Refugee musicians' story wins 'Best Documentary' in L.A. film festival

News Stories, 15 November 2005

© Sodasoap Productions
Refugee All-Stars band members Francis John Langba and Mohammed Bangura in a scene from the award-winning documentary.

HOLLYWOOD, November 15 (UNHCR) On Sunday evening in Los Angeles, the inspiring film entitled "The Refugee All Stars" won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at The American Film Institute's (AFI) International Film Festival. The film was lauded by the grand jury as "a humanistic portrayal of will triumphing over tragedy."

In her introduction, prior to the film's screening at the festival before a packed audience of music and entertainment insiders, AFI Documentary Programmer Natalie McMenemy called the film her personal favourite. "The film captures how these musicians use music to better their lives and help other people. They are an inspiring group of people," she said.

"The Refugee All Stars" tells the story of six Sierra Leonean musicians who, after surviving their country's bloody civil war, formed a band while living as refugees in the Sembakounya refugee camp in Guinea. The band's music is a soulful mix of traditional West African music, reggae, and classic R&B. Their lyrics provide a vivid depiction of the everyday realities of refugee existence, as well as reflections on their lives and homeland in the wake of the conflict.

The filmmakers followed the musicians over a three-year period, during which they travelled back and forward between various refugee camps in Guinea and the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, as part of the UN refugee agency's "go-and-see" programme for Sierra Leonean refugees.

"Go-and-see" programmes, which are often used when long-standing conflicts come to an end, offer refugees who have been traumatized by war an opportunity to visit their home country and see whether or not conditions have improved sufficiently to allow them to return. After completing their visit they return to the refugee camps to share their impressions with their fellow refugees, who are then in a better position to decide whether or not to commit themselves to repatriating. Popular musicians like the Refugee All Stars band members are even more likely to attract attentive listeners than other more prosaic members of the refugee community.

At last week's premiere screening in Los Angeles, the film's co-directors, Zach Niles and Banker White, credited UNHCR's Alphonse Munyaneza with making this film a reality. Munyaneza has been involved with the filmmakers from the very beginning. An avid believer in the power of the arts to further awareness of the refugee cause, Munyaneza was the UNHCR host during the first production trip to Guinea.

Band members Abdul Rahim Kamara and Reuben Koroma attended last week's screening and performed at the reception following the premiere. During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Kamara and Koroma were asked how they felt about all the attention they were getting for their music. Their answer? "Very good." The audience for "The Refugee All Stars" left the theatre feeling the same way.

Next stop for the award-winning documentary: a film festival in Amsterdam.

By Elaine Bole in Hollywood, United States