Putting human rights on the screen

"Our history is a living history, that has throbbed, withstood and survived many centuries of sacrifice… The peoples of Guatemala will mobilise and will be aware of their strength in building up a worthy future."

WHEN the indigenous Mayan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú accepted her Nobel Peace prize with these words in 1992, her achievements defending the rights of Guatemala’s Mayan people will have been known to many in Europe and North America thanks to director Pamela Yates’ devastating 1983 documentary When the Mountains Tremble. The film documented the struggle of indigenous Mayans in the face of the Guatemalan military’s 1982 'scorched earth' campaign in which 200,000 Mayan people were killed or ‘disappeared’.

Widely televised in the US, When the Mountains Tremble, along with its sequel, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, cast a stark light on a devastating conflict that had been largely invisible to the Western world, and underlined Western complicity in the atrocities taking place in the Central American republic.

Pamela Yates’s documentary not only forced the world to recognise the tragedy of the Guatemalan civil war, but helped to provide human rights activists such as Menchú a platform and a voice through which to demand justice and redress. Three decades on, Menchú is a Nobel Prize Laureate, while Guatemala’s ageing former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt currently faces trial for his actions.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), Ireland’s independent human rights watchdog, is honoured to number Pamela Yates among the leading lights in film and human rights that make up the jury of our annual Human Rights Film Awards.

The ICCL Human Rights Film Awards was established in 2008 in recognition of the power of films such as When the Mountains Tremble in cutting to the core of human rights issues, and communicating them with a clarity and urgency that the language of law or politics rarely can. Now in its sixth year, the competition honours the finest in human rights filmmaking by up-and-coming directors and documentarians around the world.

The shortlist for the 2014 awards, announced earlier this week by jury member Lenny Abrahamson, consists of six outstanding entries that employ the language of film to great effect to cast a light on some of today’s most pressing human rights crises.

Alan Whelan’s documentary Food Not Fuel shows that, sadly, the plight of Guatemala’s Mayans continues today, with government forces engaged in the expropriation of ancestral lands for the cultivation of sugar cane to satisfy European biofuel demands.

Niamh Heery’s Harmanli documents the lives of asylum seekers in a bleak camp on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, showing how the effects of the Syrian civil war have found their way to Europe.

Virginia Manchado’s Modou Modou presents a day in the life of Jazeem, a Senegalese migrant worker in London who struggles to make ends meet, and to provide for his family back home.

Closer to home, Róisín Loughrey’s The Room demonstrates the impact that art can have on the lives of disabled people in Ireland, while Nacho Gil’s A Thin Line explores the human cost of homelessness, and the very thin line that separates all of us from marginalisation.

As the ongoing search for justice in Guatemala demonstrates, human rights violations cast a very long shadow. The last of this year’s shortlisted films, Eric Esser’s Chaja and Mimi, explores the shadow cast by the Holocaust, through a lively discussion of survival, homeland and identity with two women who fled 1930s Berlin for Tel-Aviv.

Film festivals such as the ICCL Human Rights Film Awards are essential in providing encouragement to filmmakers with a passion for human rights, and a unique platform from which they can showcase their work. The work of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is to educate and campaign for the protection of human rights here in Ireland. Central to this task is to communicate the universality of human rights, and the struggles of people the world-over to vindicate these rights.

The power of film in telling these stories is indisputable, and this year’s ICCL Human Rights Film Awards shortlist demonstrates that the proud tradition of human rights filmmaking is alive and well, both here in Ireland and around the world.

* Walter Jayawardene is communications manager at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The films on the shortlist for the ICCL Human Rights Film Awards can be viewed at www.humanrightsfilmawards.org. The films will be screened in Dublin’s Light House cinema on June 26, when the winner will be announced.

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