They have to work as films in their own right and fulfil television’s idea of what can attract an audience, as the topic itself is not easily digestible for television.

ULLA JACOBSEN talked with two commissioning editors, a festival director and a filmmaker at the One World Film Festival, held in Prague last April, about the appeal and role of the human rights documentary.

Unfortunately wars are being waged around the world with the same intensity as ever, many people are living in extreme poverty, power abuse is widespread and people are living in oppression. Maybe not hot stuff for selling advertising space, but a sad reality that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Fortunately many people are concerned. Documentary filmmakers frequently travel to crisis areas to document injustice and examine the not so nice corners of their own society. Quite a few film festivals are dedicated to human rights films, and some commissioning editors are willing to air the films on television – if disguised as something else.

What is a human rights documentary? A doc that deals with the infringement of one or more human rights, which is quite a broad term. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes an article stating that: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” (Article 5), and an article stating that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care….” (Article 25). Whereas infringement of the former ‘only’ affects a limited number of people, infringement of the latter article affects the billions of people living below the poverty level.

Appealing Human Rights Doc

What then constitutes a good human rights documentary?

In the opinion of the director of the One World Film Festival in Prague, Igor Blazevic, the film must do more than raise an important issue. He stresses that, “documentary film should never forget that it is also an art form. However strong the topic, however deep the need being suffered by the people in the film and however strongly the author may be committed to and inspired by the subject of the film to send an appeal to the world – none of these factors are enough. Because purely political films, ‘NGO films’, are usually bad and do not persuade anybody. What this area really needs is good artwork.”

In the reality of television, the issue of art is less important. What counts are big audiences and/or the attention of critics. The question then becomes what elements does this imply from television’s point of view?

UJ: What criteria would you say a human rights doc should fulfil to be shown on Channel4?

Patrick Younge (Channel4, UK): “We wouldn’t classify it as human rights, because people wouldn’t watch it, as they think it is dull and wordy. It has to be watchable, has to be challenging, certainly can’t be obvious or straightforward. I mean who is against human rights? No one. It is how the argument is presented. It has to have revelation or new evidence, or bring to people’s attention something that maybe people thought was happening but weren’t sure, or bring a homely story.”

UJ: Or have a Spice Girl in it?

PY: “A Spice Girl would be great. A lot of documentaries are really scared of being popular. I don’t see what the problem is if you use a device that brings a bigger audience to the subject. What’s better: a Spice-Girl-fronted film on a human rights issue that gets four million or a pure, artistic vision that gets 300,000? Which one benefits human rights the most? I think this is a valid question.”

UJ: What do you think should be included in a human rights documentary to make it accessible for TV?

“Wessel van der Hammen (IKON, the Netherlands): It should be a strong story. It should not point a finger and say, ‘Now you are going to see something terrible, dreadful, and you should feel very guilty.’ These kinds of things don’t work. It is useless.

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