Pulling focus on human rights in film
Amongst the great variety of quality films recognised during this year’s awards season, themes relating to human rights and social justice have received a strong and encouraging place in the limelight.
The most notable example is ‘12 Years a Slave’, which explores the challenging subjects of slavery, torture, and racial discrimination in the American South, and won both the BAFTA and Academy Award for Best Picture whilst picking up various awards for its cast.
Also receiving widespread acclaim has been ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’, with Matthew McConaughey’s receiving the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as an HIV-positive cowboy facing discrimination in 1980s America, who turned to the illegal drug trade to secure treatment and thawing in his previously prejudiced attitudes towards the LGBT community.
Bringing the focus back to Scotland’s film industry, I asked Allison Gardner, the Co-Director of the Glasgow Film Festival, which celebrated the end of its highly successful 10th year recently, about some of the highlights in this year’s festival relating to human rights and social justice themes.
One film which went down particularly well with audiences this year, Allison tells me, was the Pakistani documentary ‘These Birds Walk’, focusing on the work of the Ehdi Foundation, a large social welfare charity providing refuge for runaway and abandoned children in Karachi. Indeed, this year’s festival presented a unique opportunity to see this film in Scotland and ‘for some was the highlight of the festival.’
Another successful film this year, which Allison describes as ‘brilliant’, was ‘The Last of the Unjust’, in which the director of the acclaimed documentary ‘Shoah’ revisits Austria, Poland, Israel and the Czech Republic and presents previously unseen footage exploring the involvement of a controversial rabbi in the horrors of the Holocaust.
When I ask Allison whether she thinks human rights and social justice themes should receive more recognition in mainstream cinema, she responds by asserting her belief that ‘a film must be of quality first and should be judged on its merits, irrespective of the subject matter.’ She believes that a film’s success is driven by ‘whether it presents its subject in an engaging and interesting way for the audience.’
With regards to the Glasgow Film Festival itself, I ask Allison whether it offers an especially welcoming environment for human rights and social justice-related films. She responds that such themes are not a special focus, but contribute to the variety of the festival as a whole and often sit within the ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ strand of films on show which consists of documentaries.
Indeed, Allison credits the breadth of the programme and the fact that it takes chances on a diverse range of films and themes for attracting such a widespread audience. Part of what makes the Glasgow Film Theatre so special for Allison is that, as a not-for-profit educational charity, it is able to invest all its resources back into the venue and its various projects, with the primary purpose of reaching out to communities and ‘making film accessible to as many people as possible’.
For example, it runs the Youth Film Festival alongside its Film Learning programme for schools, families and young people, and the Glasgow Film Festival itself avoids exclusive, private screenings, instead retaining a strong audience-based ethos and ensuring all films and events- of which there were 184 this year- are open to the public.
As for what’s on offer next from the Glasgow Film Theatre after the huge success of this year’s Festival, Allison recommends the documentary-thriller ‘Plot for Peace’, which tells the story of a mysterious French businessman and his hidden yet integral and historic role in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. A popular success at this year’s Festival, it is screening again at the Glasgow Film Theatre between the 28th and 30th March – just one more reminder of cinema’s positive role in engaging audiences with the human rights and social justice issues to which Amnesty International is committed!
Check out the Glasgow Film Theatre here.
By Robin Sukatorn, Amnesty Scotland Media & Campaigns Volunteer
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.