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Refugees United is an online family tracing tool that assists refugees and other stateless people to find and search for lost loved ones.

Refugees United commissioned MediaStorm to create a documentary that both told the story of Refugees United, as well as chronicled the lives of refugees that are currently separated from their family. They wanted to portray the universality of the issue that they deal with and show the heartache and struggle these people face as they are separated from and searching for their lost loved ones.

MediaStorm's approach was to provide an intimate window into the lives of refugees and show the physical struggles they face as well as the psychological pain and turmoil they live with not knowing where their loved ones are.

At the same time we were tasked with telling the story of Refugees United from the founders’ perspective. We needed to show how the project got started and provide a clear picture of what exactly Refugees United is and how it functions.

Client: Refugees United
Published: June 1, 2011

Communicator Awards (Award of Excellence)
VF3: Film/Video - Charitable/Non-profit
The Challenge
The greatest challenge on this project was combining the informational side of Refugees United from the founders perspective with the intimate, character driven narratives of the refugees.

We spent an entire day in our studio interviewing the founders Christopher and David Mikkelsen. This led to almost 8 hours of interview footage. Wading through all the information given by them and getting to the very best, storytelling elements was time consuming, but fruitful.

MediaStorm cinematographer and producer, Rick Gershon, worked alone on this project in the field. He spent a little over a week in Uganda documenting the lives of a few of the refugees that the organization works with. This time in the field presented its own set of challenges. As with any story, the biggest hurdle was finding strong subjects and working to tell their story in the limited time available.

We wanted to create a piece that was as visual and cinematic in nature as it was intimate. It was essential to have the right gear, but also gear that was portable and manageable by one person, and didn’t get in the way of capturing the story. Working in the harsh conditions of Africa and the often dangerous city slums of Uganda demanded a camera set up that was low key and unassuming, but also created beautiful cinematic footage.

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The Solution
First, we tackled the challenge of compressing the massive story of Refugees United from the founders interviews in New York by shooting 3 different camera angles while interviewing them in our studio. This allowed us to make the difficult cuts needed in post to compress and combine different parts of their story to make it a seamless and compelling narrative.

We chose to present the interview footage of the founders in black and white in the final piece. We felt this gave us the separation needed between the character vignettes of the refugees and the story of the organization itself.

Working in transcripts in post was also an extremely vital part of putting this piece together. Heavy organization of interviews on the front end allowed us to go line-by-line and make a succinct, compelling narrative out of the massive amount of interview footage.

Managing the various gear required to shoot this caliber of footage on the 5D Mark II in the harsh conditions that Africa presents took careful planning. This was accomplished through a hand held rig created out of various Red Rock Micro pieces, most importantly being a handle that attached to the top of the 5D Mark II with various carbon fiber rails that allow for the compact mounting of audio gear and a monitor.

There were a few other vital pieces of gear that made this caliber of footage possible. One is a screw-on variable neutral density filter. This allowed for using large apertures in the lighting conditions that Africa offers, giving the sought after shallow depth of field that the 5D Mark II is most known for. It also allowed for versatility while moving in and out of different lighting conditions that so often plague documentary shooters with a simple twist of the front ring.

Second was an HD monitor with a hood from Small HD that helped in nailing critical focus while using large apertures. This specific model has great peaking and focus assist features that were vital in getting focus while working on the fly.

Lastly was having a sturdy but light-weight, portable tripod with a good fluid head. The Miller DV20 performed flawlessly and packed down small enough to fit in a suitcase. Its carbon fiber legs made it light enough to sling over Gershon’s shoulder and carry all day.

The Results
The final product is a short documentary that combines character vignettes of two refugees from Uganda who are currently searching for lost loved ones, two sisters that have been reunited through Refugees United, and the story of Refugees United told through the perspective of the founders and other key players.

The piece captures the intimate, emotional stories of the pain and turmoil these refugees face while also telling the story of Refugees United and providing hope through the tools and platform they offer.

About the Client
Refugees United has developed a web platform and mobile tools that drastically streamline the family tracing process for both NGOs and individuals.

This digital infrastructure not only fosters greater collaboration and promotes unhindered sharing of information among Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) agencies, but it also gives refugees the ability to become directly involved in their search for missing family via an anonymous, safe forum; easily accessible tools; and an ever-expanding, user-driven family finding network.

Refugees United, a fully independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was formed in 2006. The organization was born from the founders’ highly personal journey helping one young Afghan refugee trace his missing family.

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