Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context

By Davies, Lyell | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context


Davies, Lyell, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


HUMAN RIGHTS FILM FESTIVALS: ACTIVISM IN CONTEXT By Sonia M. Tascón New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, 264 pp.

REVIEWED BY LYELL DAVIES

With dozens of human rights film festivals staged around the world each year, Sonia M. Tascóris Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context is a much-needed study of these festivals, and a useful addition to film festival scholarship more generally. Examining the meeting of human rights discourses and cinema in the film festival setting, Tascóris study is all the more relevant since, as she points out, those working in the human rights arena may know little about cinema and accept films-particularly documentaries-uncritically, while filmmakers, even those who profess a concern for social justice, may know little about human rights. Adding further complexity, film festivals have historically been launched to meet needs that are distantly removed from human rights, such as to fuel cinephilia or promote national cinemas.

In her study, Tascón wisely avoids presenting general claims about the numerous human rights film festivals in operation and directs her attention to two festivals, the Buenos Aires-based Festival Internacional de Cine Derechos Humanos (FICDH) and New York City-based Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF). Central to Tascóris argument is that regional film festivals interpret "international" human rights in different ways to meet local needs. Probing the schedule of films programmed by FICD H following its launch in 1997, Tascón argues that during the festivals early years it focused on the exhibition of works depicting themes related to Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s. She calculates that in the festival's first year more than two-thirds of the films exhibited were either about or produced in Argentina, with a significant number of these directly exploring the junta's brutal rule or its aftermath. By choosing to screen the films that it did, the festival's conceptualization of human rights was a response to recent events in Argentine history and underlying its choices was the subtext of seeking to encourage the resuscitation of a radical, oppositional Argentine cinema of the kind crushed during the military's rule. Tascón reports that over time this focus has changed with topics linked to the negative effects of globalization taking a prominent place in the festival's program, as well as a higher ratio of films made outside Latin America. Nonetheless, she argues that the prominence of films depicting themes related to Argentina over the course of FICDH s history illustrates that a major thrust for the festival has been nation building within Argentina, rather than a broad call for international human rights.

Examining HRWIFF, Tascón describes a different trajectory. Launched in 1988, HRWIFF was the world's first human rights film festival and is an offshoot of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a U.S.-based organization created during the Cold War (as Helsinki Watch) to monitor human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. The author argues that HRWIFF has commonly followed HRW s framing of what is, or is not, a human rights issue, selecting films that focus on human rights abuses beyond the U. …

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