In Orlando von Einsiedel’s new documentary short Lost and Found a young girl named Dokana, separated from her family, waits patiently in hopes her mother will soon appear. As the hours pass the only sign of her mounting anxiety is the tears that brim in her luminous eyes.
Dokana is one of tens of thousands of children living in the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Bangladesh across the border from Myanmar. The camp is a makeshift home to the Rohingya minority who have been chased from their native Myanmar in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
“In Myanmar, entire villages were burned to the ground, families were separated and killed, and women and girls were gang raped,” according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Most of the people who escaped were severely traumatized after witnessing unspeakable atrocities.”
Despite the enormity of the refugee crisis, it has received scant attention in Western media.
“Almost a million people have fled in the last few years because of horrendous violence by the Myanmar military,” Von Einsiedel tells Deadline. “What’s particularly tragic about it is there isn’t a ‘Kim Kardashian’ in the Rohingya diaspora so there’s just so little coverage of this story.”
Von Einsiedel set out to impact that by bringing cameras to the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp. There he encountered Kamal Hussein, a Rohingya refugee who spends his days reuniting lost children with their parents. Some of the children have strayed from loved ones in the maze of Kutupalong.
“It’s just vast, so lots of people get lost in that chaos,” von Einsiedel explains. “There’s hundreds of thousands of people walking around, there’s no sort of obvious ‘streets.’ It’s very hectic.”
Some children, like 11-year-old Jaber, got separated from their parents in the desperate flight from Myanmar.
“I haven’t found them,” Jaber tells Hussein in the film. “I don’t know whether they’re alive or dead.”
Von Einsiedel says he deliberately searched for a narrative that would touch the heart of a public that might otherwise ignore the Rohingya’s dire situation.
“It was about trying to find a story that could kind of connect people one-on-one and so we latched onto a story about this incredible man, Kamal Hussein,” he notes. “That is just a fundamental human story that people can connect to.”
Lost and Found returns von Einsiedel to Oscar contention, three years after he won the Academy Award for his short documentary The White Helmets. That film focused on courageous first responders in Syria trying to save civilians injured in relentless bombing raids by government forces and Russian jets.
The White Helmets is a Netflix title, but Lost and Found was acquired by National Geographic as part of its push into short form docs. NatGeo has a second nonfiction short in Oscar contention now, Nightcrawlers, directed by Alexander Mora and produced by Joanna Natasegara (Von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning producing partner on The White Helmets).
“You sort of gravitate toward the network who seem the most passionate about the film,” Von Einsiedel says of his decision to go with NatGeo on Lost and Found. “We could feel that energy, that passion [from National Geographic] to do this and it just seemed like it made really good sense.”
Lost and Found is shot largely in vérité style, documenting Kamal Hussein’s daily activities in the camp, where he has lived for 27 years. Hussein fled there after a surge of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar in the early 1990s.
“Kamal was an early victim of the first pogroms against the Rohingya Muslim communities,” Von Einsiedel explains. “Every sort of five or 10 years there has been a flare up.”
Hussein operates out of a booth in the middle of the camp outfitted with a P.A. system that he powers with a car battery. When a missing boy or girl is brought to his location he broadcasts a description of the child and other salient details, like the names of the child’s parents—if known. Some of the kids are too young to even supply a name for their parents.
In one scene, Hussein asks a three-and-a-half year old boy for the name of his father. The boy replies, “Daddy.”
“Everyone there is innocent in that camp. No one should be in that situation,” Von Einsiedel declares. “But children especially, they are entirely innocent.”
Hussein’s efforts have produced impressive results.
“Even using very basic things—he just uses a megaphone and a speaker system, but it’s proved really successful,” Von Einsiedel comments. “He personally reunited well over 1,500 people, kids who just got lost in this camp.”
One of those reunifications was between young Dokana and her mother. Deep into the night, the worried mom makes it to Hussein’s booth, hoisting her young daughter into her arms.
The grateful mother tells Hussein, “I was crying a lot, I searched all over the place…God bless you. She’s my orphan daughter, what can I do to help you?”
“It’s so far back. Take her home. Good luck,” Kamal replies, “I am just doing God’s work.”