Exile, feminism and migration were prevalent themes during this year’s FIFDH festival. This was influenced in part by the #metoo movement and the migration crisis - with Abigail Disney, philanthropist and filmmaker starting off discussions on the role of women, while the actress, Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary film, Sea Sorrow delved into migration.
In his opening statement, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein detailed the state of human rights worldwide, and it was clear from the selection of films shown during the festival that there is a lot to be worried about.
Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein
Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow provides the clearest statement of this reality. Its humbling portrayal of the mass migration and the complexities of addressing its multifaceted challenges. Migrants and refugees are often seen as problems rather than ordinary individuals like the rest of us. This epic documentary makes this crisis our crisis. It was filmed over 1000 hours across continents but compressed into just over two hours and fifteen minutes. It is a gruelling account of the harsh realities of transiting or migrating across borders over the past three years; from the massive influx of asylum seekers who arrived or drowned on their way to Lesbos to those who have sought temporary asylum in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and those who have lived generationally in Africa’s oldest and largest refugee camp, in Dadaab, Kenya.
This is a film that must be seen and shared. It is the story of humanity, the perseverance of the human spirit and its adaptability in the face of overwhelming odds. While it is disheartening to hear the stories of loss, of human dignity being stripped away, it is equally important to be reminded they are just human beings like the rest of us. These perilous journeys from war-torn countries or poverty-stricken nations could happen to anyone if situations had been reversed. War and desolation are no respecters of person.
During the Q&A segment, Ai Weiwei’s call to arms reminded all present that each person can do something to help others and no one is truly as powerless as they think they are against affecting change in the lives of others less fortunate.
Stranger in Paradise was by contrast, a complete antithesis of Human Flow. The film’s guilelessly cruel take on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is bigotry personified.
“We don’t want you here, go back and rebuild your country”. These words were repeated ad infinitum to the asylum seekers who are at first made to think that they stand a chance of being processed so they can stay and work in the Netherlands. The protagonist then proceeds to ruthlessly destroy all hope by telling them that his father lived through WWII and did not flee his country but instead, chose to stay and rebuild his country. He implies that all the asylum seekers should do the same. The white man’s land has no place for the foolish, uneducated and lazy, black or Asian migrant or asylum seeker. This was a naïve, racist and Machiavellian documentary. It was irresponsible to have shown such a film at this festival.
All is not lost as hope springs eternal in Silas, a film which followed the Liberian activist Silas, in his struggles over a period of more than two years to re-establish land rights for the rural indigenes in his home country. His activism is a militant campaign requiring the coordinated efforts of a group of environmental campaigners dedicated to documenting every violation before taking the issue to the court or writing letters to the government.
The battle is no small one. First, they were up against a post-war leadership then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected. In the documentary, she was not painted in a positive light. The activist accuses her family of nepotism and corruption with claims that through cronyism, her relatives outsourced contracts whereby mega corporations like EPO were able to raze down huge hectares of virgin and primary forests belonging to indigenous communities even though national laws prohibit such activities.
Silas has consistently held his government to account, which is a bold and dangerous endeavour in some African nations. In some African Nations, this could lead to the death or silencing of a human rights defender – for the unwanted opposition to the government. Yet, this sort of accountability is needed if we are ever to progress and defend the rights of one and all people who share the same resources we each need to survive.
Chiamanda Ngozie Adiche
On the penultimate day of the festival, Chiamanda Ngozie Adiche talked about her non-fiction book, Dear Ijeawele. After a vocal interpretation of each of the chapters in fifteen languages - which brought to life the advice given in her book, she was questioned about her experiences as a writer and her role as a feminist. The audience eagerly seized the microphone to proffer their adulation and to ask questions about how she saw the future for women.
This year’s festival offered a fresh insight into some of the critical issues facing the world today.
Spread over much of the city and beyond, this 16th edition of the FIFDH festival worked hard to be inclusive, but at the same time, it was quite exclusive. The discussion on migrants or migration was sometimes immersive with a possibility of visiting the migrant detention centres, or debate about the films with experts and filmmakers. However, some complained that tickets for many of the events were impossible to buy or over-subscribed.
A strong thread running through the festival was preserving human survival.
Paraphrasing the retired Syrian astronaut in Human Flow, “…from outer space, it is clear we only have this one planet to share together. The wicked leaders and people who do not wish to do so should be dumped in outer space.”