IRIS presents an eye-opening Film Series

Lucille Bruce
Staff member at IRIS
Refugees in the '09 Festival
This year, the Yale Summer Film Institute, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a local non-profit), joined forces to produce The Future Will Be Possible: Documentary Films on Today's Refugees June 13-14 at the Whitney Humanities Center. As a staff member at IRIS, I'm working with Charlie Musser, Yale Film Studies professor and director of the Yale Summer Film Institute, and Festival staff on this series of powerful, thought-provoking films that tell a few modern-day refugee stories.

Who are refugees? In 1951, the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees defined refugees as people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their native countries "for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Refugees don't have, or can't seek, the protection of their own governments, so they flee. They apply for "refugee status" overseas through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Less than 1% of the world's 14 million refugees will ever resettle in a new country. In 2008, our government invited 50,000 refugees to the U.S. Of these, 121 came to New Haven, where IRIS helped them in their resettlement journeys.

When they flee, refugees leave behind country, language, family, friends, home, neighborhood, money, material belongings, jobs-even the diplomas and certificates that prove one's professional identity. Those who are invited to resettle face the daunting task of building a new life in a country where they don't speak the language, know the customs, or have any social network.

Consider the courage it takes to resettle as you watch New Year Baby, a film by Socheata Poeuv. As a young adult, Poeuv, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, set out to learn the story of her parents, Cambodians who escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide. For years they kept their history hidden from Poeuv.

Many refugee children, like Emmanuel Jal, the subject of War Child, have witnessed or experienced violence. Jal, a child soldier in Sudan's civil war, is now a hip-hop artist, on a mission to educate others and build peace in Africa. Some refugees struggle to recover meaning and purpose in their lives. Between Earth and Sky, a documentary-in-progress, reveals the pain and sorrow of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan following the war that began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After this screening, Iraqi refugees living in New Haven bravely take the stage to discuss the film and their resettlement experiences in the U.S.

After a weekend of documentary films, you can encounter refugees in other Festival programs as well. Aeneas was a refugee. Virtually all that remains of the city of Troy, he sets sail with a few soldiers in search of political asylum. Eventually he lands in Carthage, where he meets Queen Dido; learn more about their story in Mark Morris's dance opera Dido and Aeneas, set to the music of Henry Purcell. Ivanov, as staged by the Katona József Theatre Company, is set in Hungary in the 1960s, its characters living in the shadows of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that created some 200,000 Hungarian refugees. Andreya Ouamba, dancer/choreographer from the Congo and co-creator of The Good Dance, knew that he could not return to his native country when war broke out in the late 1990s. The Second Congo War created millions of refugees (including a small number who resettled in New Haven); today Ouamba's company is based in Senegal. And the musicians of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars fled Freetown, Sierra Leone when rebel forces attacked in 1999. When the war was over, they returned home; their journey is the subject of the closing documentary film in our series, and on June 27, they'll close the Festival on the New Haven Green.

Refugees remind us that we're fortunate to have the place, time, and freedom that we have. There's something else, too. The films in The Future Will Be Possible: Documentary Films on Today's Refugees suggest that the arts and storytelling can be powerful sources of renewal for refugees. As we were choosing the films for the program, Charlie Musser was skeptical. Refugees saved through art? Is this really possible? Or do the films romanticize the power of the arts? I hope you'll see the films, join the conversations with filmmakers and refugees, and decide for yourself.