Oscars 2014: Human rights take to the stage in this year’s nominations

Guest blog by Campaigns volunteer Robin Sukatorn.

With Hollywood’s annual summit of showbiz on the horizon once more, you would be forgiven for not eagerly anticipating a moving and inspiring evening of human rights-themed cinema.

Yet with last Thursday’s announcement of the nominees for the 86th Academy Awards, taking place on March 4th in Los Angeles, it’s worth looking beyond the golden statuettes and designer apparel and taking notice of this year’s Oscar nominated films dealing with issues such as slavery, discrimination, war crimes, government oppression, sexual violence and crimes against humanity.

Whilst such themes have featured at the Oscars in previous years, with a share of nominations and wins going to films like Gandhi, The Killing Fields, Cry Freedom, Hotel Rwanda and Milk, the strong presence of human rights in this year’s ceremony is particularly noteworthy.

The category in which we might expect to find hard-hitting, politically sensitive material is that of Best Documentary Feature. Two shortlisted documentaries- Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and God Loves Uganda- unfortunately failed to make the cut for nomination. However, of the five remaining, an impressive three films focus on stories of human rights abuse.

The first is The Square, which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and received the Audience Award for World Cinema in the documentary category. It follows the Egyptian Revolution, from its beginnings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 to the turbulent events of last year.

Also vying for top sport is Dirty Wars, which tracks two investigative journalists delving into an alleged cover-up of the deaths of five Afghan civilians- two of which were pregnant women- at the hands of US Special Forces in 2010.

My own prediction for this year’s Best Documentary champion is The Act of Killing. This acclaimed film presents a disturbing and surreal portrait of the leaders of an Indonesian paramilitary death squad active during Suharto’s brutal rise to power in 1965-66, as they personally re-enact the mass executions and crimes against humanity for which they have yet to be held accountable. Lauded by both Sight & Sound and The Guardian as the best film of 2013, The Act of Killing is certainly one to watch.

Amongst the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, two films stand out for their portrayal of historic and contemporary human rights issues. Omar, the second Palestinian entry to receive an Oscar nod (after 2006’s Paradise Now) and the winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes, tells the story of a young Palestinian man who, after being linked to the murder of an Israeli soldier, is forced to act as an informant against his community.

It is up against The Missing Picture, a Cambodian film which depicts the director’s childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1960s and 1970s, with its labour camps, ethnic cleansing, torture and repression. We are presented with a searing personal account, delivered through clay animation and archive footage, of one of history’s most horrific and inhumane eras. Whilst both films must grapple with impressive competition, they remain strong contenders for Best Foreign Film.

Finally, one of the most prominent films at this year’s Oscars is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in late 19th Century America who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.
 
12 Years has received 9 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of a brutal and unhinged slave owner, and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, delivering a heart-wrenching performance as the abused yet dignified slave, Patsey.

Not only does 12 Years present harrowing scenes of torture, beatings and sexual violence, it deftly captures a time of great historic human rights abuse, in which racial discrimination and injustice were deeply ingrained within society.

So you mustn’t let the usual display of Hollywood razzle-dazzle distract or deter you. This year’s Oscars offers a welcome platform for some excellent films centred on human rights, and will hopefully help to boost awareness of the enduring relevance of these issues for today’s audiences.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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