Films and Human Rights: a powerful combination

Tale of my professional experience

Written by E.MAlumni Claudia Modonesi

Film director Terhas Berhe discussing her film “Lamb” with participants, Addis Ababa 2015

When I was asked to help run the Summer School on Cinema and Human Rights at the European Inter – University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC) in 2005 I jumped at the opportunity as it gave me the chance to combine my two great passions and fields of studies: film and human rights.

The School was meant to run for one year only, but after more than 10 years I am still here and delighted to be involved and passionate about my work for the simple reason that I strongly believe in the power of visual images as agent of change.

I strongly believe in the power of visual images as agent of change.

If a picture is worth a thousands words, then a video is worth a million. Nothing has more impact as the moving image. The right images put together can tell a very strong story as well as a camera in the wrong or the right hands, which is in the right or wrong place, has the power to change the course of history.

At the end of WW II, footage from German concentration camps were revealed to the public. The images of the dead Jewish people piled up like firewood were so disgusting and horrific that they brought an anti-semitic Europe to its knees. The shared guilt was so overwhelming that it allowed the UN to establish the State of Israel in 1948 to give home to hundreds of thousand of displaced Jewish persons. People in Europe knew that Jews were being displaced, boxed and sent away to camps. They knew that families were torn apart, were deprived from their properties, Jews were beaten and sent to death but the events lacked a strong visual narrative.

Reading about horrific events or hearing rumours lacked the visual power. The visual of the death camps shocked the imagination; it was a cruelty beyond belief.

Claudia interviewing the filmmaker Barmak Akram at the Mostra del Cinema of Venice in 2008

The moving image is a powerful tool to document real life, reveal untold stories, give voice to the voiceless, put a face to the faceless and ultimately can be a catalyst for change. As technology facilitates communication, nowadays almost everyone can film unfolding events, share them on social networks and bring them to the attention of the world. The Egyptian Revolution in 2011 was the first uprising communicated to the world via social media by young protesters mobilized in the streets, smartphones in hands. And since then, stories of unrest and war are brought to us by ordinary people using striking visual images filmed on their mobile phones that written word or talking heads can perhaps explain the situation but don’t carry the emotional impact that often lead to mobilisation and action.

The School in Cinema Human Rights and Advocacy (CHRA) trains and supports human rights activists and filmmakers to use and produce films to effectively expose human rights abuses, change public perceptions and influence change.

Launched at the EIUC in Venice in 2005 as a one-off event, the Summer School in Cinema and Human Rights moved to Galway, Ireland in 2010 where it now takes place at the National University of Ireland Galway under the direction of two of its premier research centres, the Huston School of Film & Digital Media and the Irish Centre for Human Rights.

Over the last 10 years, the CHRA has evolved and expanded its training activities to places and communities where human rights film activity is most relevant but lack space for young filmmakers to learn, share stories and ideas, and produce effective human rights film projects. We have run trainings in Jordan, Burkina Faso, China, Ethiopia and Burma coordinating with local citizens and organisations, we plan to expand activities to Afghanistan, Sudan and South Sudan in the near future.

Emma Sandon discussing with the Summer School participants in Galway, Ireland 2013

I have been lucky enough to be involved in some of these workshops where I was struck by the passion and commitment of the filmmakers and human rights activists desperate to let the world know about their people’s struggles. They have tons of stories to tell about human rights abuses but all too often their stories aren’t heard enough, if not at all, and their films don’t make a difference as they lack an effective advocacy strategy to communicate the message to those who have the power to influence change. Our Video Storytelling Workshops aims to empower young people by turning stories into powerful documentaries and videos that can raise awareness and promote social change.

It is extremely rewarding to hear about former participants who, subsequent to attending our trainings, have produced films or videos that had an impact on their community or have hit the festival screens, or have been broadcast on national television. The broader the impact of these films; the more meaningful the work we have set to achieve becomes.

By “we” I refer to the core team of international experts and academics from all over the world, amongst which the British photographer, filmmaker and Summer School Director Nick Danziger; the world expert of international law Prof. William Schabas; the committed documentary producer Christopher Hird; the passionate Sam Gregory and Kelli Matheson from WITNESS; the thought- provoking Prof. Koen de Feyter; the inspirational Bogaletch Gebre and many more experts in the fields of film and human rights who have made the CHRA this unique , multidisciplinary and wide reaching training initiative.

In the last decade there has been a proliferation of human rights films and videos which went hand in hand with the boom of human rights film festivals around the world (today more than 40!), with the launch of smartphones and the creation of video sharing sites as Vimeo and YouTube. People are overwhelmed and saturated by stories of abuses, violence and injustice and have developed some sort of emotional barriers to shield themselves from the horrors of what they see and hear, often this is accompanied by a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

The challenge that committed filmmakers and activists face today is to make a productive use of the terrific potential of the visual images and digital technologies to break people shields (and silence), to help retune with their emotions, instil the confidence that change is possible and ultimately show them the first step for action.

I feel the I am extremely privileged to have the opportunity to work with exceptionally talented and motivated young people across the world that hopefully will become the future agents of change through their visual work.