Sawyer Seminar Session Two

Seeing the “Human” in Human Rights


  • David Fresko

For Mark Gibney, a political scientist and international human rights lawyer, discussions about human rights tend to abstract the “human” within statistical datasets and legal formulae. The cinema, in his experience, succeeds in bringing the “human” back to “human rights” due to the medium’s somatic and affective pull upon audiences as well as its implied investment in individual stories. From this fascination with cinematic pedagogy and its contributions to human rights activism grew a book–Watching Human Rights: The 101 Best Films–and a complementary website, Focused primarily on feature films and documentaries, Gibney nonetheless acknowledged how even techniques such as animation might engage audiences. What is more, he finds that the line between documentary and fiction is continually blurred; feature films make concrete claims about the historical world while documentaries readily shape actuality when it proves an especially stubborn obstacle before the truth.

Gibney’s presentation consisted of a wide-ranging set of clips to demonstrate human rights cinema’s scope: Schindler’s List (1993, dir. Steven Spielberg) abutted Darwin’s Nightmare (2005, dir. Hubert Sauper); 4 Little Girls (1997, dir. Spike Lee) preceded The Act of Killing (2005, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer); The Dictator Hunter (2007, dir. Klaartje Quirijns) appeared alongside In the Shadow of the Sun (2012, dir. Harry Freeland); and You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo (2010, dir. Luc Côté & Patricio Henríquez) concluded the screening.

The presentation’s arc–beginning with Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s extraordinarily controversial docudramatic recreation of life under the Nazis and ending with You Don’t Like the Truth, which is comprised entirely of close-circuit television footage of interrogations held at the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay prison camp—raises not only age-old questions about form and content, but also the relationship between high art and mass culture. Is it ethical for directors like Spielberg to recreate unspeakable horrors according to the principles of Hollywood realism in order to “raise consciousness” as well as profits and plaudits? Or should filmmakers hew as closely to the camera’s ability to capture reality, history, and memory without recourse to Hollywood artifice as evidenced by Schindler’s List’s antithesis, Shoah (1985, dir. Claude Lanzmann), or the found footage of You Don’t Like the Truth?

The Act of Killing, similarly controversial, popular, and confounding of normative standards for evaluation, may point to a way out of this troublesome distinction. Equal parts fantasy and actuality, it demonstrates their necessary entwinement outside any formal mandate. While the ethical argument against Schindler’s List remains potent, the lines demarcating the means by which “human rights” themes are cinematically articulated remain inextricably vague, especially if we wish to take compromised yet nonetheless impactful work such as Spielberg’s seriously. (For an extended discussion of the aesthetic debates surrounding Schindler’s List and Shoah as well as the need to move beyond the artificial division between serious art and commercial media see Miriam Hansen, “‘Schindler’s List’ Is Not ‘Shoah’: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory,” Critical Inquiry vol. 22 no. 2 (Winter, 1996): 292-312.)

Still from Darwin's Nightmare, dir. Hubert Sauper, 2004

Sauper’s style demonstrates, perhaps more profoundly than Oppenheimer, how cinematic montage, that most artificial of forms, situates singular human experience within processes of historical development that extend far beyond the agencies of a given individual. Darwin’s Nightmare, for instance, takes the social, economic, and ecological impact of industrial fishing in Lake Victoria in Tanzania as its subject. Sauper’s camera cultivates an intimate rapport with its subjects, which range from Russian and Ukrainian plane crews and local industrialists to factory owners, guards, fishermen, members of the clergy, drug-addled children and prostitutes. Sauper’s cutting combines their individual testimonies with found and observational footage in order to critique neocolonial exploitation and the global market economy through metaphor, metonymy, and irony.

A sequence towards the film’s conclusion demonstrates this method in all its pertinent traits. As the passage begins, a group of Tanzanian converts are shown a film depicting Jesus miraculously overloading a fishing boat with tons of catch such that the boat almost sinks. Here a miracle, it evokes what elsewhere in the film indexes expropriation and greed—a plane so heavy with fish it failed to take flight and wound up in Lake Victoria itself. Sauper follows this cinematic parable of opulent Christian goodness with footage of the poor trawling for scraps in a dump of rotting fish carcasses. In this nightmare of grotesque poverty, steam envelops the screen and signifies not only the hellish stench that rises from the remains, but also the symbolic blindness that perpetuates political powerlessness. From here, the filmmaker shows us that a prostitute, who we earlier saw manhandled by a drunken Ukrainian pilot while singing Tanzania’s national anthem, has died. She serves as a metonym for the nation; however it is not that the post-colonial nation state Tanzania has “died” so much as it never could succeed given the global economy into which contemporary neocolonial exploitation has forced it.

We Come as Friends extends Darwin’s Nightmare into the surreal. This time, Sauper’s African odyssey is powered by a tiny, self-made flying machine, an absurd apparatus that transports the filmmaker across Sudan, a country in throes of a brutal civil war and embroiled in “civilizing” projects from abroad. Chinese oil workers, UN peacekeepers, Sudanese warlords, and American evangelicals compete for hearts and minds, resources and terrain, in this complex and deceptively humorous act of cinematic buffoonery.

Eschewing conventional talking head interviews and voice of god narration, Sauper’s filmmaking demands audiences weave together these complex and conflicting threads. Cinematic art, according to Sauper’s comments after the screening, is not built on factuality, but on the unpredictability of experience. “If it is not information and factuality that makes people understand the world and learn, but experience that makes you understand the world, then it is the obligation of art to create this experience,” he argued. “As we talk, we hear ourselves talking,” he continued. “As we talk, there is an echo, and that creates the film, and then when the film is completed, millions of people will have had this conversation.” Inscribing the “human” back into “human rights” thus demands more than expressive narratives of individual hardships; it calls for the activation of the individual spectators who constitute the publics to which human rights activism directs itself.

Recent posts in the Forum

Sawyer Seminar Session Two

Public Spheres and Popular Memories

Sawyer Seminar Session Two


Sawyer Seminar Session One