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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:

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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