‘It's something we owe to these kids’: 180LA builds momentum to keep stories of refugee children alive

“Unfairy Tales” took the often heartbreaking stories of Syrian refugee children and animated them gorgeously, and sometimes frighteningly, to highlight the plight of these children. The campaign, by 180LA and UNICEF, earned a Grand Prix Lion at Cannes Lion earlier this summer.

But rather than rest on their respective laurels, the company plans to continue telling stories about these migrants, not only from their struggles to leave war-torn areas, but also on how they try to fit in and function in new countries that aren’t always welcoming with open arms.

The original campaign, which included three animations and an e-book, features imaginative places with fantastical characters based on the tales real children told the UNICEF workers. It showed the true stories of Syrian child refugees and the horrors behind why they fled.

It’s something that touched 180LA executive creative directors, Rafael Rizuto and Eduardo Marques, who oversaw the creation of the campaign. They said, after hearing the stories: "We ask people to welcome refugees and follow the wise words of 13-year old Syrian refugee Mustafa, 'I like it when people are good to me…I will be good to them’."

Marques and creative directors David Cuccinello and David Povill talked about their experiences and their desire to expand the story.

“When the work got awarded, a lot of things changed for the better. Because now the message is being spread more and more around the world,” said Marques.

“After the work got awarded in Cannes, for example, with the Grand Prix for Good, (Sir) John Hegarty said some really great things; ‘Not only was it brilliantly executed, incredibly moving, unbelievably powerful – we thought we would like to give this award so that we can, all of us, spread this word and make this work even more famous,’ and it is. Now, the work is being recognized, people are watching it more and more. We can see that the work is really starting to be spread and is being shared around the world. This is very good for the children and for UNICEF,” Marques added.

Cuccinello pointed out that the campaign has brought together the UNICEF offices around the globe, even though it was developed through the US offices.

“We had initially launched it just with the US at the global headquarters, but Unicef has shared the work with all their regions. It's been translated into multiple languages around the world. What we're getting now, the tragedy and the issue isn't only in Syria. That's where the hot button issue region is, but this problem and fighting xenophobia is all around the world, and we're getting stories back now from every region around the world, and that's happening because they've seen this campaign and they're rallying around this important message. Unicef teams are feeding us numerous stories and we're tearing through all of these unfortunate stories to try to find what narrative we can build. It really has exploded internally, and we've gotten a good rallying cry from UNICEF, as well,” said Cuccinello.

That rallying cry can be heard in how 180LA is dealing with expanding this important story to other countries and continents.

“We want to keep going with this campaign,” added Marques. “Because ‘Unfairy Tales,’ is such a strong concept that some stories were never meant for children. This is an important project that needs to keep going, fighting for these children around the world with different ideas, but within the same umbrella and the same cause. Thinking ahead, our next project is helping not only the refugees coming from Syria, but the refugees that are coming from all over the world, those that are trying to escape from other countries.”

Marques continued to say that there is strife in many other parts of the world, with kids affected by war, violence and upheaval in places as distant as Africa and Latin America, and their stories need to be heard. That should expand the scope of the project and make it a bigger initiative, beyond just three animations.

“Like a beautiful long form film that will tell the stories of many different children, we want to create something that will not only run on social media channels, but can be submitted to film festivals,” he said. “We can reach more people in movie theaters. We are aiming big right now, trying to get this momentum and build on it. Now is the time for us to think really, really big, and figure out how we can spread this important message.”

The original “Unfairy Tales” did not feature happy endings, but that is what the team is eventually hoping for. To get there, they need to help change perceptions of migrant kids.

“We are seeing that this conversation is moving from a negative space to a very, very positive one. People now want to adopt these children. Before they were rejecting these people, rejecting these children, saying; ‘These kids could be Muslims and bomb [us], and they will fight for terrorism.’ Now, the sentiment is changing and we’re hearing many good things. It's a beautiful, beautiful change to see how the campaign is evolving,” said Marques.

David Cuccinello added: “One of the other things, too, we don't touch on here, but that we want to go forward in touching on, and we've talked to UNICEF about is that, we covered a lot of the journey from Syria, and all of the tragedy that comes with that, but there's a whole other slew of issues as soon as they get to that place that they're going. With trying to fit in and not fitting in. The xenophobia that they face, there's a whole other chapter of this that we haven't unearthed the way we want to, yet. That might be something that we look into going forward. Unfortunately, these families, and these kids have to leave where they are because they can no longer stay there, but when they get to the new place, they're not really welcome there. That's the biggest thing we're fight against. This just starts to do that, but I think there's more that needs to be done.”

180LA does want to keep the story moving forward, but they want their valued partners to come along to help make it happen, and they want other collaborators to join in.

“When we did the first project, we had so many great production companies; The House of Colors, Consulado, and Bubba’s Chop Shop and Gilles & Cecilie Studio (plus MediaMonks, Circle of Sound, Therapy Studios and Hefty Audio). They did a great job, because they jumped in believing they could help, too, and nobody charged us for their work, it was all pro bono. Now we want big Hollywood production companies to help us too. We are thinking bigger because we cannot go another year with the exact same formula. We need to do it bigger and even better if we want the message to keep spreading and get people to notice,” said Marques.

“Our vendors — I think that was one of the remarkable things of this journey. UNICEF was very big in supporting it, but it would have been nothing if we didn't get these folks pitching in and do this for free. It wasn't a small feat. It was a lot for them to do. They deserve as much, if not more, of the credit than even we do,” added Povill.

180LA is obviously passionate about this project, and it shows in the way they keep thinking up new ways to get the word out.

“There is a global refugee convention that is happening in September that will discuss the status of refugees around the world. We’d like to showcase ‘Unfairy Tales’ at this event but also tell the end of these stories. We created the films and we portrayed the kids, and we have interviews with them. We know where they went and the countries that they escaped to. Now, we need to follow-up with these kids, see their current situation, where they are living and the support they are getting. We need to show the end of the story, if the story has ended. It's something we owe these kids. This is what we're doing right now with UNICEF, finding these kids and seeing how we can keep helping them; not just showcasing them in the film,” said Marques.

“This is a hugely controversial project – the idea of refugees and whether or not to welcome them into their country. But what's great about it is that UNICEF is completely focused on children. Obviously because they're children, there's a level of innocence that is assumed. But what it allows us to do is it bridges the conversation into the larger controversy. It gets people to start re-framing their perceptions of refugees at a level that you can't disagree with. From there, that can start changing their perceptions about refugees in general. It starts with this very specific and singular topic, but it has implications far beyond just the children we're highlighting,” said Povill.

“We expect to be a good ending. We always expect a good ending,” he added.

“We're glass half-full people,” concluded Cuccinello.

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.

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