WNY Refugee Film Festival only one of its kind in the US

Jan 28, 2021

Western New York is home to the only Refugee Film Festival in the United States. It starts Thursday night with the premiere of ‘Memory Is Our Homeland,’ a film documenting the little-known history of WWII Polish refugees in East Africa. The festival is free and will be hosted throughout the year with virtual seating through Journey’s End Refugee Services. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with Journey's End Executive Director Karen Andolina Scott.


Eight films are planned to be shown from tonight until December for free in a virtual cinema. Tonight's showing starts at 7 p.m.  The link to the festival website is here.

Nick Lippa: How did the festival come to be and what does it look like this year?

Journey's End Executive Director Karen Andolina Scott: We decided three years ago, when we were talking about what type of event Journey's End we'd like to put on, and thinking about a signature event and something that really could help tell the story of who Journey's End is as an agency. We thought about showing some films as our space has a theater inside of it. And so we thought, what better way to tell our story than by being able to get people into our space and showing some films. Kathy Spillman, our Director of Community Outreach, had organized some film festivals in previous positions that she held with other organizations. And so she was instrumental in helping us organize what this might look like. So the film festival is an eight-part film series. We show films throughout the year. Participants can purchase a full series pass where they're able to watch each of the films. The first two years, we were able to do the film series mostly in person. And then this year of course, because of COVID, we are all virtual. 

NL: This is the only Refugee Film Festival in the United States right now. This is your third year, which means this started during the Trump administration. During that time there've been travel bans, deportations, hunger strikes at ICE an facility here in Western New York. What can film do in this political atmosphere?

KAS: You know, there's a lot of misinformation and generated fear when people are fed that misinformation around immigration and the refugee program in general. And you can really lessen that fear when people can make those human connections. And art has always served as a way to to bridge those gaps and to help people make connections with people and stories that they might not otherwise have a personal relationship with. And so certainly, the past four years have been really difficult on the agency, but more importantly really difficult on immigrants and refugees. And people of color. The separation that has occurred, the violence and incarceration, it's real. And we really wanted to show the human side of who our clients are. The real struggles that individuals go through, but also their humanity and how we are all so similar and just looking for ways to have a better life and keep our children safe. And being able to experience their joy in spite of the extreme adversity that they are facing. The positives that people bring to various regions.

Some of the films take place in other cities throughout the United States. And you can see the value that refugees continue to bring to the communities that they move into. And it's not to say the importance of these films will decrease as we move forward. And we have a federal administration that is much more kind and has already started to reverse some of the policies of the previous administration, because those human connections are still going to need to be made. 


NL: And learning about other cultures can be done in person, but I imagine it’s not always easy for refugees to talk about their experiences. 

KAS: I know that we get a lot of requests to do community outreach, which is wonderful. But sometimes those requests (end at), “And we would love to have a refugee come and tell their story.” You know, that can be very traumatic and painful for an individual. But with these films being out there it is about people who want to share their story and who are able to share their story without having the pressure of us as individuals forcing them to do that.