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Humanitarian organizations enter the world of cinema: ICRC films in the 1920s

30-06-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 854, by Enrico Natale



In 2001 restoration of the ICRC’s film archives covering the period 1920-1957 was completed. Nearly a hundred exceptional documents on the organization’s activities were saved and made accessible to the public.

This article relates the circumstances surrounding the ICRC’s first steps in cinematography in the early 1920s. This innovative and promising medium was turned to good account to make known the ICRC’s new assistance activities at the end of the First World War.

The first four films were produced for the 10th International Conference of the Red Cross, held in Geneva in 1921. Le rapatriement des prisonniers de guerre via Stettin-Narva (The repatriation of prisoners of war via Stettin-Narva) shows how some 40,000 soldiers returning home were transported across the Baltic Sea to Russia and Germany. Les réfugiés russes à Constantinople (Russian refugees in Constantinople) tells of the first relief provided to 170,000 Russian refugees who had landed in Constantinople in November 1920. Actions de secours en faveur des enfants hongrois à Budapest (Relief operations for Hungarian children in Budapest) illustrates the ICRC’s work on behalf of children and the poverty endured by the inhabitants of Budapest. La lutte contre le typhus: l’activité du CICR en Pologne (The fight against typhus: the ICRC’s work in Poland) is about the measures taken to combat lice, which were responsible for spreading the typhus epidemic in central Europe.

Since 1922, the cinema has played a decisive role in the success of humanitarian campa igns. The documents preserved in the ICRC’s archives bear witness to the beginnings of humanitarian film-making and to a keen awareness of its dramatic potential and suggestive power.


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