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A Shadow of Hope becomes reality for refugee filmmaker in South Africa

A Shadow of Hope becomes reality for refugee filmmaker in South Africa

With the screening of his latest documentary at a South African human rights film festival, Congolese refugee Makela Pululu has confounded all those who dismissed his hope of become a filmmaker as nothing more than a pipe dream.
21 September 2005
Makela Pululu, refugee filmmaker, takes a break in the editing studio in South Africa.

PRETORIA, South Africa, September 21 (UNHCR) - While many people considered it an impossible and pointless dream for a refugee, Makela Pululu is reaping the rewards of the idea he nurtured over the years and is revelling in the excitement of being a recognized filmmaker.

"Can you believe it?" he exclaims, choked with excitement. "This is truly a dream come true!"

Pululu's documentary, A Shadow of Hope, has been selected as a World Premiere and Directorial Debut at this month's 3rd Annual TRI Continent Film Festival, a showcase of cinema dealing with human rights, in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa.

The 40-year-old first-time director has worked hard for his success. Arriving in Cape Town as a refugee in 1997 from war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he started in the filmmaking industry as a freelance spark and lighting workshop supervisor. While working with a film production company he realized he had found a medium for his passion for story-telling.

Living on a tight budget, Pululu put himself through courses on scriptwriting, producing and directing. Purveyors of doom in his community, who dismissed Pululu's efforts as a pipe dream, only served to spur him on to overcome the difficulties of breaking into South Africa's film industry.

While studying, Pululu began writing a script for Unknown Country, a feature about his experiences and those of other refugees on their often harrowing journeys to safety. Though this project is on hold while he seeks further financing, it helped him developed a reputation among his South African peers as someone worth investing in.

He was a finalist in the 2003 Vuka Awards competition where he presented a public service announcement on water conservation. His short documentary, Being African, received positive feedback at the Zanzibar and Zimbabwe Film Festivals and the Africa Film Festival in Belgium.

With increasing recognition in Cape Town's film industry, Boomtown Film Production, his current professional home, offered their expertise and production facilities. Their support led to the production of A Shadow of Hope.

The TRI Continental Film Festival promotes the values of human dignity, equality and freedom while presenting films that explore the links between social struggles, respect for fundamental rights and the recognition of personal dignity and community empowerment - all ingredients found in abundance in A Shadow of Hope.

Pululu has homed in on the reality and challenges confronting refugees in South Africa. These include the difficulties in attaining refugee status, receiving medical assistance, and enrolling children in schools, as well as the often ill-disguised dislike of refugees and other foreigners.

The Refugees Act 1998, in particular, is the legal basis under which refugees are permitted to integrate into South African society, while retaining their rights as refugees. The issues raised in A Shadow of Hope, however, illustrate a different reality. While the government policy of "Batho Pele - Putting People First" seeks effective service delivery to everyone in South Africa, refugees continue by and large to fall outside this well-intentioned approach.

"Although refugees in South Africa have hope through a wide set of rights and the opportunities to rebuild their lives," says Jacob van Garderen, director of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and one of UNHCR's legal counselling partners, "the question is whether there are enough resources - human and financial - to fully include refugees into government strategies on providing social and economic security for all."

A spirited debate on protection and assistance to refugees after 11 years of South African democracy followed the showcasing of Pululu's documentary at the TRI Continent Film Festival. It clearly achieved its objective to remind and re-sensitize its festival audience, which included representatives from South Africa's Human Rights Commission, non-governmental organizations working with refugees, refugees themselves and UNHCR.

"The hope that refugees have in rebuilding their lives in South Africa is so real and so desired," Pululu says of the title of his documentary, "but the way to getting that, it is almost like trying to catch a shadow. The minute you get close enough to realizing this, the shadow just vanishes."

While all refugee stakeholders present at the festival screening readily acknowledged that problems faced by refugees in South Africa and by most South Africans are often synonymous, the consensus reached at the debate was that civic organizations have a responsibility to re-assert their role in addressing the challenges faced by refugees, through government, civil society and the international community.

"I'm glad that the documentary has people talking again," said Pululu, "because if we don't continue raising these issues, it is so easy to lose the momentum towards improving the lot of refugees here. As a member of the broader refugee community in South Africa, it is also my responsibility to ensure that our issues don't just remain relegated to refugee communities and partner organizations but that they be kept in the public domain."

The documentary will also be used to raise awareness in the Roll Back Xenophobia (RBX) campaign, and will be shown to a cross-section of audiences around the country, after which further debate seems likely.

"Vigorous debate is definitely required," agrees RBX Campaign National Coordinator, Katrina Mseme. "If civil society is to be better informed about the situation of refugees - and our obligations and accountability as a country and people towards them - I'm convinced that through A Shadow of Hope, we will ultimately garner much empathy, understanding and tolerance towards realizing that hope."

Pululu is already focused on his next project, a challenge for any director, never mind a refugee: "As a non-South African, it isn't easy to approach the obvious sources of funding in the country, so I must double my efforts and look elsewhere."

Further ahead, he hopes one day to open a film school back home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where he can demonstrate the power of information sharing and debate through the medium of film just as A Shadow of Hope is doing in South Africa.

By Pumla Rulashe in Pretoria, South Africa