Shooting the Truth

Why is film such a powerful tool for activism? We asked some of today's most inspiring documentary-makers

Still from Granito; Kamran Safri

In today’s ever-more malleable and pervasive mediascape, there are question marks forming about the future of film activism. The emergence of blogs and social networking sites as revolutionary aids and the rise of WikiLeaks and Avaaz has made the big-screen approach to provoking change seem too slow. But there is still much to be said for using filmic narratives to flesh out the endless information that piles up by the nanosecond online – indeed, sifting through this information in order to construct a film might be the future for many human-rights filmmakers.

In human rights, things change very slowly and there are a lot of setbacks: you need to be prepared to spend a lifetime doing it

The incredibly powerful The Green Wave (2010) mixes together talking heads, animation and footage of brutality by state militia on the streets of Iran, depicting the bitter struggle of young Iranians, both during and after the huge uprisings against the apparently rigged 
re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The film’s director, Ali Samadi Ahadi, a German citizen who was born in Iran, utilised the many different sources of footage available today to highlight the suffering of young Iranians under the regime. “We smuggled a lot of footage out of the country and also found loads on YouTube and Facebook, and put it in the film,” he says. “(It meant we were) mixing several footage qualities, beginning with full HD and stuff shot on the cheapest cellphone on the market: horrible-sounding material mixed together with animation and Dolby Stereo.”

Ahadi connects what happened in Iran in 2009 to the events of the Arab spring last year. “The older generation are not able to give answers to the younger generation, who are very well connected and have the opportunity to understand how the youth in the rest of the world lives. They are looking for something else, which is, I think, a democratic system where human rights is in the forefront.” Film, he says, will remain just as important, perhaps growing in stature as a more switched-on global audience demands more sophisticated approaches to the genre. “Maybe it would be much more effective if you had a whole channel like CNN or BBC that is only related to human-rights issues, and that is so powerful that you could bring all these things to the world.” But might that risk ghettoising it? “No. If we did have a channel like that our duty would be to spread it around the world.”

New York filmmaker Pamela Yates singles out Vietnam-era films such as Hearts and Minds, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1975, as the deciding factor in her becoming a documentary maker. “Hearts and Minds only asked people to be themselves, to speak honestly and be normal. In showing the mundane day-to-day life for the military (in Vietnam) a lot of truths came out.”

Yates began her career with When the Mountains Tremble (1983), which highlighted the hidden genocide of the indigenous Mayans in Guatemala, carried out by a military dictatorship that had been armed and trained by the US. Yates arrived in Guatemala at the height of the civil war in 1982. “I hit on the strategy of going down to the air-force base every morning to talk to the soldiers who were standing outside smoking cigarettes. I’d bring cigarettes, and work my way up the chain of command until finally I got to interview the head of the Guatemalan armed forces, General Benedicto Lucas García, and the country’s president, Efraín Ríos Montt.” The pay-off for Yates was the harrowing scenes shot from a military helicopter – minute snapshots of a genocide that had an eventual body-count of 200,000.

The older generation are not able to give answers to the younger generation. They are looking for something else, which is, I think, a democratic system where human rights is in the forefront

The Reagan administration kept supporting the region’s various dictatorships, but the film made an impression on the country it depicted. VHS copies of When the Mountains Tremble were shown thousands of times underground in Guatemala. The biggest shock was that the film’s protagonist, Rigoberta Menchú, was a Mayan woman. “(In Guatemala,) Mayans had no voice. They were thought of as stupid and backwards. But now in Guatemala there is a whole professional class of indigenous people, which wasn’t the case in 1982.”

Yates’s 2011 film, Granito, depicts a search for justice in Guatemala that came about due to a international war-crimes case in Madrid that tried to hold perpetrators to account. Yet Yates warns against getting into this kind of filmmaking with dreams of seeing tangible outcomes and satisfying solutions to the issues that your film might tackle. “In human rights, things change very slowly and there are a lot of setbacks: you need to be prepared to spend a lifetime doing it. The word ‘granito’ is a Maya concept and I have tried to carry it with me throughout my filmmaking life. Everybody has a tiny grain of sand – a granito – to contribute to positive social change. You have to find out what your granito is, and realise that only that granito alongside the others is going to make the difference.”

This summer, TOMS One for One and Dazed have teamed for Generation Change, an exciting new film project offering a UK-based filmmaker £5,000 to make a creative short film. We are looking for treatments for a three-minute film that tells a story about inspirational individuals or groups that have started something that matters within the UK. More info and terms and conditions HERE

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