Krakow Film Festival 2024

Documentary filmmaking and human rights: a delicate balance of exposure and protection

As the FIFDH Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva anticipates its sixth annual Impact Days from 10 to 12 March, discussions began in earnest with a January webinar. This session posed a vital question central to the festival’s ethos: «How do we protect activists while promoting their work?” Documentaries, potent tools for amplifying human rights defenders’ voices, inherently increase their visibility and, consequently, their vulnerability. Laura Longobardi, Festival Co-Director, encapsulates this paradox: «A film gives visibility, which could be an occasion to be put in danger. At the same time, the visibility can also help prevent and give protection.»

Delikado, a film by Karl Malakkunas


Under the banner «Impact Filmmaking for Social Justice,» the Impact Days programme delves deep into this paradox. The case study on the Emmy-nominated documentary Delikado, featuring director Karl Malakkunas and producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, showcased the perilous journey of environmental defenders in Palawan, Philippines. This tropical paradise, also a battleground against exploitation, is the setting for a David vs. Goliath story of activists fighting to preserve Asia’s dwindling natural sanctuaries. On the nature of its production and development, Malakkunas emphasised the need for a collaborative approach, stating, «We worked as a team with the parent forces, which was important to security. We also became great friends in the process.»

This tropical paradise, also a battleground against exploitation, is the setting for a David vs. Goliath story of activists fighting to preserve Asia’s dwindling natural sanctuaries.

Strategic planning in impact campaigns

The impact campaign for Delikado was meticulously planned to protect its subjects while maximising the film’s reach. Magsanoc-Alikpala outlined its four key goals:

  • Increasing visibility for Palawan’s land defenders
  • Driving support for environmental campaigns
  • Enhancing government and corporate accountability
  • Motivating responsible tourism

Furthermore, Magsanoc-Alikpala underscored the strategic importance of impact partner organisations. «Impact campaigns are really not possible without partners and allies. Pick partners with experience and resources.»

The Delikado campaign was structured in three phases to create buzz internationally, garner broad support in the Philippines, and raise the media profile of the protagonists. Magsanoc-Alikpala highlighted the significance of targeting the right audience, those capable of effecting the desired change. This approach raises awareness and fosters a supportive community around the film’s subjects.

«When you do an impact campaign, more so than the number of people watching your film, it’s so important that you get your target audience. They’re the ones who can make the change you want to happen.» Magsanoc-Alikpala elaborated, highlighting the ultimate goal and transformative potential of well-executed campaigns.

As the case study wound down, both representatives explained some specific results of the Delikado impact campaign, keeping the topic alive following the film’s premiere screenings and some best practices for navigating the festival circuit. For example, Magsanoc-Alikpala stated, «It’s always good to have one of the protagonists present at the Q&As. They enrich the conversation, and the exchange of energy is amazing. I always learned something new from them with every new Q&A.»

Our Land, Our Freedom
Our Land, Pur Freedom, a film by Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimudu

Our Land, Our Freedom

The panel discussion, featuring Our Land, Our Freedom directors Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimudu, shifts focus to Kenya. Our Land, Our Freedom tells the story of Wanjugu Kimathi, daughter of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, as she seeks her father’s remains, unveiling Kenya’s colonial wounds and challenging beneficiaries of past injustices. The film’s impact campaign educates on historical injustices, advocating for curriculum inclusion of freedom fighters, land restitution, and support for their families, targeting diverse stakeholders. Before the discussion commenced, a handful of helpful resources on the impact campaign topic were presented. These included the Doc Society’s Impact Field Guide and Tool Kit,, and Hostile Filming Protocol.

As with Delikado, a large part of the conversation’s first part dealt with introducing and developing the film. From here, Wanjugu Kimathi was introduced, who explained her background and safety concerns, or lack thereof. «From my childhood. I have been so passionate about the freedom fighting and the fighting for land,» she says. On her mindset around safety, she exclaimed, «The more I felt scared, the more I wanted to do it.» Overall, the entire panel discussion had a first-hand thematic perspective, given the participation of Kimathi. Physical threats, psychological effects, and the specific history of colonialism’s legacy in Kenya were all discussed.

«The more I felt scared, the more I wanted to do it.»

The collective approach

On mitigating risks involved with sensitive topics, Meena Nanji mentioned, «We’re trying to show the film in a lot of festivals internationally before we take it to Kenya. It’s much easier to go into Kenya with the film being out in the international world first. This allows some degree of protection.» Expanding on the topic, Nanji reiterates the importance of strategic impact partners. «If anything happens, or if there’s any threats or anything, we can immediately go to them.»

From such a partner’s perspective, panelist Elise Golay of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) explained how her organisation works. «We have a collective approach. We are within an axis of work through training. This can also be access to information or providing information to defenders and communities. We also work through the strengthening of national laws for the protection of defenders.»

In wrapping up the discourse from the «Impact Filmmaking for Social Justice» webinar, it is clear that documentary filmmaking within human rights is both a tool for advocacy and a complex ethical endeavour. This webinar’s examination highlights the dual challenge filmmakers face in amplifying the stories of activists and ensuring their protection. Through strategic planning, collaboration, and a strong commitment to ethical principles, the webinar not only proposes pathways to navigate these challenges but also reaffirms the role of documentaries within the broader struggle for justice and human dignity.

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Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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