Short Films to Teach Human Rights and Save Lives

Cards for Democracy
Published on
November 15, 2018
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Short Films to Teach Human Rights and Save Lives

Ildikó Lázár and Zsuzsanna Kozák

Short documentary films can enrich any lesson or professional development workshop. They can show the living conditions, achievements and challenges of people living in distant or not so distant locations in powerful ways thus allowing viewers to learn about, understand and empathize with others. Short documentaries have the potential to open windows on worlds that we would never get to see otherwise. Such screenings also allow teachers and trainers to plan and implement pre- and post-viewing activities and moderate discussions that aim to focus on environmental issues, diversity, democracy or human rights. You will probably agree with the above but you may be wondering at this point how these films can save lives.

Last week, at the 15th Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, which is the largest human rights documentary film screening event in Hungary, some of the most recent documentaries in the field of human rights were showcased in English and Hungarian. In addition to screenings, the audience had the opportunity to listen to panel discussions with film directors and producers and they were invited to participate in workshops related to some of the films.

A novelty at this year’s Verzió Film Festival was a programme series organised by the Visual World Foundation about the Wapikoni Mobile Film Studio from Canada. Wapikoni Mobile, a caravan turned into an editing and screening room, has been traveling along the Canadian highways, providing inspiration, skills, tools and space for creating art among indigenous communities since 2004. The vehicle was named after a 20-year-old Atikamekw girl, who lost her life in a car accident on the badly maintained road leading up to a reservation. Wapikoni Awashish, with her pure heart, bravery, and dedicated community-building work, had earned her people’s trust: she was the primary candidate for the position of tribal chief in her community. Manon Barbeau, a Canadian documentary film director, named this unique van after her. Wapikoni’s senseless death, and the many other tragedies among Canadian indigenous people, upset Barbeau so much that she decided to take action.

As a film director, Barbeau had previously worked with children living on the streets of both big cities and reserves. She had experienced the joy of co-writing scripts based on their lives and turning these into short films. Such films have healing powers, both through the artistic process of their creation and through their many screenings to a variety of audiences. But Barbeau knew that the departure of the traveling film studio after about a month of intensive work on site would leave a void behind in any community. Therefore, she decided that the van with its crew of filmmakers, trainers and social workers should make a yearly return and, after some preparation by the local organizers, spend another month on each reserve. Since 2004, Wapikoni Mobile has trained more than 5,000 people, inspiring them to create their own documentaries. As a result of the trainings, and with this new opportunity to be seen and recognized, participants have had a boost in self-esteem and improved their ability to manage stress. They feel less isolated, less invisible and therefore less dependent on drugs and alcohol. This is how making short films about your own culture can save lives.

The new program series at the Verzió film festival was the result of years of cooperation between Wapikoni Mobile from Canada and the Visual World Foundation in Hungary.  There were three events in the framework of the programme series called ”WAPIKONI’S FRIENDS” at the festival, showcasing a total of 12 Canadian indigenous documentaries. “Wapikoni’s friends” at the film festival included trainers of Visual World Foundation, Ambassador of Canada Isabelle Poupart, the festival’s organizer Oksana Sarkisova and over a hundred participants.

Some of the ideas and activities from the workshops can probably be used with other documentaries and other audiences. Pre-viewing activities can elicit participants’ expectations based on the title or a scene from the movie. They can be made to think about their associations with the title or the main theme/concept the film is based on, trying to imagine what a documentary entitled “Apple”, for example, could be about in their own context. This will certainly raise their curiosity and prepare the ground for a discussion of similarities and differences between the two contexts after they have watched the film. To conclude, the facilitator could moderate a discussion based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or one of its simplified, child-friendly versions.

Another useful activity is to ask participants to observe how women or men, young or old people, insiders or outsiders in the life of a community are represented in the documentaries. This can lead to several variations of a follow-up role-play activity. Not only can the situations and stories told in the film be enacted as they were shown and perceived on screen but the participants can also adapt these to their own culture and environment to experiment with the idea how a similar situation or story would unfold if they or people they know were the players.

Finally, participants in small groups formed according to their interests could be guided through a planning process to identify which vulnerable groups in their own country or immediate environment could be assisted by a crew and a traveling film studio similar to Wapikoni. They will be inspired to think about potential target groups and their needs in their own country. A short debate could follow in which each group presents arguments to convince the others why their selected group is in dire need of such an intervention. On the one hand, this will make them think hard and even do some research to justify their choices. On the other hand, they will be exposed to the arguments of the others with different target groups and different needs in mind. The participants can then either select a target group all together as a result of the arguments presented in the debate or continue planning the activities for different target audiences in their small groups. Either way, they would need to write down or draw what activities they would engage in with the people they would work with and distribute the roles of script writer, reporter, cameraman, director, social worker and organizer to name only a few. If equipment and funding are available, perhaps some of the projects can be realized and the lives and hardships of vulnerable groups can be made visible. Should there be no equipment and funding available, then at least participants’ awareness of and knowledge about disadvantaged groups and human rights was developed.

Further Information

Demo film about Wapikoni

Film produced by Wapikoni: We will rise up – Nous nous souleverons


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