The Power of the Big Screen

Caroline Baron ’83
Photo by David Lee
Caroline Baron ’83

Refugee camps in Kosovo, Kenya or war-torn Kabul may seem unlikely venues for screenings of Hollywood classics like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” But award-winning producer Caroline Baron ’83 knew instinctively that movies could help stanch the hopelessness, trauma and boredom of refugees when she founded FilmAid in 1999 in response to the Balkan crisis.

At the time, she heard a radio report describing successful UN efforts to meet Kosovar refugees’ needs for food, shelter and medicine. What the victims were desperately short of were hope and a sense of human connection. Within six weeks, Baron had marshaled the funding and government resources to dispatch “mobile cinema” — a generator, screens and projectors on the back of a truck — to Macedonia.

“Movies address psychological needs by feeding the imagination and bringing disparate communities together,” says Baron, whose credits include “Monsoon Wedding” and “Capote,” for which she landed a 2005 Oscar nomination. “People say, ‘We’d rather see a movie than have a meal. If our minds aren’t well, the food isn’t going to help us.’”

In 2001, FilmAid started programs in the Kenyan refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma, the latter a 20-year-old settlement that holds nearly 100,000 refugees from various wars and conflicts in neighboring countries. The NGO also has programs on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, and in Haiti. FilmAid works in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other global aid organizations.

Along with holding regular screenings of indigenous cinema and Hollywood standards (which can be transformative: In Kabul in 2000, for the first time in their lives, girls got to see a movie), “we address life-saving needs,” Baron says. Enlisting the assistance of national staff, paid refugee staff and volunteers, FilmAid makes educational films using humor and storytelling techniques. Wherever the films are made, they reflect the problems at hand: reversing pediatric malnutrition during the Somali famine crisis, preventing HIV, finding lost documents in post-earthquake Haiti, planning a kitchen garden, dispelling a deadly rumor that cholera is transmitted through donated rice. “You can learn information that can help save a life,” notes Baron.

Dramatic technological change over the past decade has given Baron’s group both a greater mandate and an opportunity. “Refugees increasingly feel the need to be connected to the world and not forgotten, and we are a conduit for that,” says Baron. Text messaging, for example, will most likely not supplant the tremendous effectiveness of a large outdoor screening, but it could provide another way to keep people connected and engaged amidst tremendous uncertainty, violence and heartbreak.

“It’s not enough to just have basic survival,” says Baron. “We need to educate people, nurture their creativity and make sure the aid is being delivered effectively.”

Laura Gardner