During the spring of 1999, it was impossible not to be moved by news of the Balkan crisis. Concerned citizens around the world fired off checks to organizations providing food and shelter to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians crowding into refugee camps after being violently uprooted from their homes in Kosovo. But movie producer Caroline Baron wanted to do more. Listening to National Public Radio one morning, she had a brainstorm. The biggest problem in the makeshift camps, the program reported, was monotony—unbroken, bedrock boredom.
Baron then wondered, Why not bring movies to the refugee camps and hold outdoor viewings? "I could just see this image of kids smiling up at the screen," she recalls. She wasted no time. Though it was a Sunday, she began a flurry of calls to friends in the film business. "I did not get off the phone for 24 hours," she says.
The next day Baron began dialing up Kosovar relief agencies. Literally overnight she schooled herself on the international aid scene and learned that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which supports more than 22 million people in need worldwide, was overseeing all the camps in the Balkan region. On Tuesday she got word that the UNHCR had green-lighted FilmAid to set up operation in Macedonia.
Only six weeks after the NPR broadcast, Baron arrived in Macedonia, having helped raise $80,000 for FilmAid. With these funds and other donations—screens, generators, and airfare for all the equipment—Baron and two collaborators held their first screening on Saturday, June 19, 1999. To bridge the language gap, they chose about 50 films with strong visual story lines, such as Tom and Jerry cartoons, Charlie Chaplin silents, E.T., and Titanic. They also presented an educational film in Albanian on land mine awareness. To keep the show running as it moved from camp to camp—they visited five in all—FilmAid trained and hired some of the refugees and a local Macedonian crew to man the equipment. In the end, crowds of 300 to 4,000 watched movies over a period of two months, until almost all the evacuees had returned to Kosovo.
"It was a very healing gesture Caroline offered," says Robyn Groves, senior external relations officer of the UNHCR and now a member of FilmAid's board. "The refugees all laughed together—as families. And if you think about the greatest good American film has offered over the years, it's exactly this."
These days Baron is preparing for FilmAid's next mission: Africa. There, it is not unusual for refugees to remain in camps for ten years. FilmAid is planning a six-month expedition to Kakuma, a camp in northwest Kenya where 70,000 refugees live in small, tightly packed shacks roofed with scrap metal from old cooking-oil cans. Baron and crew hope to present entertaining movies and to greatly expand their educational programming by showing films on problems endemic to the camps, such as AIDS, sexual violence, and land mines. Just back from a scouting visit, Baron proudly recounts what Kakuma's education director told her about the benefit of showing such films: "She said, 'It will save lives.'"
There are many logistics to work out and $500,000 to raise, but Baron says her humanitarian work is addictive and she is grateful to have the production skills to carry out her vision. For every smile she puts on a refugee's face, her own life is enriched a little more. "It's a gift," she says simply. "I feel blessed."
What You Can Do
- For more on FilmAid, visit www.filmaidinternational.org.