The people who described the concentration camps during the second world war were referred to as “screamers”. This referred to the fact that they did manage to get their message heard, but only for an hour, before, as the Hungarian Arthur Koestler pointed out, “their mental half-defence begins to work, and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned.”

Sarah Prosser

Prosser was this year festival director of Human Rights, Human Wrongs in Oslo, and writes regulary for DOX.

The people who arrange human rights film festivals (and the majority of the people who come to such festivals) believe that an hour of after-effect is a start. Some believe that the very medium of independent documentary film will in itself affect viewers for longer than a week. The festival programmer can indeed depend on the impact of the films themselves by selecting films such as the cringing/amusing The Yes Men Fix the World, the uplifting Crude that gives hope to all underdogs, and/or the intellectually stimulating Encirclement. Q and A’s can also be arranged to expand on the film itself. But if (and that “if” is the crux of the matter) personal interaction with other festival attendees is somehow engineered, the lasting impression can be too deep to ever shrug off.

At the inaugural festival of Human Rights, Human Wrongs in Oslo last December, one of my lasting memories will be that of Faraj Bayrakdar – a Syrian poet and journalist who had been imprisoned and tortured for over 20 years before moving to Sweden to live in exile. Like so many human rights defenders in similar situations, his life now is lonely and isolated: he is safe but lost. In the film An Independent Mind, Faraj describes how the time he spent in prison had stifled his ability to ever feel joy again. We screened the film, the audience and guests discussed oppression in Tibet, Syria and in general, and then… and then the venue turned into a pulsating, throbbing, quite amazing Georgian/Ukrainian/Belorusian disco. Faraj was found dancing with fellow human rights defenders invited to the festival, with members of the public, and with the festival organisers. The following morning I said to him “Faraj, you seemed to enjoy yourself last night?…” He answered, “I did Sarah, for the very first time in many, many, years.”

And this is the reason to put on these festivals: to provide a place for people like Faraj to meet, to feel less isolated, to see their stories are being heard across the world, and to experience in person that people support them and others like them. And of course it is a two way street, so the idea is also to provide a place where people like me, and everyone, can meet people like Faraj and be affected for a very long time indeed.

Cognitive dissidence may be an excuse to shrug off the incredulity of the wicked world around us, but we must continue to gather, to discuss, to show solidarity, and to dance. Human rights festivals are a good place to start.


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