FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Inherent Contradictions in Filming Human Rights

The 1972 photo of a young girl running naked in Trang Bang screaming in pain from the effects of napalm had a profound influence on the public’s perception of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The 2015 photo of a three-year-old refugee boy drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey also had a profound influence of the public’s perception, this time on the desperate plight of millions of refugees. The images of Phan Thi Kim Phuc and Aylan Kurdi are iconic representations. Both capture larger stories; both images express powerful narratives.

Visualization is story telling in another form. Paintings, photos, videos and movies speak a language of their own. While so much of our history has been encapsulated on the written page, technology has leaped ahead to the visual. Movie theatres, television, computer screens, telephones are appealing to what we see rather than what we read.

Scholars and critics have poured over texts since writing itself. Art historians have analyzed paintings for hundreds of years. Modern technology has given us new forms of expression. Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s introduced the notion that the medium of communication – movies for instance – change how a message is perceived. Directors can alter time sequences; background music can play directly to our emotions. We have entered new forms of communication that are just beginning to be understood.

The recent Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Switzerland was a significant event; 61 films shown in 57 venues in the Swiss Romand and Grand Genève, 28 debates and discussions with important figures such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Catalonian leader Carles Puidgemont as well as a human rights film tour organized by Swiss embassies in 45 countries.

During the Festival, documentaries showed the horrendous suffering of victims – such as death row prisoners held in solitary confinement for over two decades, and rape against women and men in Libya as a weapon of war to humiliate and terrorize opposition. The images were shocking, almost numbing. We in the theatre became more than viewers, we became indirect witnesses through the lens of the film.

Several directors participated in debates following the presentations. They all expressed hope that the revelations shown on the screen would encourage reaction from the audience beyond the theatre. The purpose of the film, many argued, was to move the attendees and future viewers from watchers – i.e., indirect witnesses – to activists. The films, according to their creators, were calls to action.

McLuhan is most pertinent here. Watching a movie, any movie, is passive/emotional. The director leads us through what he or she wants us to see and feel. We are being literally directed. At a human rights film festival, we are directed, made aware, and called to action. The message of the medium is more than just perception; it is a motivation to do something.

But the screen is just a screen, and a silver screen at that. The films were expertly produced. Most were technologically impressive. The cruelty and crudeness of human suffering were presented with all that modernity could offer.

It is the contrast between the rawness of grave breaches of human dignity and the sophistication of the current cinema that somehow reduced the power of the message. If, according to McLuhan, the medium is the message, then the films themselves – with all their slick professionalism – somehow played against a call to action. The excellence of the films was in contradiction to the cruelty and chaos of what they were showing.

To participate by loud speaker in a telephone conversation with a prisoner in solitary confinement in Arkansas while sitting comfortably in a chair in a Geneva theatre reduces the possibilities to empathize with his situation and to be outraged enough to do something on his behalf. If the setting is too cool, the outrage loses some of its heat.

There is no solution to this contradiction. Human rights activists are turning to visualization to appeal to larger and larger audiences. Visualization is today’s most powerful means of communication and it is becoming more and more sophisticated. The object of human rights’ film makers is to get the message out to the largest audience in an appealing way. The written era of Gutenberg is no longer hot. It is easier to teach students World War II by viewing Saving Private Ryan than to have them read weighty tomes of historical documentation.

If the message of human rights’ films is to witness human rights violations and call to action, professional presentations may be counter-productive. Movies are fundamentally entertainment; however instructive or documenting they may be. But when it comes to human rights and their violations, there should be as little entertainment as possible.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
December 10, 2019
Tony McKenna
The Demonization of Jeremy Corbyn
John Grant
American Culture Loves a Good Killer
Jacob Hornberger
Afghanistan: a Pentagon Paradise Built on Lies
Nick Licata
Was Trump Looking for Corruption or a Personal Favor?
Thomas M. Magstadt
What’s the Matter With America?
Brian Tokar
Climate Talks in Madrid: What Will It Take to Prevent Climate Collapse?
Jack Rasmus
Trump vs. Democracy
Walden Bello
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
Binoy Kampmark
A Troubled Family: NATO Turns 70
Brian Horejsi
Citizens Are Never Trusted
Michael Barker
Self-Defense in the Civil Rights Movement: the Lessons of Birmingham, 1963
John Feffer
Soldiers Who Fight War
Howie Wolke
Willingness to Compromise Puts Wilderness at Risk
December 09, 2019
Jefferson Morley
Trump’s Hand-Picked Prosecutor John Durham Cleared the CIA Once, Will He Again?
Kirkpatrick Sale
Political Collapse: The Center Cannot Hold
Ishmael Reed
Bloomberg Condoned Sexual Assault by NYPD 
W. T. Whitney
Hitting at Cuban Doctors and at Human Solidarity
Louisa Willcox
The Grizzly Cost of Coexistence
Thomas Knapp
Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner
John Feffer
How the New Right Went Global — and How to Stop It
Ralph Nader
Why Not Also Go With “The Kitchen Table” Impeachable Offenses for Removal?
Robert Fisk
Meet the Controversial Actor and Businessman Standing Up Against Egypt’s el-Sisi
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Sri Lanka Continues Its Delicate Dance With India
Dahr Jamail
Savoring What Remains: Dealing With Climate PTSD
George Wuerthner
Bison Slaughter in Yellowstone…Again
Scott Tucker
Premature Democratic Socialists: Reasons for Hope and Change
Julian Rose
Polish Minister of Health Proposes Carcinogenic 5G Emission Levels as National Norm
Dean Baker
Coal and the Regions Left Behind
Robert Koehler
Envisioning a United World
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
Paul Street
The Dismal Dollar Dems and the Subversion of Democracy
Dave Lindorff
Conviction and Removal Aren’t the Issue; It’s Impeachment of Trump That is Essential
Ron Jacobs
Law Seminar in the Hearing Room: Impeachment Day Six
Linda Pentz Gunter
Why Do We Punish the Peacemakers?
Louis Proyect
Michael Bloomberg and Me
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Hits a Grim Threshold
Joseph Natoli
What We Must Do
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Global Poison Spring
Robert Fantina
Is Kashmir India’s Palestine?
Charles McKelvey
A Theory of Truth From the South
Walden Bello
How the Battle of Seattle Made the Truth About Globalization True
Evan Jones
BNP Before a French Court
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail