Sometime last year, not long after he and his mother arrived at a refugee camp in Burundi, Alain Bulambo decided to make a movie. Like nearly everyone else in the camp, Bulambo left his native Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape decades of death and conflict, though he soon realized that the scars would not be easily erased. Many of the refugees were deeply traumatized by the horrors they had seen, and even in the camp there were outbursts of violence between different ethnic groups and against women.
“War brought many things — a lot of death, a lot of rape,” Bulambo, 24, said last week by phone from Kavumu, one of four main refugee camps in Burundi. "And when they arrive in the camp, they still act the way they did before."
Together with a friend, Adamo Samwel, he formed an eight-person collective called Peace Forever, and began brainstorming ways to help the camp confront its "old demons." The group staged some small plays at Kavumu, but soon turned their attention to movies, after a new portable media lab arrived carrying cameras and editing software. Most of the group had never used a camera, or even seen a movie, but within a month, they created Mysterious Dream — a chilling short film in which their darkest memories take the form of zombie-like child ghosts.
The ghosts in the film aren’t exorcised; in fact, they end up terrorizing the main characters. That, Bulambo says, points to a fundamental truth about life in Kavumu.
"The dead are never dead," he says. "You can escape the war, but you have to know that wherever you go, they are going to pursue you."
Mysterious Dream was shot and edited using the Ideas Box — a portable multimedia kit developed by the Paris-based NGO Libraries Without Borders (LWB), and designed by Philippe Starck. Each Ideas Box contains a range of devices, including 15 tablets, 50 e-readers, a built-in TV, and four laptops with satellite internet connectivity. They also carry 5,000 ebooks, various video games, and around 100 films. Everything is shipped within a series of brightly colored boxes, nested within a container.
The Ideas Box has been deployed at several refugee camps around the world, and has earned high-profile accolades, including a laureate from French president Francois Hollande. This week, it was named as one of 10 finalists in the Google Impact Challenge — a vote-based Google.org competition that awards $500,000 to innovative social and humanitarian projects.
The first Ideas Boxes were sent to Burundi last year, in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which also contributed to its development. Others have since been installed at refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and even at a park in the South Bronx.
The idea, according to LWB, is to provide the technology needed to support education and culture in refugee camps. Those needs have grown more acute in recent years, as the number of refugees has swelled across the world. According to the UN, there are more refugees today than at any point in history; more than half are children.
In central Africa, the crisis has been long and bloody. More than two decades of brutal conflict in the DR Congo have forced thousands to flee, with more than 500,000 escaping to neighboring countries. Burundi is home to nearly 53,000 refugees, according to the UN, and the overwhelming majority are Congolese.
The Ideas Box is designed to fuel creativity, as well. "We like to say that it’s a metaphor machine," says Eve Saumier, head of communications at LWB. She says the kit provides an important creative outlet that can help refugees deal with trauma, and to channel the anger that many still feel.
"There’s a lot of social violence in the camps, and Ideas Box provides the tools to calm that violence," Saumier adds. "It’s a place of dialogue and exchange, and that especially helps for younger generations who were born in the camps — to send them a message of peace."
"That’s something mothers always say: we don’t want for our children to reproduce the conflicts that adults created."
That collective history — and the horrors it produced — figures prominently in Mysterious Dream. "All of the bad things we did in Congo come back to me all the time," Philip, the main character, says early in the film. "All of the people we stole from, that we killed, they all come back. I don't understand why."
His friend Tony, played by Bulambo, urges him to forget it. "Those are things you are putting in your own head," he says, and the two head off to the market. Along the way, they encounter a man carrying sweet potatoes, and they rob him. That's when the child ghosts appear, and Philip's dream turns into a nightmare.
For Western viewers, the film has all the hallmarks of a zombie movie. Wearing white face paint, the spirits silently rise from the dead in a desolate field, and walk with a halting shuffle that seems to have been copy-pasted from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. But Bulambo says that's not what the group intended. In fact, they've never seen a zombie movie.
Rather, the spirits represent people who committed suicide in DR Congo, and have now come back to punish Philip and Tony for their transgressions, past and present. The aim, Bulambo says, was to help his fellow refugees to overcome their trauma by directly confronting it, and to help break the cycle of violence that continues to plague the camp.
"The ways we lived in Congo have followed us here," he says. "The killing, the rape, all of it ... Reality is a nightmare that guides us, and warns us about the future."
Matthias De Groof, a researcher at Antwerp University who specializes in postcolonial African cinema, says other Central African films have used horror to confront bloody histories — a form of what he calls "cinétherapy."
"The horror genre is not exterior to the Central African experience of war, but a theme that is crystallized through film in order to exorcise the experience," De Groof said in an email. "Film in this way is therapeutic."
De Groof says it's also telling that the protagonists' previous crimes are never really explained. "They are portrayed as perpetrators, who become victims in a cycle of violence," he adds. "Both are killed indiscriminately by the ones they have killed. A certain order is 'restored,' but the people who are actually responsible for the war in DR Congo are — once again — spared."
Bulambo, who produced the film and oversaw makeup, says the story isn't based on his own dreams, but on the broader struggles he's seen in Kavumu. He fled the DR Congo at the age of four, and spent the ensuing years as an urban refugee in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He moved to the Kavumu camp in 2013, following his father's death, joining about 10,000 others. He is not optimistic about his chances of returning.
"I don't have any family there," he says. "I don't know where I would go."
Mysterious Dream was screened for the other refugees at Kavumu in March, using a built-in projector on the Ideas Box. Those who were there say the reaction was effusive.
"Honestly, I struggled to believe it was possible," says Benjamin Gausset, country coordinator for LWB in Burundi. He says the film was received with boisterous applause at the screening, and its stars are now treated like "small celebrities" within the camp.
"It’s very rewarding for them, because it helps to reconstruct their identity," Gausset adds. "It shows that they’re not just numbers."
Other campaigns have sought to bring films to refugee camps and underprivileged communities. The humanitarian organization FilmAid International has been screening films at refugee camps around the world since 1999, and London’s Secret Cinema is currently looking to set up a permanent outdoor cinema at a refugee camp in Calais, after having screened films there over the weekend in support of asylum seekers in Europe. Other startups and organizations have looked to spur innovation through tech-based initiatives. The Ideas Box falls somewhere in between.
Diana Puyo, head of programs at LWB, says the organization works closely with local NGOs and governments to implement each Ideas Box, catering its offerings to the specific needs of each camp. LWB is now looking to scale up production of the portable library as it expands to new regions, and is exploring new ways to gear it toward cultural entrepreneurship.
"What we’re seeing now is there’s this huge tech injection," Puyo says. "People are paying for iPads and computers for refugees or vulnerable populations, but there’s not always remediation. So what ends up happening is the iPads are not used because no one knows why they would be relevant for their lives."
"I am not capable of escaping the past. I have to live with it every day."
As for Peace Forever, Bulambo says the group is already working on its next film, which will be about cholera. Since Mysterious Dream premiered, the collective’s ranks have swelled to 28, including nine women. They range in age from 13 to 29, and many have been forced to start entirely new lives. A 19-year-old woman who recently joined the group said her entire family had been killed in DR Congo.
Peace Forever’s next movie will be informational, so there won’t be any "zombies" staggering around on screen. But for Bulambo, the ghosts of his country’s history are never far behind.
"I am not capable of escaping the past," he says. "I have to live with it every day."