Documentaries on human rights issues are more relevant than ever, though not easy to sell.

Ulla Jacobsen

Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

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.

What I think is always essential is that the producer, or whoever approaches you with an idea, should understand that there should always be a need or necessity to broadcast the film. And the producer should show you what the need is, why it is important to broadcast this film right now. There should be a need, a motivation for the TV channel to broadcast it.”

Changing the World

There is widespread agreement that human rights docs are not justified solely by their subject and aim. They have to work as films and capture the viewer’s attention. Still, most are in one way or another made in the hope, however modest, that they will change something.

UJ: Do you think that the films can actually change anything?

Igor Blazevic: “No. You can’t expect the films to change anything, especially not directly. Films can do only one thing: address the audience. If the film reaches the audience and motivates them to start thinking a little bit differently about their political leaders, to start thinking a little bit differently about their lives, then that is another question.”

This viewpoint is shared by Hungarian filmmaker András Salamon who doesn’t see himself as a ‘saviour of the world’. He is unquestionably involved in the issues of his films, but he is first and foremost a filmmaker.

UJ: What do you want to achieve with your films?

András Salamon: “Not an easy question. There are two answers. The most honest answer is ‘to be rewarded’ as a filmmaker. I myself never mix in the different relations when making the film. I am not a social worker, I am a filmmaker. It is obvious that my goal, my aim, is to make the film better and better, to achieve the best quality possible, and that’s why I can’t mix in anything like ‘I am good man and I want to save someone’, and I can’t give them money or clothing or anything. When I work and film for days on end in a garbage place among people who are like the living dead, every night I return to a shower and a bed, and I know that they don’t even have a chance to wash their hands. But if I want to make the film better and better, I can’t confuse my role in my head.

But the second answer is that I really want to open the audience a bit to this kind of story, I really want to open their hearts and minds. This solidarity, of course, is my main goal. If I just could imagine what happens in the minds of the people watching. Solidarity is something that can change people’s lives a little bit. But it can only happen when the film itself is good. I can be very good hearted and sensitive, but if I make a bad film, the audience will disappear, walk out. The most important thing is to make the film good.”

One World

The One World Film Festival’s programme proved that human rights docs can be relevant and high-quality cinematic art at the same time. Saia, by Florent Marcie (France), qualifies as artwork and deals with the forgotten war in Afghanistan. It communicates the war experience by filming front line combat. It is uniquely aesthetic in grey, grainy images. The silhouettes are barely distinguishable, illuminated by flashes of gunfire. Filmed with a handheld camera and a soundtrack consisting solely of fragmentary speech and gunfire, we are thrust into a totally chaotic situation, almost like being at the front.

The same topic, more traditional but equally engaging, is dealt with in Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddins, by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati (Italy). The film follows an Italian surgeon who wants to build a hospital in a war zone to improve the existing, primitive conditions for operating on combat victims and an Italian correspondent who has been reporting from Afghanistan for many years. The filmmakers have unique access to the different groups, even lifting the veils of otherwise unapproachable women for their viewpoints.

Another film from a war zone that presents a heretofore unseen angle on an otherwise well-covered conflict is Waiting for Salah al-Din by Tawfik Abu Wael (Palestine). It depicts the ‘prison-like’ conditions under which Palestinians live in Israel, unable to move freely about – always waiting. People start queuing up at 2 a.m. in front of the Ministry of Interior where permits are issued. Street-sellers are chased away by the police, but how can they earn a living? Inhabitants of refugee camps look for jobs, which are almost impossible to find. Everybody waits for better times.

Good Kurds, Bad Curds, by Kevin McKiernan (USA), fulfils at least one of the popular television demands by making a homely story. In his investigative documentary, he raises the issue of the USA’s double standard of morality towards Kurds: To protect the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein, they use Turkish military bases, even though they know that the Turkish government uses US weapons against Turkey’s Kurds. To tell this story from abroad, McKiernan uses a well-integrated Kurdish family living in the States as the central characters.

Although not about war or conflict, Hungarian András Salamon tackles the issue of exploitation and substandard living conditions in Jonuc and the Beggar Mob. He tells the story of a young, one-legged, Romanian Gypsy boy who lives by begging in the streets and how he is exploited by an organised beggar mob who take away the money he earns.

Exploitation is also the topic of the Croatian film The Years of Rust, by Andrej Korovljev, that deals with the hazardous working conditions at the Uljanik Shipyards in Pula. The workers are paid very low wages and steadily ruin their health, while the possibility of finding a different job is nil.


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