VIFF brings refugees to the big screen

This year, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) shines a light on refugees and migration. The worldwide crisis is portrayed by directors from all around the globe.

Here is a look at three films presented at the festival. The 2018 edition of the festival runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 12.

Central Airport THF

Director Karim Aïnouz has been familiar with refugee issues since he was born. His father fled from the Algerian War, met his mother in the US and settled in Brazil, where he was born.

“When I was a teenager my family moved to France. People would treat me differently because of my Algerian background,” he says.

During that time, Aïnouz found out what was like to be an outcast. Born in Brazil, he saw himself as Brazilian. But living in France, he realized that he was indeed Algerian, and consequently felt what it meant to be an outsider.

Aïnouz, who now lives in Germany next to the Central Airport in Berlin, came up with the concept behind Central Airport THF, a film that focuses on the people behind the statistics.

“I was sick of how the media was portraying the refugee issue. I was seeing lots of numbers, but I wasn’t seeing enough people. I thought the media coverage was stripping the refugee’s humanity,” he says. “The weapon I have is my camera. I decided to use it by showing the world how these human beings are struggling to follow a dream.”

Although Aïnouz had a strong connection with the topic, directing the film enlightened him even more.

“I don’t see it as a refugee crisis, I see it as a neoliberalism crisis. The first generation of immigrants is migrating because they want to assure a better future for their kids. How can we not relate to that?” he says.

Aïnouz argues Central Airport THF provokes the public to think about solidarity.

“We need to understand why people are fleeing their homes before judging their actions,” he says.

With an acknowledged career in fiction having directed some of the most awarded Brazilian films over the last two decades, Aïnouz decided it was time to take action and tell a story in a nonfictional format.

“I believe filmmaking is a political act. But sometimes you have to be humble enough to understand that some stories don’t need to be recreated. You just need to tell them in their raw form. This is a story that had to be told in that way,” he says.


Eldorado weaves the director’s own childhood memories with the present day European refugee crisis. “It is not easy. When you live this story as a child it turns into a scar you never lose,” says Markus Imhoof .

During WWII, Imhoof was just a boy. His family took in an Italian refugee girl, a bit older than him. She was called Giovanna. “After a while, she was ordered to return to Italy. They forced her out of Switzerland,” he says.

The film Eldorado examines the European refugee crisis.

The young Imhoof struggled to understand why Giovanna had to leave. The memories of that period never left his mind.

“Every morning I read the news about boats full of people fleeing from their homes. I knew I needed to talk about it again,” he says.

After continuously witnessing the crisis aggravating, Imhoof decided it was time to deal with the open wound.

“What happened in the Second World War was harsh and cruel. What worries me is that I see no change. I see the pattern returning,” he explains.

Imhoof believes telling his personal story is going to reach people on a more personal level. Even if it is a heart-wrenching story, the director believes it has to be told.

“There are things I’d rather not see. But if you close your eyes you can be manipulated so you have to know what is going on around you,” he adds.

According to Imhoof, Eldorado is an invitation for empathy.

“People say we lose our values when strangers are coming to our land, but what is that worth when we are losing our values by mistreating them?” he says.

Inside my Heart

Inside my Heart portrays the story of families forced to flee Syria and Afghanistan.

The director is Vancouver-born filmmaker Debra Kellner. After living in France for over two decades, Kellner is happy to screen her film at VIFF.

“I wanted to show initially that these people are just like everyone else,” she says.

Kellner felt that among the numbers and the bold footage largely distributed on mainstream media the human aspect of the crisis was left out. She knew there was an opportunity to tell the stories of refugees with another perspective: utterly as human beings.

“No matter the social background, whether you are wealthy or not. Other people suffering is very tangible. I believe when people watch these stories they feel compelled and filled with empathy,” she says.

By connecting empathetically with the humanity in the stories, the audience can better understand the plight of others. “When we can project ourselves we can understand their struggles. Spectators are intelligent, they are able to engage their own emotions,” she says.

Inside my heart took three years to make from start to finish. In that time, Kellner met many families during the peak of the refugee and migrant crisis.

“The families reached out to me. I met them individually, slowly. I don’t feel like I chose them. I feel like they chose me,” she says.

As a filmmaker, Kellner believes “sometimes stories call to us.” For her, the crisis is everyone’s problem.

“I always think about what can I do as a woman filmmaker that makes my role different from a male filmmaker. I believe in this case I was able to have access to women in a different way,” she explains.

Kellner felt Muslim women were being left out of the conversation, not getting enough coverage from the media.

“People are being harsh on them, questioning about the upbringing of their sons. But they were not listening to their struggles,” she says.

Refugees, migration and displacement seem to be the new norm. Cinematographers around the world are working to keep a humanitarian lens on the situation, sharing stories instead of numbers.

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