"Human Rights Through a Unique Lens” – “REEL AWARENESS” Human Rights Film Festival’s 10th Anniversary
Contributions from AI Toronto Film Team members: Kathryn Birkett, Sareema Husein, Nazila Mofrad, Cindy Ou, Violet Rusu
What does the current state of free expression and human rights look like through the lens of a Canadian journalist, a film maker and an actress and Indigenous activist? Three industry professionals weighed in on the discussion at Toronto’s Paintbox Bistro on Thursday November 12th, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Amnesty International’s Reel Awareness Human Rights Film Festival.
From Film Team member Kathryn Birkett: “The "Human Rights through a Unique Lens” discussion put a spotlight on harrowing conditions and situations both at home and abroad, while offering examples of inspiration and hope for anyone wanting change in the world. Indigenous activist Jennifer Podemski’s journey through the educational system and acting profession highlighted her quest to find genuine aboriginal roles. She used her struggles with the mainstream culture as a vehicle for change rather than allowing suppression of the truth to push her down. Similarly, documentary filmmaker and producer Shelley Saywell’s experience in both war zones and with the homeless offered a realistic view into what it means to make a documentary and to reconcile issues of censorship within the industry. VICE Investigative journalist, David McDougall presented photographs which pointed to alarming atrocities in both Syria and Nigeria and which gave a glimpse into the difficult and dangerous process of getting at the truth for both journalist and “fixer".
Sareema Husein, a new member of the Film Team, gives us her thoughts: “I was staffing the front door when David McDougall walked in. Yep, that’s totally a journalist, I think to myself as he takes off his messenger bag. McDougall has been in the front line in many war zones- Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq to name a few. He tells us of the women who he interviewed whose hands were cut off by her husband after she refused to join al-Shabaab. He shows us pictures of “fixers” and people he worked with that were native to the foreign lands he filmed in-many of them are now dead.
He highlights that whenever he’s working abroad, leaving and coming back home is always an option for him but not for the people he builds relationships with there. But still, they are eager to work with him to tell their stories and let the world hear what’s happening in their home. “Sometimes you have to put the camera down and help and then you pick it up again when you realize that you’re just getting in the way” he says as a picture of a bombed hospital appears on the screen. I later get him 1- on-1 and ask him how he’s changed since his first experience in the frontlines. “It’s always really tough and sometimes you have to become a little numb to it…It’s always hard” he says.
In the words of Film Team member Violet Rusu: “Jennifer Podemski, a half-Saulteaux, half-Israeli actress spoke about growing up in the film industry and bearing witness to the under representation of Native people. "The cycle should be broken and to break the cycle you should speak up". On a mission to empower Aboriginal people—both on and off camera, she started her production company, Redcloud Studios. Shelley Saywell, president at Bishari Film Productions Inc., spoke about the struggles associated with independent filmmaking when it comes to staying within the boundaries of Canada’s own censorship laws. Saywell recalled a time when she had wrapped up filming, only to have her lawyer tell her that up to 80 per cent of her content might spark a lawsuit, and had to go. For independent filmmakers and producers, the threat of being sued is always a financial burden hanging overhead, Saywell said.
“On a more personal note, says Sareema Husein, I leave the building feeling excited. Being a foreign correspondent is what I wish to do for a living and after hearing the panelists speak, I realize there’s no more waiting. I don’t wait until I get out of school and graduate to start vocally speaking up about the issues I care about. The one part of the panel that really resonated with me was when Shelley Saywell said “Find something you’re passionate about and film it”. That’s how you start-you just do it. You don’t let your passion sit in the backburner and expect it to grow without showing it any sunlight.”
“I was inspired by the incredible testimonies of our three speakers” says Amnesty volunteer Cindy Ou. “The pictures presented by VICE documentary producer David MacDougall gave us a glimpse not just of the grim reality in Nigeria, the world of Boko Haram and the daily life of Nigerians, but also of what it means to be an investigative journalist. The fact that people like David, Jennifer Podemski and Shelley Saywell exist is a beacon of hope that there is a possibility for change. They give voice to the voiceless and are unafraid of making their audience uncomfortable if it means they will know. As a young adult who is fresh out of university and is often daunted by the world, being able to hear these speakers gave me strength to continue to fight for human rights. They have showed me that it works. “
From Nazila Mofrad, Film team programmer: “The words by an investigative journalist, an artist and Indigenous activist, and a documentary filmmaker, touched me on so many levels. What these three panel speakers presented, brought up the conflicting thoughts, buried emotions as well as the inspiration to be better and to do more. More than anything else the testimonies were about what it meant to be human with all of our strengths and weaknesses. How each of us, being a journalist, actor, activist, filmmaker or just an ordinary person, have doubts and challenges to face at the end of the day. One theme common among all we’ve heard that evening was the importance of stories, of not forgetting and of sharing. People whose human rights are abused are often voiceless and they usually face dangerous consequences when sharing their stories, but they do it nevertheless - willingly and with the hope that somebody, somewhere will know about their suffering and might do something about it.
We, as the audience of these stories should not ever forget that.” Join us for the 10th Amnesty International REEL AWARENESS Human Rights Film Festival, November 19th – 22nd at Carlton Cinema, Toronto. www.aito.ca/reelawareness