For the past 16 years, communities of film lovers and political activists have come together at USF to create the Human Rights Film Festival. Programs from across the College of Arts and Sciences and Cine Acción have brought a collection of documentaries, feature films and shorts for viewing and discussion in the School of Education theater. All of the films explore the experiences and stories of people who struggle for their rights, or often are forced to survive without them.
Arguably, the highest profile film this year is Oscar nominee “Last Men in Aleppo,” the second acclaimed documentary shown at the festival in the past few years, about the White Helmet search and rescue organization. The struggles of refugees and migrants appear in several other films at the festival, including “Stranger in Paradise,” which observes the crisis from a European perspective, using an actor and real refugees to muddle the lines of fiction and reality.
The Human Rights Film Festival was cofounded by Dr. Susanna Kaiser, who observed a traveling festival held by the organization Human Rights Watch while studying in Austin, Texas. At USF, she felt the schools motto, “change the world from here,” and the Jesuit value of “for others” indicated a desire for films that challenged their audiences to consider how they could fight for the rights of others. Kaiser feels that one of this year’s most important films is “Complicit,” a documentary about the mistreatment of workers in Chinese tech factories. “If all the tens of millions of smartphone users stood up…,” she said, shaking her head as she trailed off.
Since 2016, shorts by current students have been screened on the opening day of the festival. Film studies director Danny Plotnick submits several shorts films selected from film classes that tackle issues of human rights and social justice. He says some of his selections are based on the strength of the films, and some are based more on the human rights ideas that they promote.
The theme of state abuse hangs over the festival, as several films recount a story of people going head-to-head with the institutions that are supposed to protect them, quickly realizing that they are more hostile and dangerous than any individual. “500 Years: Life in Resistance” tells the story of Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt’s trial for the genocide of the Mayan people.
Admirably, the festival has not bought into the myth that the United States is a benevolent state; the films here depict some of the darkest faces of American state institutions. Particularly, the story of Hawaiian prisoners transferred to an Arizona private prison in “Out of State” rings true, as this model of shipping those deemed undesirable out of state is one that the city of San Francisco has embraced for its homeless population.
There is always an urgency in the festival’s programming. There is an importance to films like these, as the lineup at the festival has an overwhelming feeling that here is where change happens. Here, it seems, are the tools to go out and do good. Roger Ebert once said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” and the Human Rights Festival hopes to use the machine to its most politically motivated ability.
The Human Rights FIlm Festival will be showing films April 5-7 in the Education Building.