South Sudanese family's decade-long Australian struggle kicks off Refugee Film Festival

'Constance on the Edge' follows the refugee experience of the Okot family in country NSW. Source: AAP

Last year the Refugee Council of Australia launched their Refugee Film Festival in Melbourne. This year, the rest of the country is invited to participate.

Australian filmmaker Belinda Mason is showcasing her documentary, 'Constance on the Edge', for the second year in a row at the Refugee Film Festival (RFF).

Released last year at the Sydney Film Festival, the documentary follows South Sudanese woman Constance Okot and her six children as they adjust to life in Australia after fleeing war-torn Sudan. 

The Okot family was filmed during their first 10 years of resettlement in Australia and their adjustment to living in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. It documents their joy of arriving which slowly over time turns into a struggle of acceptance from the regional town. 

Organisers say the film is a perfect fit for the festival with over 80 screenings scheduled.

Constance Okot
Constance is described as an "obvious leader" by filmmaker Belinda Mason.

Inside the refugee experience

Australia has been celebrating Refugee Week as a nation since 1988, however Sydney held the first ever Refugee Week events in 1986.

The week-long celebration hopes to create more cultural awareness of the refugee community.

This year’s theme is from the second verse of the national anthem: “With courage let us all combine." Organisers say it celebrates the courage of refugees, and of people who speak out against persecution and injustice. 

Laura Stacey media spokesperson for the Refugee Council of Australia and coordinator of Refugee Week, told SBS World News the film festival is a fantastic way for people to better understand the refugee experience.

“The inclusion of international films means that attendees can learn about aspects of forced migration that they may not have been aware of before.  For example, one of the films looks at the asylum procedure in the Netherlands, whilst another depicts the independence struggle in Western Sahara.”

Sydney premiered their leg of the film festival over the weekend with a big audience.  Ms Stacey, says Melbourne opening night had an ‘incredible reception’ and they expect big crowds throughout the city's week of screenings.

“It’s clear that there is a great appetite within the Australian community for people to engage with this issue through the medium of the arts,” she said.

Reality Check for the Okots

'Constance on the Edge' explores the life of the Okot family as they get a wake up call on what life is really like in Australia.

Director, Belinda Mason and Constance met in 2006 at a Wagga Wagga town hall meeting. The two worked together on their first documentary, and eight years later they reunited. 

"Constance called me and said that things weren’t working out in a way that she had expected them to work out in Australia. Trauma had re-emerged for her, after that honeymoon period - that first period of being so engrossed about learning how to cope with a new country, a new life and once all that settle downs."

She says many refugee's face racism and discrimination which can be emotional triggers for them.

Constance on the Edge
The Okot children are also a focus of the film.

Constance's older children faced a lot of struggle with integrating in school. Mason says the younger children found it easier to 'belong' because they were able to learn English really quick.

The director adds that this is a problem many refugee families face. 

“Our film is about how important welcoming is for refugees to make them feel that they do belong. That means on an institutional level and a personal level and how very small gestures can make such a world of difference.”

Melbourne's own gets screening

David Fedele is an independent documentary filmmaker from Melbourne. His critically acclaimed documentary, 'The Land Between' is also being screening during Refugee Week at the Cinema Nova.

Fedele told SBS World News he takes more of a journalists approach to go deeper into his stories so he can explore “social humanitarian human rights issues.”

“For me film is the way to best connect people to stories... and go deeper into issues to humanise stories and provide a bridge between issues and stories and the audience," he said. 

His documentary gives an insight to the hidden lives of Sub Saharan African migrants who live in the mountains of northern Morocco.

The film exposes the extreme violence and mistreatment of migrants trying to enter Europe by fence jumping through a military guarded barrier in Melilla.

Fedele's work asks the question of how and why people are willing to risk everything, including their life, to leave their country, family and friends, in search of a new and better life.

'Land In Between' saw director  win a number of awards across the world including Best Film at the Naples Human Rights Film Festival 2014.

Fedele says this film is probably the one he’s most attached to.

“I can’t say favourite, I meant this film has had the most impact of any film that I have made. And also because it’s such a relevant issue, it’s a film set in Morocco but a lot of the stories are universal stories that affect situations all over the world, including very much in Australia.”

Australia, this week celebrates Refugee Week as June 20 marks World Refugee Day. 

Melbourne’s leg of the film festival runs until Friday, tickets are available from Cinema Nova.


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