And the Winner is...Migration and Film

Geneva - In a historic breakthrough for the venerable 92 year-old Oscar awards ceremony, no fewer than four of the famous gold statuettes were awarded to a foreign language film for the first time on Sunday. They went to South Korea’s “Parasite,” which the swept awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, as well as the best foreign language category.

It was the first foreign-language nominee ever to sweep all four of those award categories, which made some observers wonder how much longer, in our interconnected world, the word “foreign” will any more belong at an Oscar awards ceremony.

Certainly, Parasite’s significance will not be lost on the 800 or so filmmakers expected to submit their films to 2020’s Global Migration Film Festival, the UN Migration event now in its fifth year.

Film is anything but foreign at the GMFF, easily the world’s largest film festival (on migration). IOM’s Global Migration Film Festival team is working hard to prepare for 2020’s version, which will conclude on 18 December, the date the United Nations observes as International Migrants Day.

There is a lot work to do.

Consider these numbers: In 2019 our festival presented films over two weeks in 108 countries and in 212 cities. Some 700 screenings attracted around 60,000 people. More than 600 films were submitted for approval, either as full-length features, documentaries or short subjects. Of those, 32 made the final cut, including films whose narration, subtitles and dialogue were offered in the following languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bambara, Burmese, Chinese, English, Estonian, French, Italian, Ixil, Japanese, Khmer, Mixtec, Norwegian, Portuguese (and Creole Portuguese), Russian, Soninke, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Tigrinya, Russian and Wolof.


A diversity milestone was reached in other ways, too. Of the 32 screened films, their directors were split close-to-evenly between men and women (58 per cent men, 42 per cent women), the winners’ circles in three categories were dominated by female voices. Women directors took the 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in the Feature category, the top prize in Short Films and 1st place in the Special Mention category, won by Carina Sama of Argentina, whose documentary Named Like a Flower, traced the experiences of a transgender woman migrating from Chile to Argentina.

Jahelle (on the left) a famous pop singer from Ivory Cost with Madli Lääne, winner of the short film category, at the closing ceromony in Abidjan.

Social Cohesion, embodied by IOM’s #WeTogether and other outreach campaigns, is a core theme of the Global Migration Film Festival. Yes, there are screenings of remarkable films, but also events where community members meet and engage each other. Poetry and dance and painting and theater often accompany a GMFF screening.

Migrants Day (

Sometimes these events are in places where ethnic competition reigns, or where people are recovering from a natural disaster. Films can start dialogue and dialogue can start healing.

IOM launched the GMFF in 2016 at a time when migrants were on the move everywhere, and the public discourse over migration was turning brittle and harsh.

What was that message? It was many things at once: Migration is drama. Migration can be tragedy, but at times also comedy. Migration is historic, but it is also new. Migration, too often cast as something dangerous or invasive, remains the essential renewal elixir all societies require to keep their vitality and embrace their future.

The Organization soon realized that whatever message IOM wanted to share, that message already was being told in cinema.

What was happening worldwide before our very eyes, also was being captured by screenwriters, cameramen and film directors equally eager to tell the same stories we also needed heard.

So, IOM put out a call for film submissions. Hundreds came, so many it was a hard task just whittling them down to the handful IOM would offer to its missions worldwide for screening.

Even harder was finding a way to distinguish IOM’s screenings in a crowded film festival market. Today nearly 3,000 film festivals regularly (annually or biannually) compete for viewers’ attention.

Some are huge. The BFI London film festival has not since 2012 ever attracted fewer than 149,000 viewers in any year, peaking at 184,700 in 2016. A few others, like Cannes, Berlin, Venice (the so-called “Big Three”) and Toronto film festivals all draw audiences in the tens of thousands each year.

The 60,000 audience for the Global Migration Film Festival is remarkable, nonetheless.

For one thing, all those other film festivals are centered in large metropolises, many already art hubs or—like Cannes or Sundance—film industry hubs with decades of effort behind them to build audience loyalty that draws attention from across the planet.

The Global Migration Film Festival is worldwide. It doesn’t rely on any one audience anywhere. It relies on hundreds of audiences, everywhere and the enthusiasm of a crew of AnIOM volunteers.

The Global Migration Film Festival brings film, often, to places where there is no film industry, no sophisticated film audience, no large city. Its screenings, sometimes, occur where there is no city at all. GMFF promotes film that explores the human drama of migration. Quite often that means screening against the bare wall of a destroyed cinema in Iraq or Yemen. Or in a transit camp surrounded by the tarpaulin tents of displaced migrants.

Cinema Verité: A Global Migration Film Festival screening last year in the Sahara Desert

Someplace like in the poor Sahara nation of Niger, where the GMFF stages film “caravans” run out of the backs of pick-up trucks (and probably a few camels) that bring film projectors and portable screens that are erected, literally, in the middle of nowhere. They also bring diesel-powered generators and speakers for the sound system.

“Fun fact,” recalled Monica Chiriac of IOM Niger. “One year the film caravan broke down somewhere between Agadez and Dirkou and we had to organize a search and rescue mission to get them. It takes about three days to travel by road between the two.”

Eventually, the staff found the GMFF team and helped get their trucks back on the road again. The show went on.

All film festivals, by definition, are “international.” All feature actors, directors, producers and audiences thrilling to the screening of works covering the global film experience.

But only one annual film festival truly is a global film experience.

For more information please contact:
Joel Millman, IOM Geneva
+41 79 103 8720

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