Cinema and Human Rights Days

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Sandon, Lecturer in Film and Television, Department of Media and Cultural Studies

What is the impact of cinema in raising public awareness of human rights? Can films about human rights make a difference and promote political change? These are some of the questions that the Cinema and Human Rights Days addressed at the Gordon Square cinema, Birkbeck, on 15 and 16 March. Timed to coincide with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, Birkbeck hosted a debate on human rights cinema, a screening of Salma and a Q & A with the documentary film director, Kim Longinetto, and heard John Biaggi, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival director and Nick Fraser, the BBC commissioning editor of Storyville, talk about their promotion of human rights films and programmes.

John Biaggi talked about how important it was that ‘good’ human rights films were selected for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and he explained how that criteria was arrived at, whilst Nick Fraser, in his discussion of the importance of storytelling for any programme that television commissioned, admitted that ‘the spectacle of injustice is always gripping’. Rod Stoneman, former commissioning editor at Channel 4 and director of the Irish Film Board, presented a timely discussion and screening, in the week that Hugo Chavez died, of Chavez: Inside the Coup (also entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised|) (2003), a film that caused media controversy when it was screened on the BBC and which was turned down by the Amnesty International Film Festival in Vancouver for being biased in favour of Chavez. Participants then watched the Human Rights Watch Film Festival screening of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film, Fatal Assistance (Haiti/France/US, 2012), an indictment of the international community’s post- earthquake disaster intervention and the failure of current aid policies and practices. The screening was followed by a discussion with the director at the ICA.

Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, from Birkbeck’s School of Law, and I asked participants to consider the politics of human rights discourse in film. What is a human rights film? How has the notion of a human rights film emerged? Can we talk about a history of human rights cinema? How are human rights films selected, promoted and circulated through film festivals, broadcasting, cinema theatrical release, dvd sales and internet distribution? What are the criteria by which a human rights film is judged?

I discussed how the human rights film has been constituted by human rights film festivals, first set up in the late 1980s and 1990s by human rights organisations, to promote human rights advocacy. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Amnesty International Film Festival (now Movies that Matter), the two largest of such initiatives, then established the Human Rights Film Network in 2004, to ‘promote the debate on the ethics, professional codes of conduct and other standards regarding human rights film making.’ The charter of this network seeks to promote films that are ‘truthful’ and that have ‘good cinematographic quality’. It is these criteria of style and taste that become politically charged in the process of commissioning, selecting and curating films. If we look at a range of examples, it becomes clear that the subjects of human rights films are constituted in specific ways. However the way in which film represents human rights and engages viewers and audiences are complex. It is important that we understand the effects of the different audio and visual narrative and rhetorical devices used in films, be they feature films, documentary, newsreel, essay films, community or advocacy video.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera reflected on the dimension of political agency shown in films that represent revolutionary struggle in Latin America. Drawing on his forthcoming book, Story of a Death Untold, The Coup against Allende, 9/11/1973, and screening clips from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s, Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del Subdesarrollo) (Cuba, 1968) and Patricio Guzmán’s documentary, Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile) (Cuba, 1975, 1976, 1979), he weaved a layered narrative of the human potential for change. These important political films engage with the portrayal of what he termed the ‘discourse of anxiety’ and the ‘discourse of tenacity and courage’ in relation to people’s belief in the possibilities of social transformation and their ability to fight for freedom. These films are also tributes as well as memorials to those who have struggled for real social and political change.

The event was the result of a collaboration between Birkbeck, the University of Galway and Middlesex University and was supported by Open Society Foundations. The organisers hope to run this event in conjunction with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival again next year at Birkbeck.

The podcasts of this event are available on the School of Arts website.


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