A festival blends a celebration of the human spirit with a critical examination of human rights issues using a refined interpretation of ‘human rights.’

The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival has established itself as a platform for screening both traditional and innovative human rights films in Australia.Presented in conjunction with visual artwork exhibitions, poetry and music performances, seminars and workshops, the film festival takes centre stage. The festival presents films that document issues of human rights abuses as well as those that critique traditional representations of human rights issues and the representation of ‘victims.’ The films are marvellous studies of the human condition, pushing the boundaries of the theme through a nuanced interpretation of it. This year’s selection included documentaries that told stories of human rights abuses such as the neglect faced by street children in Nepal (Lonely Pack), the horrific working conditions of ship-breaking workers at Chittagong dockyards in Bangladesh (Iron Crows) and the effects of climate change on lives in the Pacific islands (There Was Once an Island). However, the festival cast a wide net and included films that observed human rights concerns in Western societies, which appear less frequently in human rights documentaries.

Lonely Pack

Topics included: the playing out of the pro-life and pro-choice hostilities (12th and Delaware), the effects of technology on humans and societies (Plug & Pray) and the challenges of resettlement faced by migrants in Britain (Moving to Mars: a Million Miles from Burma). The Festival also included films that celebrate the power of collective and individual action to conquer adversity – the power of music in the ghettos of Congo (Benda Bilili), the successes of the peaceful, secular resistance movement to the ‘Fence’ in Gaza (Budrus) and the successful community action against gold mining in Argentinian Patagonia (Vienen Por El Oro Vienen El Todo).

Three documentaries stood out as illustrations of the eclectic approach to the film selection. I was worth fifty sheep (Dir: Nima Sarvestani) is a well executed, observational film that challenges the popular representation of Afghani women as ‘voiceless victims.’ Set within the confronting world of traded teenage girls within a patriarchal family structure, the teenage protagonist emerges as a strong woman who regains control of her life. Plug & Pray (director Jens Schanze) is a philosophical exploration of the complex ethical dilemmas being posed by advancing technology. The film features conversations with pioneers of newer frontiers in technology as well as scientists who question the effects of advancing technology on human lives, relationships and society. 12th and Delaware (directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) approaches the manipulative tactics of pro-life groups in America in an evenhanded, understated manner, resisting the temptation to adopt a didactic approach. The observational, direct cinema style lends an additional element of live drama to the documentary as the intriguing tactics of the pro-lifers unfold on camera. Taking a big picture approach to the articulation of human rights, the documentaries were both engaging and thought provoking. Coming on the heels of several films that depict the military conflict and its many aspects in contemporary Afghanistan, (Restrepo, Armadillo), I Was Worth 50 Sheep returns attention to the outdated practise of exchanging young girls for livestock that continues to plague Afghan society, through the story of a single family.

Although not stated in the documentary, set against the backdrop of international efforts to end gender prejudice in Afghanistan, the film takes on a greater significance. With the overthrow of the Taliban, Western media broadcast sounds of music in the streets, hitherto banned by the Taliban, images of women in schools and markets were also shown widely. The inference being that the Western liberated Afghanistan was a better place for women. Sarvestani’s documentary not only shows the thriving gender inequities but also delves deeper into the reasons that allow the persistence of such practices – he finds that the chief driver is poverty; when faced with the choice of starvation or survival, the family chooses to trade their younger daughter in return for livestock.
The family of four survive on the meagre income of the step-father who sells homemade pens to small-time traders in the market. After wandering all day with his pens, he makes a pittance. Along with his wife, he supported his older daughter in escaping her purchaser-husband and returning to her family home. The older daughter is a strong-willed, courageous and outspoken girl who pursues her violent ex-husband through a legal system that is stacked against her. Now, after exhausting all efforts to save the younger daughter, the family reluctantly go ahead with the transaction. The film is important on several counts; firstly, the subtle portrayal of the step-father challenges the iconic generality of the representation of patriarchs – he is shown as a gentle character, loyal to his step-daughters and prepared to oppose social conventions in their interest. The older daughter also resists stereotyping as the ‘helpless victim’; instead she uses the pain and agony of her abuse to fuel her struggle against her ex-husband and the custom in a broader sense. Secondly, the film also raises questions about the role of the ‘war’ in Afghanistan and poignantly asks: “Is there a palpable change in the economic and social circumstances of the population given the years of Western military intervention?”


Advances in technology, especially robotics and artificial intelligence are likely to change the nature of human interaction and society.
Plug & Pray presents the grey areas that these advances expose within the social and ethical frameworks of human society.

Encompassing the spectrum of human functions and relationships, the film critiques several current uses of technology while also foreshadowing future uses, many of which are likely to be detrimental to humans. The film observes the rapid pursuit to upgrade and improve technology purely as a scientific challenge, removed from a human context and therefore able to ignore the dilemmas the advances create. The use of robotic technology in warfare is discussed as an illustration of this conundrum, where remote warfare is highly efficient for the party that can afford it. For the other it removes the chance of a level playing field. Similarly the quest to enhance human physical abilities by replacing red blood cells with robotic devices ignores the ecological consequences of these advancements. The film raises several questions:Who is in control, humans or technology? Is it only the capacity to reproduce that differentiates humans from robots? Are ‘optimisation’ and utility the only values worth pursuing? Is technological supremacy an end in itself? While the filmmaker irreverently documents the spectacular failures of technology, a sinister undertone pervades the film, especially as the pioneer of artificial intelligence, Joseph Weizenbaum, is now critical of the blind human faith in technology. A cautionary tale, Plug & Pray is a critical meditation on the future of human faith in technology.

PLUG & PRAY. Deutschland 2009 – Director: Jens Schanze .

The pointy end of pro-life versus pro-choice hostility is captured in the events that unfold at a pro-life centre and an abortion clinic, both of which are located on the corner of 12th and Delaware street in Florida. While the debate rages in American society, its complexity is illustrated at the coalface through the operation of the two clinics. The film follows the employeeclient interaction at both the clinics; the prolifers tactically persuade the clients using deception, strategic imagery and religion while the abortion clinic fiercely protects its clients’ right to choice. Often neglected in popular discourse, the film features the women caught in the crossfire, many of whom already approach abortion with moral ambiguity. As the narrative unfolds, the audience is impartially presented with the ugly details of daily confrontations and maniacal employee behaviour juxtaposed against the extreme vulnerability of the female clients.
Characterised by emotional hysteria, this issue has polarised American politics, therefore the ostensibly detached, cinema vérité approach of the filmmaker enables an objectivity often missing from the popular discourse. While the filmmakers’ presence is minimised in the film, it is not completely absent, and through the minimal use of music and a brief slow-motion sequence, their voice becomes apparent. Despite this, the film is open to multiple readings and encourages the viewer to approach the issue armed with the hitherto unseen aspects of the debate. The definition of human rights is shaped by the universal belief in the value and dignity of all people; however, sometimes the interpretation tends to pigeon-hole certain groups during particular historical and political periods, often creating a handful of ‘popular’ themes. The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival applied a comprehensive interpretation of ‘human rights’ to create a space for raising awareness while also enabling discussion and reflection on the bigger question: “What does it mean to be human?”