee camps or are internally displaced within their own countries.)
"I had spent a lot of time traveling in that part of the world and I wanted to do something to help," recalls Baron. "I was thinking about going to Macedonia and signing up to hand out food or medicine, and then I heard that report on National Public Radio. I imagined being in a refugee camp with nothing to do and only your recent horrific memories and fear of the future to think about. I had this idea to bring movies to the camps."
Not sure if her idea was "a good one or a stupid one," Baron called assorted family and friends for a reality check. Everyone was enthusiastic. "One friend of mine who is a Bosnian filmmaker said that when Sarajevo was under siege, he and his wife organized a film festival and people ran to the theater at risk of being killed by sniper fire, just to see movies. That told me something."
Baron spent the next 48 hours with the phone glued to her cheek, calling friends in the film industry, including Robert DeNiro and his business partner Jane Rosenthal, who immediately offered their support. Within one day, she received a letter from The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) saying that they would support the project and authorize entry into the camps.
Six weeks later, Baron and her rapidly-assembled crew of volunteers were on their way to Macedonia armed with a generator, projectors, screens and other makings of a mobile cinema. They stayed for eight weeks and showed popular American films including ET, Titanic and Mrs. Doubtfire, as well as Tom and Jerry cartoons and Charlie Chaplin movies.
Robyn Groves, senior external relations officer of the UNHCR, was with the group and recalls the first night they showed a film. "These were refugee children and families who had seen appalling things and who were in limbo," says Groves. "Refugee camps are horrible places--people never know how long they're going to be there, so their lives are in suspension. It's particularly hard on children, who have lost their school and their friends and don't know what's going to happen. We saw hundreds and hundreds of children come out of their tents and be excited and happy and laughing together. There was such joy amongst those families that night that I could see FilmAid would have a long future because it's so healing."
The project was such a success that when the group returned to the US, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) became Film Aid's parent organization, lending it real credibility. Baron proudly explains that the project is funded primarily by donations, largely from the Hollywood film community, and that 99% of staff are volunteers. Involved celebrities include Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Julia Ormond. "Caroline is driven by tremendous integrity and respect for every human life," says Ormond. "Her sensitivity and knowledge of refugee issues has led her to create an organization that touches thousands of lives. She is endlessly inspiring to me and I'm thrilled to be part of FilmAid."
In 2001, FilmAid headed to the Kakuma refugee camps in Northern Kenya, which contain some 80,000 refugees from various parts of Africa. Many have been there for a decade and have never seen a film. "The camps in Kenya are in a very barren desert," says Groves. "Living standards are absolutely subsistence level and there is little or no joy of any kind, so for them to see a movie is an amazing thing. It helps them to know they haven't been completely forgotten."
Because people in the Kakuma camps are of diverse ethnicities and have cultural differences, the group had to be careful its film choices. Nothing violent or obviously traumatic is ever shown in camps--especially after a minor gaffe in Macedonia.
"We were showing a Tom & Jerry cartoon, which I thought was totally innocuous, but there was a scene where a bomb falls on a house and the house splits apart," recalls Baron. "Here were all these kids whose houses had just been bombed. We immediately took out the tape and put in something else."
During the Wizard of Oz showing in Afghanistan, the crew was asked to fast-forward through a scene where the munchkins wear tutus, because too much of their legs were exposed.
To overcome language barriers, FilmAid chooses movies with strong story lines or has someone either tell the story beforehand or translate while the film is in progress. Baron also makes an effort to show movies made by regional filmmakers in their native languages, as well as educational films on topics relevant to refugee life--such as AIDS, landmine awareness and domestic violence. "You can communicate to large groups of people so much more effectively with images on a screen than with a flyer," says Baron.
At the Kakuma camps, some of the refugees have been trained--and are now paid-- to run the equipment themselves so that movies can be ongoing. They have a library of videos and are able to show several movies per week.
Baron strongly encourages refugees to make films of their own and, to that end, has developed a Participatory Video Project, which trains them to use video filmmaking equipment. "I feel that it's so important for the refugees to have their own voices, for them to tell their own stories and communicate to each other," she says.
Baron's own story begins in Brooklyn, NY, where she was born in 1961. She and her three siblings grew up in Woodmere, Long Island; their mother was an elementary school teacher and their father was the principal of a junior high school.
In 1983, she graduated from Brandeis University, where she majored in English. "I had no idea what I wanted to do until I took the one filmmaking class offered at Brandeis," says Baron, who right after college landed a job as a production assistant on the cult film The Toxic Avenger. She has produced movies ever since; her other credits include Tough Guys Don't Dance, Flawless, Home for the Holidays and most recently, the Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding.
Between films, Baron ventured off to travel the world alone and her trips, clearly helped her to develop compassion for struggling peoples. She traveled all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during the demise of communism (a piece of barbed wire that was once part of the "Iron Curtain" rests on her bedroom windowsill), as well as in India and Southeast Asia. She found her experiences thrilling, though, understandably, they made her mother nervous. "My mom would say 'Can't you just go to Club Med like your siblings?'" laughs Baron.
Today, she is single and lives on the 36th floor of an apartment building in lower Manhattan, just three blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. (She was away on September 11th, but her building was evacuated and uninhabitable for a few weeks following the attacks, so she had to stay with friends.)
Baron used her five-day journey to Afghanistan in March as an "assessment" trip for FilmAid, to find out what's possible and desired by the population, given all the years of Taliban rule.She and the two fellow producers who accompanied her were amazed at the warm reception that greeted them.
"There is such a pervasive hunger there for any kind of creative stimulation and a desperate need for education and information," says Baron, whose task now is to raise the money to go back to Kabul and the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, to launch a full-fledged FilmAid project.
Though support for her brainchild has been substantial, there are those who view showing movies to desperate people as frivolous. Baron has a ready response: "Of course food and shelter are the first needs to be met, but people need more to survive," she says. "Seeing a film opens people's minds, inspires them and gives them hope." In fact, says Baron "I've actually had refugees tell me they would happily give up a meal in order to watch a movie."