A Different Kind of Movie Star

My earliest childhood memories are of lazy Saturdays down at the movie theater watching movies with my little sister when Mom would drop us off, back in the day when it was ok to do that, and the movies didn't need rating systems. Over the years films have thrilled me, scared me, informed me, and caused me to question. I know there are texts and tomes of research around the world examining the psycho-social impact of film, but for me, a good film moves me and often inspires me to think and do things in new ways.

Though I love films and many of the actors and actresses who bring them to life, I don't often love hearing about all the private details of their lives. One exception I take to that is reading about all the good they do in the world. I love that many actors and actresses choose to use their celebrity to call attention to causes, or to mobilize people and money toward efforts to help in every imaginable part of the world. So many examples of this, but recent ones Brad Pitt's Project Make it Right in New Orleans, and Ashley Judd for YouthAids around the world.

A few weeks ago I found my own movie star whom you won't read about in the entertainment magazines, but I wish you could. Open Air Cinema is my favorite latest example of a company who stumbled upon something they could help with, thought about what was possible and took action. They play a leading role in providing stellar inflatable screens for FilmAid who provides entertainment and education films in refugee camps.

I first heard of FilmAid International back when we were writing about Karli's list and Braden's school. Until I was learning about African children and the people working to help them, I knew little about refugee camps. When I talked to Caroline Avakian, FilmAid Communications Director, she told me that over 33 million people are in refugee camps around the world, having been forcibly displaced by violent conflict. Of those 33 million, 80% are women and children. And, most amazing and heartbreaking to me, the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years.

FilmAid was conceived by Caroline Baron, producer of Monsoon Wedding and Capote, who, in 1999, during the Bosnian war heard a radio program about the refugee camps in Macedonia. The doctor being interviewed was talking about the psycho-social trauma and boredom being the largest problems in the camps. Her immediate response: film. We've all be changed by film. After that Caroline mobilized friends and associates, they arrived in the camps and began showing entertaining films-Charlie Chaplin, at first. In addition, they did public service announcement films with critical messaging for the refugees: in this, case, land mine awareness.

Since then, Ms. Avakian says, they've learned a lot. In the past 7 years FilmAid has brought films for entertainment, inspiration, and information to millions of refugees in Kenya, Tanzania, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Louisiana. They have received recognition around the world for meeting this need for the refugee population.

Over the years and many refugee camps, FilmAid has developed a four-part, winning formula for the community: First, an evening screening of an entertaining film, usually with as many as 15,000 people watching, of an entertaining film. I wondered about the films: were we talking Disney or Die-Hard? Avakian says no, these films are selected by an advisory committee of community leaders, elders and under presented groups. The films are selected for appropriateness for the community and are frequently locally produced films featuring protagonists of their own ethnicity or from their region-empowered heroes and heroines. Also during the evening screening is a second part of the program: public service announcements. These are selected for relevance to the local community and cover topics like cholera information, or hygiene, or HIV/AIDS prevention and gender-violence education. Third are the daytime educational screenings in small settings where "taboo" topics, such as domestic violence prevention, mostly targeted toward women and girls, can be presented and discussed openly.

Fourth, and most inspiring, is the PVP program which is the personal video project, training community members to be videographers and create their own films, some of which have actually been featured in film festivals and later as evening features in their camps.

The actual showing the films is where Open Air Cinema comes in. In 2001, Stuart Farmer founded Open Air Cinema via the MBA business plan competition at BYU. Open Air provides projectors and film equipment for outdoor movies anywhere using the latest technology in inflatable screens and digital projectors. In 2006, Stuart says, he was surfing the internet when he came upon FilmAid. "They were using old projectors and small screens. I knew I could help." Stuart placed a call the next morning and donated 3 screens, a 9' fold-out, a 15' and a 25' inflatable-that's screen size! Before he knew it he was in Tanzania, setting up for the largest outdoor cinema in the world, 15,000 people. He trained people to set up the equipment, and they trained people and off they went.

I asked Stuart what the personal impact of this experience was on him. He said he was "mostly incredulous that a majority of people live in near poverty in the world." He was also "blown away" by how effective the media is and what a nice gift psychologically this is for the refugees. When he returned to the US and "our consumptive dream" he vowed to participate more. Stuart hopes to continue donating a screen a year-he's talking about Burma and their refugee camps, next.

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