When some Hollywood producers tried to bring the cinema -- and a few celebrities -- to an Albanian refugee camp, they found their audience, though appreciative, had more pressing dramas to deal with.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The clowns had no idea what they were in for. Twenty British circus performers with blue wigs, red noses and floppy shoes cavorted their way into Neprostina, a gravel-and-dirt refugee camp a few dozen miles inside Macedonia from the Kosovo border. They came to entertain the camp's 8,000 ethnic Albanian inhabitants, more than half of whom were children. Taped calliope music filling the air, the clowns began a call-and-response routine with the crowd of thousands, chanting "Mu-si-ka, Mu-si-ka." But in the din, what the refugees heard was "U-C-K, U-C-K," the Albanian acronym for the quasi-victorious Kosovo Liberation Army. Singing and chanting, embracing their first emotional release after months of terrified and rageful repression, the refugees surged forward. Chaos turned into a near riot. The well-meaning but guileless clowns barely made it to safety. Soon after they flew home.

So at 8:30 on a Saturday night in June when a projector and 250-square-foot movie screen are erected by American technicians in a clearing in front of Neprostina's hospital tent, no one knows what to expect. The sky threatens rain. Refugees, hearing rumors of something strange, stream from the narrow lanes between the rows of tents: silent women in head scarfs, young men in track suits, children by the hundreds. Outside the camp's razor-wire fence, one truck is disgorging a dozen more exhausted Kosovars, while a second is loaded with the belongings of a family risking an early return despite mined schoolyards and booby-trapped homes. Packed front-to-back under the TV tent beside the clearing, 500 men stare with rapt attention at the 20-inch screen for the latest word of their country. Serb-sympathetic Russians at the airport in Pristina. Squads of KLA irregulars, teenagers mostly, baby-faced and deeply tanned, coming down from the hills. Mass graves. An elderly man with broken glasses puts his ear to the TV's side and closes his eyes. The others are silent, their expressions stoic, except for the handful who openly weep.

The film projector fires its image, offering the Kosovars the quintessential American motion-picture experience: Charlie Chaplin waddling 20 feet high against the night sky, a drive-in theater from another era, another world. Most cinemas in Kosovo, except the one in its capital, Pristina, were boarded up five years ago, when the latest wave of troubles with the Serbs began. So for nearly all the children, this is their first full-sized movie ever; for most adults, their first in many years. Craning their necks, eyes wide with astonishment, the children cry out and applaud. Within minutes, though, most of the adults and older teenagers drift away, shrugging with disappointment and boredom. They can't know -- and, by their expressions, couldn't have cared less -- that this is the first time in the history of humanitarian relief that anything like this -- refugee cinema -- has been attempted.

"My uncle was killed four days ago going back home to check on the house and land," says Hidagete Ismali, 20, as she stands at the camp's gate with her father, Sadik, 67. Behind them, the Chaplin film has segued into a Yogi Bear cartoon, but she is too preoccupied to watch. Maybe it is nice for the children, she says, but as for herself, "I have nothing to eat, no place to sleep. I'm always thinking about over there. Are the relatives alive, does our house exist? What will we do when we go back to Kosovo where we have nothing?"

More Chaplin now, the carnival soundtrack competing with the drone of the newscaster from the nearby TV: columns of Serbs are fleeing Kosovo. Behind them, vengeful Albanians are looting and burning their homes. Kosovo's two ancient cultural centers, Pec and Djacovica, have been laid to waste. My translator, a 19-year-old law student at the university in Pristina, turns from the movie screen to inform me that in his town an old Serb had protected his Albanian neighbor through the months of horror. When the Albanian's son returned, he went to thank the neighbor for saving his father. Then he shot him in the head. The circle, he says, closes.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The film equipment, the technical and administrative personnel and the movies themselves were flown here two days earlier by FilmAid, a consortium of Hollywood producers, directors, actors and studios who had mobilized their own brand of relief.

The first film was meant to have starred British actress Julia Ormond: "Legends of the Fall," perhaps, co-starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. Ormond already has a vested interest in the Balkans, having produced the powerfully raw documentary "Calling the Ghost," about Muslim women raped by Serbs in Sarajevo. At one point she decided to come to the Macedonia camps herself, permitting the refugees to gaze at the real Julia as well as the celluloid one. By doing so she hoped to offer some level of star-powered edification, if not inspiration. After all, Richard Gere had already come; he spent six days in Stankovic I, the refugee camp of choice among diplomats and celebrities because of its proximity to Skopje's hotels and restaurants. The press releases say he was a hit. Vanessa Redgrave came, too.

FilmAid was the brainchild of Caroline Baron, the New York producer of films like "Addicted to Love" and "Home for the Holidays." Last fall, a New York Times photograph of an Albanian Kosovar slumped in the dirt, executed by Serbs before his family, raised her ire -- and her conscience. By day she was shooting "Flawless," a new movie with Robert De Niro. At night she went home to obsess on footage of mass graves and the refugee exodus out of Kosovo into the camps. History began to shout down at her.

"I was always angry as a kid studying the Holocaust, thinking how Americans did nothing to help the situation," Baron, 37, tells me in New York, before her flight to Skopje. She describes a dinner party she attended in April at which she complained about her disgust over Kosovo. Her friend Hector Babanco, director of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," leaned across the table and told her to shut up and do something. The next morning she awoke to a radio interview with the director of the International Rescue Committee's Emergency Response Team, Gerald Martone, in which he said that one of the biggest problems in the refugee camps was boredom. Of the original 800,000 refugees scattered between Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, nearly 500,000 remain, afraid to move. "They are not dying," Martone says. "The tragedy they face is a very bleak, dreary existence, days with nothing to do but watch yet more buses being deposited into their camp. There's no diversion from their own ruminations, flashbacks of what they had fled from."

Baron recalls: "I thought, 'I'm a movie producer, I can do something about that.' I flashed to 'Sullivan's Travels,' the Preston Sturges film about an impoverished church. Joel Macray plays a film director, and he says, 'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. That's all some people have.'"

That night, Baron called De Niro and his partner at Tribeca Films, Jane Rosenthal. "The whole issue with Albania," Rosenthal says, "having made 'Wag the Dog,' and the political issues of the last year, and then to top it off with this war, seemed a little too bizarre. Everybody involved in the movie gave a little sigh, and felt a little peculiar." Baron had De Niro's ear. Her second call was to Chris DeFaria, vice president of production at Warner Bros. She pitched him her idea: movies to refugees.

"I thought, what can I as a film producer, and the film industry specifically, do that isn't just about raising money to send food and shelter, but what relief organizations aren't thinking about or don't have the ability to do? I thought I could bring them what we create, what we live for, what we love. What is so universal."

But in the face of executions and mass rage, and sanitary airstrikes by invisible NATO planes, the idea of flying movies into refugee camps smacked of the Hollywood equivalent of lobbing "happy bombs," yet another phone-it-in campaign by people lucky enough to live the glamorous life, far from here.

"Is this frivolous?" DeFaria, in Los Angeles, remembers wondering. "Is it presumptuous to think we can provide a bona fide distraction? Was this a horribly insensitive idea, or was this wonderfully small and imaginative?"

Baron conferred with the Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations and officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who assured her that the refugees had plenty of blankets and food. What they need is normalization, to know the world is bigger than their camp. More than half the refugees are children, all of them haunted by memories of Serbs at their door, many traumatized by having witnessed massacres and mass burials in their villages. Temperatures are in the 90s and 100s. Martone recalls how in one camp, where there is a single, ramshackle TV propped in a tent, "hundreds are packed in there, thirsty to see images, even this cold, blue haze and static."

That was all Baron needed to hear. Whether frivolous or inspired, she had a movement on her hands, and it needed a name. She and DeFaria decided on FilmAid, abiding by a tradition of celebrity causes that began with the music industry's Live Aid in the mid-1980s, which raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia.

"We have never had any such offers for any other refugee crisis or emergency or refugee camp in the past," says UNHCR spokesman Panos Moumtzis. "This is a first, though it's not a solution. We don't want the refugees to be saying that you are building cinemas and making us live here forever."

The task was daunting: It would require equipment, transportation and technicians. "Movie producers are expert in logistics," Baron says. "It's what we do. It was important to be self-contained, to not drain any of the resources of the relief organizations."

But FilmAid also needed films. Ironically, what seemed like such a simple idea at ground zero was a harder sell in Hollywood. Movie studios were skittish about participating. "There was hesitation on the part of some of them about being perceived as sending movies and not other kinds of relief, like food or shelter," Baron explains. "Also, studios didn't want to be perceived as selling a captive audience on their movies, forcing a group of refugees to watch their films as a marketing thing."

Martone was irate: "That's an aloof and luxurious position to be in," he said of the studios. "Diversion is a luxury we afford ourselves without sacrifice. Why would we deprive it from refugees?" Aryeh Neier, president of the Soros Foundation, a FilmAid sponsor, called to offer a story about the positive results of a film festival in Sarajevo during the siege. "At the time a lot of people thought it was frivolous. Film people wanted to go: Daniel Day Lewis, Jeremy Irons. Writers like Susan Sontag. They weren't allowed on the plane. UNHCR said it wasn't humanitarian aid. But when people are in circumstances of this sort, it's not only the flesh that needs to be taken care of, but the mind and the spirit as well. They want to be full human beings, entitled to things other human beings treat as their daily lives."

When no studio wanted to be the first to step forward, officials from the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Soros Foundation scratched their heads. Finally, Miramax broke the logjam, donating not films, but money. The next day Universal and MGM offered movies, followed by Fox and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. FilmAid would soon be offering hastily dubbed versions of "Back to the Future," "The Flintstones," "Pinocchio," "Lost in Space," "Mask" and "ET."

"Non-combative films," Baron said, "hopeful, happy films." But Spielberg's donation was contingent on the stipulation that none of his movies would be shown first. And Disney, long synonymous with "hopeful" and "happy," turned FilmAid down flat. When Baron called an executive at Universal Studios with an update on her progress, she was shocked by her reception. "I thought she'd be excited about this," Baron recalls, "but she was ticked off." Baron asked if Universal could donate more movies. The executive snapped, "I think we've already given you enough."

Before FilmAid's flight to Skopje, Julia Ormond wrestled with the notion of air-dropping celebrities into a real tragedy. Philanthropy is often self-reflexive, more an attempt to feed a desire to be involved, to have acted, than to fill a real need. "One instantly thinks one should send medicine or food," Ormond muses. "But there is a great deal in film that is good, specifically related to children. On the other hand, I'm not sure people like to see actors or celebrities get involved in political issues. It's deemed inappropriate. There's the perception of seeking publicity. But if that's the thing that's going to stop you from doing something helpful, you have to get beyond it."

Heading toward the refugee camp Cegrane, 21 miles southwest of Skopje, a pair of taxis carrying Caroline Baron, UNHCR public information officer Robin Groves and other FilmAid crew, passes an odorous tractor pulling a trailer piled high with human waste. The camp itself is a sprawling and fetid tent city of more than 40,000. A ramshackle downtown has sprung up inside the gates: a bumper-car ride, its façade adorned with portraits of Pierce Brosnan's James Bond and Pamela Sue Anderson; a shopping area where refugees can buy shoes, clothes, fruit, ice cream and Jerry Springer T-shirts. There is a video game arcade and a well-stocked cafe boasting the "Best Hamburgers in Macedonia." The espresso here is as good as you can find in any coffee bar in Seattle. The cafe's proprietor energetically works the shaded tables, shaking the hands of Macedonian police and foreign visitors. He is neatly dressed. This war, this refugee crisis, has been good to him.

Surveying the scene, Groves is determined that the lessons of Bosnia be applied to Kosovo. "Justice was not done in Bosnia. It will be done in Kosovo. There's a lot of regret about Bosnia, how long it took to intervene." She has seen her share of crises: Cambodia, Iran, the Sudan. When Baron first called her about her FilmAid idea, Groves immediately thought it might be one way to make good on promises of support by the West. "The American film industry is regarded as fascinating and powerful. 'Titanic' had absolutely taken over Bosnia. People saw it many, many times. Cinema is a humanizing, equalizing experience, an intravenous connection to the rest of the world. This project offers classic cinema, timeless artifacts, movies people in our culture keep in their consciousness. Safe messages from the outside world."

FilmAid is also, she thinks, the first step in an irreversible cultural transformation. "American soldiers will flood Kosovo. They will be there for years. Goods will arrive."

Which is something that worried Susan Sarandon from the time of FilmAid's inception. "Nobody makes the connection between the fact that we're solving problems with violence and glorifying them and making them heroic, and expecting kids not to be attracted to that," she says from New York. "It's a mixed message, how and when we use violence." The triangulation between Hollywood's often-violent message and the unsurprising fact that the Balkans are known to be one of the world's most violent movie cultures, creates a strange collision of motivations. "What was 'Private Ryan' about?" Sarandon asks. "That wasn't any new message. Even the guy who doesn't want to kill, in the end cold-bloodedly kills the guy who killed the troops. The way we solve our problems, what it means to be a man, and what is heroic, has not grown. Hollywood does nothing to improve it."

In any case, Cegrane is not ready for the invasion. Tension there is high due to overcrowding and internal rivalries. The camp's director is concerned about controlling the huge numbers of refugees once word gets around that movies are being shown. Also, fights among young men have been breaking out. At another camp, Stankovic I, troops have been quelling riots sparked by Albanian lynch mobs applying vigilante justice to Gypsies accused of participating in Serbian atrocities.

But in another corner of Stankovic I, young men gather in the shade of a tarpaulin, chatting hopefully about how the movies will further aid their already burgeoning camp love lives. Four young couples in camp have already met and decided to marry. But Florin Lila, 23, a handsome economics student, isn't interested in marriage. In at least one way, refugee status has been good for him. Men and women are bored, he says with a grin, and know they'll probably never meet again. Tents are made available. "I am for refugee life," he says, then suggests that FilmAid show "Romeo and Juliet," the Leonardo DiCaprio version. After all, he says, the story line couldn't be more appropriate.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Neprostina refugee camp, FilmAid's premier, and Julia Ormond is not here. Back in Los Angeles, she claims a full schedule, though one FilmAid staff member says she was nervous about the trip. Sarandon thought about coming, too, then decided to tend to her family instead. Christian Slater was coming, then he wasn't. Richard Gere is long gone. Judging by the incident with the clowns, it is probably just as well. To her credit, Caroline Baron is relieved. The line between purpose and spectacle, she knows, is narrow. Her goal is to entertain refugees, not coddle celebrities.

But FilmAid did give interested stars a chance to tape greetings and good wishes. The video will be shown as a kind of coming attraction. Drew Barrymore, Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert De Niro -- they say hello, they offer good wishes.

As the images first hit the screen, Baron, Groves and the others among the FilmAid crew are celebrating. They embrace each other, they smile. They have spent the last two months raising money, squeezing reluctant movie studios, trying to stay self-contained: They used their own equipment, their own transport and in-country technical support. This effort, they know, is being used as a template for future crises. Films on giant screens in the next Rwanda? The next Chechnya? They think so, and are justly pleased. They intend to follow the refugee exodus into Kosovo, moving from razed town to razed town like a traveling circus, offering, at best, momentary distraction for adults, eye candy for children.

In the darkness beyond the movie projector's light-line, Nazmi Bajramag, 20, grins tolerantly in their direction. "I was jailed one month with 43 others," he says, eager to testify. "The Serbs asked us if we were innocent men, then put guns in our mouths and pulled the trigger." Usually, he says, the guns were not loaded. Once or twice they were.

Blerim Tasholli, 39, one of the nearly 50,000 refugees to return that day, steps up into a truck that will take him to the border. He glances over his shoulder at the movie, but only when he is asked about it, then shrugs. He apologizes; he hadn't noticed. He is leaving the camp to see if his house still stands, and to find what, if anything, is left of his family.

"I want to see the Kosovo that is free. I want to feel that emotion. That moment comes once in a lifetime."

By Peter Landesman

Peter Landesman is a journalist and novelist. His journalism has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. His second novel, "Blood Acre," was published in February by Viking.

MORE FROM Peter Landesman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Susan Sarandon