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Oscar nominates two documentary films portraying the plight of refugees

Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rossi has been selected in the Documentary category and 4.1 Miles by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category

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oscar nominated two documentaries portraying refugee crisis, courtesy- VOA

Italy, 19 Feb, 2017: Two documentaries on the plight of refugees off the Italian coast and the Greek coast, respectively, have received Oscar nominations this year.

Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rossi has been selected in the Documentary category and 4.1 Miles by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category.

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Rossi’s stunning camera frames the island of Lampedusa as one of the characters in his film. Remote and rather desolate, its rocky shores are forbidding to any who would attempt to swim ashore. But over the past 20 years, this tiny Italian island, 120 kilometers off the Sicilian coast and 70 kilometers off the coast of Tunisia, has become a gateway to Europe for close to half a million refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Twenty-seven thousand people have lost their lives there.

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Constantly searching

The Italian Coast Guard is constantly searching the open sea for makeshift boats overflowing with hundreds of souls, most of them women and children.

Rossi’s documentary captures the drama. In one instance, one member of the Coast Guard receives a desperate call from a woman who is pleading for help. Time is of the essence; if the Coast Guard does not get to them immediately, they will drown.

Rossi’s documentary shows the migrant drama unfolding next to the quiet lives of unassuming islanders.

In an interview with VOA, Rossi said that these two communities, the islanders and the migrants, never meet. He says he wanted to show Lampedusa not only as an actual place of migration but also as a metaphor of what’s happening in the world. “Two forces that barely touch each other, and they never meet,” he says.

Migrants sit outside the immigration center on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa Feb. 19, 2015.

Migrants sit outside the immigration center on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa Feb. 19, 2015.

Samuele is the focus

He centers his film on Samuele, a Sicilian boy living on the island. A professed hunter among seafaring people, Samuele is hunting birds, pointing his imaginary automatic rifle to the skies and shooting unseen enemies, training his expert slingshot on hapless cacti. Rossi likens him to a humanity that has not yet reached maturity. Samuele is exuberant and destructive but also tenacious and introspective when he is called to train his lazy eye by covering the good one.

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“Samuele is a constant metaphor. The little kid is a coming-of-age film, the capacity of this little kid to face life. The anxiety of Samuele is our own anxiety. The wonder of Samuele is our own wondering. The lazy eye of Samuele is our lazy eye.”

Voice of reason

On the other end of the spectrum is a doctor, Bartolo. As the only physician on the island, Bartolo is the person in which the two worlds meet. He examines every single refugee coming to Lampedusa and confirms the dead. Bartolo is the film’s voice of reason and compassion. He decries the indifference of the world toward such humanitarian crises.

“All this leaves you so angry. It leaves you with emptiness in your gut, a hole,” he says.

The refugee crisis is also at the center of Matziaraki’s 4.1 Miles. The film chronicles around-the-clock rescue missions off the Greek island of Lesbos. Kyriakos, a member of the Greek Coast Guard and the main character in the story, says that he and his team are called to rescue 200 people per hour.

Kyriakos a quiet hero

According to the film, in 2015 and 2016, 600,000 migrants crossed the 6.1 kilometers — 4.1 miles — of water between Turkey and Lesbos.

Matziaraki’s documentary is visceral. Often shooting with cameras attached to rescuers’ heads so that we experience the moment-to-moment rescue, she conveys how every second of pulling someone out of the water makes a difference between life and death.

Kyriakos is a modern-day hero, quiet, collected, but also dismayed by what he has witnessed. The camera often closes in on his tired face, describing what we cannot see. 4.1 Miles is also more openly critical than Fire at Sea of the world community that, as the inhabitants of Lesbos say, has abandoned both islanders and refugees.

“I was proposing Lampedusa and Lesbos for the Nobel Prize, you know,” says Rossi during his VOA interview. “These two special islands in the middle of nowhere that welcome migrants from all over the world.”

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Focus on refugees’ ordeal

He has arrived in our Los Angeles studio straight from the airport, after a 17-hour flight from Japan. Talking about the recognition of his film by the Academy, Rossi says, “The idea that we brought the Sea of Lampedusa to the desert of California was an incredible arrival for me because ultimately migration is a transverse tragedy. The Sea of Lampedusa is the desert of California. People here die in the desert as much as people die crossing the water in order to reach freedom.”

Rossi hopes Fire at Sea helps bring awareness about the refugees’ ordeal.

“There is a voice in my film, at a certain point, of migrants. They ask for help: ‘Please help! Help!’ They are dying in the middle of the sea, and the Coast Guard asks, ‘What’s your position? What’s your position?’ This is a very important moment. I wanted to reverse this and have people ask themselves, ‘What’s my position towards this tragedy? Where do I stand?’ This is what I want the film to do.”(VOA)

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Rakhine: Ban on Donations to Help War Refugees

“People are moving around, and they can encounter difficulties and problems anytime, anywhere, because of the weather and the fighting,” he said. “People should have the right to help IDPs in their own way.”

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Myanmar
Myanmar villagers displaced by armed conflict take temporary shelter in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, in an undated photo. RFA

Myanmar’s Rakhine state government has banned state employees from collecting donations to help thousands of residents displaced by hostilities between national forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), fearing that the funds are being diverted to the ethnic fighters, according to an internal memo issued by the state’s education department.

The memo dated April 5 instructed education department employees to refrain from gathering donations  for internally displaced person (IDPs), citing concerns that some of the money is being passed on to the AA to assist the ethnic army in its battle for greater autonomy in Rakhine.

When contacted by RFA’s Myanmar Service, state education official Aung Than Myint confirmed the news and said he released the departmental circular per the state government’s instructions.

Police in Rakhine have also been stopping local NGOs from collecting money in some areas of the state, much to the indignation of local residents who want to provide aid to some of the estimated 31,000 people who have fled their homes due to armed conflict.

In a statement issued on April 6, the Representative Committee of Civil Society Organizations in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe condemned the actions of police officers who stopped a civil society group from collecting donations there.

“Because they are afraid the money will go to the AA, people who really are suffering will not get any support or donations from CSOs,” Thar Pwint, chairman of the Representative Committee of Civil Society Organizations in Sittwe.

“It’s not good,” he said. “They [the authorities] should use some other way to stop money from going to the AA.”

Letters of instruction

On the same day that Thar Pwint’s group issued its statement, Sittwe’s Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity sent letters to township police and village administrators, ordering them not to collect any donations without permission from the state government.

The letters instructed police authorities and village officials to take action against those who collect funds for the IDPs without permission.

When RFA contacted several village heads, they hesitated confirm that they had received the letters.

“We have heard that some people were collecting donations in some government departments to support the AA,” said a state government official who declined to give his name.

“The state government is just trying to contain the situation because of this rumor,” he said.

A man helping the IDPs, who asked that his name be withheld, said the influx of villagers who have fled their communities and have sought shelter in other villages has created food and water shortages.

“Some villages have only 100 households, but about 300 households have come to their villages [for shelter], and they have to share food for the 100 households with another 300 households,” he said. “This will be a problem in the long run. The host households have to take care of the IDPs who can’t work.”

Khine Maung Gyi of Sittwe township’s Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity, said that authorities believe money collected is going to the AA, they should come up with a more specific plan to stop it from happening.

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In a related development, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said Thursday that the ethnic military would release the family members of police officers it had detained a day earlier following a clash in Mrauk-U township. Pixabay

“As the situation is bad enough with the IDP problem in Rakhine, it will get worse with other problems arising because of what they have now done,” he said.

“People are moving around, and they can encounter difficulties and problems anytime, anywhere, because of the weather and the fighting,” he said. “People should have the right to help IDPs in their own way.”

Supplies for IDPs

Ye Min Oo from Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department noted that the state government has supplied IDPs with rice and other humanitarian aid now worth 500 million kyats (U.S. $329,300).

On Thursday, members of the Rakhine State Peace and Stability Supporting Committee visited Kyauktaw township, one of the areas affected by the fighting, where panel chairman Aye Thar Aung and vice chairman Pe Myint provided goods to IDPs.

The committee, formed by President Win Myint in March to prevent provocations that could cause further instability in the violence-ridden state, this week began conducting field studies on peace and stability in Rakhine, consulting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions on short-term and long-term projects to bring stability to the state.

In addition to the thousands of displaced people in Rakhine, the fighting has resulted in 43 deaths and 69 injuries among civilians, according to a list issued by the state’s Disaster Management Department,

In a related development, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said Thursday that the ethnic military would release the family members of police officers it had detained a day earlier following a clash in Mrauk-U township.

About 200 AA soldiers attacked the compound, taking four women and three children from the residential quarters with them when they later retreated, with the wife of one police official shot dead by ethnic forces, a report in the official Global New Light of Myanmar said.

Two policemen were killed and seven others were reported missing during the fighting, the report said.

Tun Myat Naing said in the online journal The Irrawaddy that the AA did not abduct the people, but rather led them to safety, fearing they might be killed as Myanmar military planes bombed the area.

The Myanmar Police Force said the AA abducted seven people and that the wife of one officer was killed during the attack.

The AA will hand the women and children over either to the government or to a local ethnic Rakhine women’s group, Myat Naing told the journal.

The AA and Myanmar Army reported casualties on both sides.

Villagers detained

Following a deadly attack on the police compound, government soldiers and the AA took their battle to a village north of Mrauk-U township where Myanmar troops later detained nearly 30 residents, villagers said.

Fighting ensued in Lekkar village after the AA attacked the No.31 Police Division before dawn earlier in the morning. Both sides confirmed the fighting but did not provide details.

Myanmar villagers told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that a military column had entered the village and apprehended 27 locals the troops believed to be connected to the AA, but that they had no ties to the ethnic army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state.

“Nineteen people from our village [were taken],” said Thein Yee, whose husband Khin Maung Saw is among those being detained.”

The other eight are from different villages.

“Some people such as carpenters who were here to build houses were also in the village,” she told RFA.

“A tenth-grader was also taken. They have nothing to do with the AA. We can surely guarantee that. All of our village elders can guarantee that. They have nothing to do with the AA. We have to make a living working odd jobs.”

Thein Yee also said that Khin Maung Saw had been with her throughout the clash when they took refuge in a village monastery.

Lone Lone, the aunt of detained tenth-grader Soe Moe Kyaw, said that the boy from Pyine-cha village had come to Lekkar village to attend school.

“He went to Pyine-cha for a brief visit, and then came back here with me,” she said. “We were hiding in bomb shelters when soldiers came to the village.”

The soldiers called for Soe Moe Kyaw to come out and ordered him to take off his shirt, she said.

“He was left under the burning sun, and we were too scared to say anything,” Lone Lone said. “We dared not even look at them. My nephew didn’t understand the situation, because he is just a tenth-grader.”

35 names on a list

Villagers and AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the people that the military had taken away were not AA members.

But Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information team insisted that they have ties to the Arakan force.

left homes
Police in Rakhine have also been stopping local NGOs from collecting money in some areas of the state, much to the indignation of local residents who want to provide aid to some of the estimated 31,000 people who have fled their homes due to armed conflict. Pixabay

“They are members of the AA, according to our investigation,” he said. “We’ll release information later.”

A statement issued Wednesday by the Myanmar military said it had apprehended 23 members of the AA disguised as local residents who had escaped into the village.

When RFA asked Zaw Min Tun about the difference in the figures, he said the number varied based on the situation on the ground.

The military column raided the community and found a handwritten list of people whom it questioned, later taking away some of those whose names appeared on it, villagers said.

They insisted that the list did not belong to the AA, and instead contained the names of members of local welfare groups.

A local government employee speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA that the list contained names of members of a sentry group set up to protect the village during the fighting and prevent thieves from stealing cattle.

“We have about four or five groups to protect the village in south, north, east, and west locations,” he said. “The group in question was from the west.”

“The names of 35 people were on the list,” he said. “Some are at IDP camps, and some are in the village. The troops called out these people and accused them of having contact with AA. They said it openly in front of us.”

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Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the army is conducting necessary investigations.

“The truth will come out later,” he said. “That’s all I can say for now. I think the police will release their findings on the investigation later.” (RFA)