Jose Argueta arrived in Australia 19 years ago as a young boy having fled strife-torn El Salvador with his family. He feels a kinship with the refugee population of Australia, and it was this affinity for their plight that led to the creation of the Australian Refugee Film Festival.
“One of the things that I found growing up, when I was a teenager, was that the tag of being a 'refugee' doesn't always fit well,” says Argueta, speaking with SBS Film at the start of the short film festival that has become a synonymous part of the annual Refugee Week schedule. “You tend to feel like a victim. The reality is that that's just how it is and you need to escape that 'victim' tag and get on with your life. My parents always made sure we took every opportunity and made the most of our lives.”
Now in its fifth year, the Australian refugee Film Festival launched with a determination to counter the negative portrayal of the refugee experience in Australia. Whilst Argueta recognises the dire conditions in which many new refugees are forced to live and the difficulties they face in assimilating, his programming strand is focussed on celebrating the multiculturalism that the refugee population has helped to foster.
“We [were creating] a forum for refugee stories to be told in a positive way and via which, the general public can become better informed about refugee issues,” he says. “But [we're] also providing confirmation for other refugees that they are a valued part of Australian society, and the global population in general.”
These aims are reflected in such films Tracy Jones' Burma to Brisbane, a positive story of the Burmese refugee experience; Heather Metcalfe's Voices of Afghanistan (pictured), an examination of displaced Afghani women and their determination to rise above their conditions; How We Live, a portrait of life in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, shot by the internees with the support of visual arts-based humanitarian group, FilmAid.
Argueta highlights one film in particular as being indicative of the spiritual optimism that often emerges from the refugee experience – directors Citt Williams and Luis Patron's How to Guide for Environmental Refugees. “This film is both educational and very uplifting, watching these people try to better their situation (through environmental initiatives)”, he says. “It is very much in line with the positive and informative direction the Festival has always aimed for.”
The dedication of Argueta and his small team of volunteers to get the Festival off the ground every year from a non-profit, community-outreach base has never wavered. Support from such refugee-aid organisations as STARTTS (Services for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors), their support arm Friends of STARTTS, ALIV (Australian League of Immigration Volunteers) and the Refugee Council of Australia has proved invaluable in the promotion and acceptance of the film festival.
“Our relationship (with these organisations) gives us marketing power and brand strength,” says Argueta. “We are very grateful to them as over the years they have given us a lot of legitimacy; when people look at us and we can say we work with the Refugee Council or STARTTS or Friends of STARTTS, that makes people sit up and take notice.”
Argueta points out that the mainstream media often presents 'the refugee experience' as all-encompassing; it's one of many misconceptions that the Australian Refugee Film Festival is determined to dispel.
“Part of my motivation for doing this is that I was a refugee, am a refugee, and was very lucky to have my parents touch down in Australia. This is just my way of wanting to give something back, I guess, to both the refugee community and the general community” he says with reflection. “We hope to continue to push to make the Festival more mainstream, to make mainstream Australia consider refugees differently, and also to empower refugees to look at themselves as not just victims but also as role models and positive contributors in this society.”
Australian Refugee Film Festival