Human Rights Film Festival Inspires Change

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Last week USF held the seventh annual Human Rights Film Festival, a three-day event featuring nearly a dozen films from four countries.  The festival, which took place in the Presentation Theater on campus and was free and open to the public, confronted an impressive range of issues through a line-up of highly acclaimed and well-respected films.

In the past, the festival existed as a collaboration with the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival and exclusively featured selections from that festival.  This year, however, the USF fest evolved into an independent event with a wider scope.  Although two films were contributions from the Traveling Festival, the rest were unique selections, many of which were presented by their directors.  Largely organized by Susana Kaiser of the media studies and Latin American studies departments, the event was sponsored by over two dozen USF departments and organizations.  Faculty from several departments were instrumental in recruiting the directors to appear with their films.

There was also a significant student presence, as the festival featured four student short films covering topics ranging from the ongoing protests of the School of Americas in Georgia to the oppressed fate of the Gypsies living in Rome.  These films provided a tangible example of the festival’s mission “to encourage citizens to take action.”  A table of student volunteers was on hand throughout the festival providing pamphlets and information related to a variety of human rights issues and organizations.

The opening day focused on human rights issues in South and Central America.   The first three films examined historical instances of injustice in the region, while the final film of the day looked to the future and involved the United States in its scope of discussion.  This film, “Sleep Dealer,” described by director Alex Rivera after the viewing as “the first science fiction film that could turn out to be a documentary,” addressed the economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and the complicated nature of borders. The film examined the absurdities of a globalized world by depicting a technologically advanced near-future in which “connectivity does not lead to justice or equality but instead leads to new forms of exploitation.”

The second day of the festival juxtaposed several films focused on American events with another, which addressed a foreign human rights issue.  “Burning the Future: Coal in America” examined the devastating effect that coal mining has on the environment and public health, and stressed the responsibility of citizens to confront problems within their community.  This film was followed by 2008 Sundance Award winners “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” and “Trouble the Water,” a film which addressed suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  These films used personal stories to expound on large-scale issues of social justice and stressed the capacity of the individual to affect social awareness.

The third and final day of the festival featured an interview with Alex Gibney, director of Oscar-winning documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” followed by a screening of the film and a question and answer session.  While discussing the film after the viewing, Gibney described the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, which were explored in his film as “human issues” which should not be viewed strictly within the context of the military.  He went on to propose “education as the best antiseptic” against human rights abuses.

The concluding event of the festival was a viewing of “Dos Americas: the Reconstruction of New Orleans,” followed by a panel discussion between director David Zlutnick and Ronald Sundstrom (professor of philosophy and director of African-American studies) and Jorge Aquino (professor of theology and religious studies and director of Chicano-Latin studies).  The professors and Zlutnick interpreted the situation in New Orleans from slightly differing perspectives, which, taken together, provided an example of how the diversity and free exchange of ideas occurring at USF place our community in a unique position to recognize and take action in support of human rights issues across the globe.

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