Art is Political: Human Rights and the Formal Language of Film

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Written by Magali Simard, Guest Contributor

Sebastião Salgado, whose photography, career, and life are explored by his son Juliano and co-director Wim Wenders in this year’s film The Salt of the Earth, said of his art form: “Any photographer is doing something formal. If it’s formal, then it must be an aesthetic way to communicate.” Through his lenses, thousands of stunning yet often brutal images of war, famine and genocide have been memorialized over the decades. His aesthetic way of communicating — his formal language — is thus one of contrasts. This is a recurrent concept, and one that often makes politically engaged films successful.

With the 12th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) ended in Toronto and soon to open in New York – the festival has iterations in cities around the world – it is worthwhile to a look at the common elements running through the films. The festival’s growing popularity can be attributed to effective outreach, but it also reflects audiences’ increased desire to go beyond the headlines. The average person today looks at more news stories from more sources than ever before, but often in less depth. Film forces us to pause and immerse ourselves in, and to analyze content. In other words, film’s form engages us on a more fundamental level. It also opens up dialogue, especially when seen and discussed in public. A measure of a film’s societal influence is how far it crosses from the niche art-house community into mainstream culture.

Political cinema either manipulates information to suit a specific political agenda (propaganda) or it takes on the more socially responsible and crucial role of activism. Activist films, like those in HRWFF, exist to expose human rights violations, to engage audiences, and to potentially push lawmakers into action. From more straightforward journalistic approaches, such as this year’s Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, to very polished auteur films like Salgado and Wenders’ The Salt of the Earth, the onscreen treatment of human rights issues encompasses as many aesthetic approaches as it does subjects.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s widely acclaimed The Act of Killing (2013), followed by this year’s companion piece The Look of Silence (2015), are both films as conscientious of the political ramifications of the Indonesian anti-communist purges of the 1960s as they are of their very fabric. Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013), which exposed the reality in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, was such an epic and palpable exposé of the Arab Spring that it shook audiences across the globe. The film was raw, close to its subject, and aesthetically beautiful. The Occupy Wall Street movement even got support from many of its most vocal participants.

As was seen in this film, a helpful trend of the past decade has been easy access to technology. Several filmmakers are handing out small cameras to their subjects in the hope of capturing up-close glimpses of the reality they experience, on their own terms and with no film crew watching. The filmmaker’s point-of-view has temporarily given way to this raw footage. Silvered Water (2014) documents present-day Syrian activists in the besieged city of Homs as they filmed themselves, and the images that came back are haunting and beyond any journalistic reporting or filmmaker’s access.

The desire to depict struggles with a strong sense of reality, of course, goes back decades, and it has never belonged solely to the realm of documentaries. The 1960s was a particularly rich decade for such content. Michael Roemer’s Nothing but a Man (1964) depicts with grace and realism the struggle of black Americans in the Deep South and is now considered an important work of art in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Two years later, the Italian-Algerian film The Battle of Algiers (1966), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, was reminiscent of Italian neo-realism with its documentary-like approach to historical drama. The 1970s brought us the seminal documentary Harlan County USA (1976), directed by Barbara Kopple, about a violent miners’ strike. In Western Europe, filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Luc Dardenne have, since the 1990s, inscribed themselves into the socially conscious, hard-hitting, and realist fiction filmmaking that is heavily invested in the struggle of the poorer strata of Western society (author Philip Mosley describes it as “responsible realism”).

More recent decades have ushered in an era of immensely successful activist documentaries. A combination of extensive critical acclaim, their triumphant run at festivals around the world, their nominations and awards – and for some their box office success – have made them a part of popular culture. They have become impossible for anyone to ignore, from audiences to reporters and lawmakers. From Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), which tackled the corrupt Texan justice system, to Michael Moore’s films on American politics and middle-class struggles, to Laura Poitras’s trilogy on our post-9/11 world, these films (and others like them) are now firmly embedded in our political dialogue, and they often call out directly to politicians for a response.

The danger posed to the subjects and filmmakers of these films cannot be overlooked. Poitras was arrested dozens of times at U.S. Customs while making the film and had to adopt Snowden-like precautions while living in Berlin and traveling. Many of Oppenheimer’s collaborators are credited as Anonymous in a necessary effort to protect them from harassment. Master Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was famously placed under arrest and banned from filmmaking for years, sparking international outrage, which led to his release years later. His latest film, Taxi (2015), is a smart, often tongue-in-cheek commentary on a filmmaker’s place in society.

Art is political. As much as film can be a powerful means to disseminate values through the exposition of social and political realities, there is one common thread connecting all the films showing in HRWFF. That element is the sheer determination of their subjects and filmmakers to bring to light horrendous truths, to tell their stories, and to survive.

Magali Simard is Manager of Film Programmes for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), one of the world’s most influential film festivals next to C