Illuminating Oppression Enlightens Audiences

Review: Three day film festival illuminates important issues and gets the audience talking

We saw enemies coming together and standing side by side for the same cause. We identified with the people of San Francisco when a deadly virus claimed the lives of thousands in a once carefree community. We sympathized with the victims of displacement.

All of these issues were presented on screen this weekend at Illuminating Oppression: 9th Annual Human Rights Film Festival, co-directed by SU professors Tula Goenka and Rodger Hallas. The festival included five films and a symposium on the topic of archiving for digital human rights media. The lone feature film and four documentaries selected for the festival gave audiences different views of events happening around the world. Following each film was a panel and question and answer session.

Budrus, the festival's premier film, screened Thursday evening. It told the story of an occupied Palestinian town whose residents peacefully protested the building of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, which would separate citizens from their land. The fence was scheduled to occupy over 300 acres of land and displace 3,000 olive trees, which are vital to the livelihood of many residents. Shots shown of the uprooted trees were haunting. The land where the sacred trees lay on the sandy dirt strongly resembled a graveyard.

The Palestinians showed astonishing bravery by sticking up for the land that was rightfully theirs. One female medical student faced off with a bulldozer and stopped it from destroying her property. Activists documented this footage as well as the dangerous conflict that occurred afterwards in the line of fire.

The Digital Witness Symposium opened Friday morning as a part of the 2011 Syracuse Symposium whose theme is “identity.” Presenters spoke about the importance of digitally archiving footage and their own experiences with preserving human rights media.

Lydia Wasylenko and Samuel Gruber, both professors at SU, spoke about the Shoah Foundation, which aims to archive interviews with Holocaust survivors. There are nearly 52,000 such interviews accessible online. Filmmakers Sam Pollard and Jim Hubbard also commented on archive footage using their own personal experiences making films.

“It's not just about making a film,” said Pollard. “But creating and sustaining history.”

Friday night's showing of We Were Here brought a personal look at the AIDS epidemic in early 1980s San Francisco. The film relied on intimate interviews with five people to give the story striking emotion, and featured a barebones soundtrack. The solemnity of the film amplified the sniffles of the crowd; there were few dry eyes in the audience at the film's conclusion. The question and answer session featured three Syracuse AIDS activists, giving the subject a local focus.

Goenka chose I Am, directed by Onir, as the festival's closing film. It was comprised of four short films, each highlighting an issue that defies traditional views of society in modern day India. The first story was the brightest, visually, and paod homage to Bollywood traditions, a cinematic strategy Onir used purposefully. The following stories gradually became darker and more controversial in subject.

The discussion following I Am had a twist: The audience was able to ask Onir questions via Skype. It was 9 p.m. in Syracuse and 6 a.m. in Jamshedpur, India, where the director was located. Onir is no stranger to technology, and funded most of his film through sponsorships from social media.

The film tied together many of the cultural issues that were brought up at Illuminating Oppression.

Though some of the subjects were difficult and and undeniably tragic, they, nonetheless, deserve our attention and warrant further exploration. In the end, they leave the viewer feeling hopeful towards the future.

“Unless you recognize the darkness,” said director Onir, “you can never see the light.”


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