8th Annual ‘Illuminating Oppression,’ Human Rights Film Festival, this week

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 09/29/10More articles

We all know the Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM) launches in just another couple weeks, moving from its spring time slot to mid-October and coinciding with the University’s Homecoming Week. But first, “Illuminating Oppression,” which has occupied its October anchor slot for eight years now. Consistently a stand-out event, this three-day festival is even more accessible to the public this year.

Tula Goenka, who teaches in the Television Radio Film program at the Newhouse School, launched this annual human rights film festival on the SU campus with the partnership of the international human rights organization, Breakthrough, of which she is a long-time board member. In the early years it was a continuation of the South Asian Women Directors Film Festival, which Goenka had been instrumental in launching in New York City, but it’s branched out considerably in the intervening years. This year’s fest offers recent docs, animation, and features – along with discussions and guests – from the US, Sweden, Brazil, Kenya, Canada, and New Zealand, ending with legendary Indian director Shyam Benegal’s new feature, the political satire “Well Done, Abba!” Also new this year: the Digital Witness Symposium on Friday morning, examining the rising use of new media by human rights activists.

"Illuminating Oppression" runs for three days – starting at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, September 30th and offering its final screening Saturday evening, October 2nd – with all programs free and open to the public, in the easily accessible Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse III. “The Herg” is right on Waverly Avenue at the corner of South Crouse Avenue, just a step from Marshall St. Thursday and Friday parking for this event is $4 in SU’s University Ave. parking garage (corner of East Adams) and Saturday parking is free in any open lot.

This year, HRFF is also part of the year-long multi-event program, Syracuse Symposium. Goenka says, “It’s ironic, but this is the first year that I haven’t co-sponsored this festival with Breakthrough – and it’s also the first year that Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough has been able to get here for the festival!” Mallika Dutt, a founder and CEO of Breakthrough, may ring a bell: she recently opened this year’s Clinton Global Initiative conference with Bill Clinton and used that forum to announce a major project that ties the rise of HIV among women to domestic violence.

The opening night screening is a 30- minute film titled “The Response,” made in 2008 by Adam Rodgers, who’ll be here for the discussions both before and after the screening. “The Response” is drawn from transcripts of the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. Three military judges decide the fate of a Middle Eastern detainee, played by Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show with John Stewart”). This event is co-sponsored by the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) at SU’s College of Law and brings together the film’s writer/producer Sig Libowitz, William Banks of the INSCT, Gabor Rona of Human Rights First, David Crane of SU Law, Capt. Brendan Gilbert of the US Army and, for her first of two presentations, Breakthrough’s Mallika Dutt.

The Digital Witness Symposium Friday morning at 11:00 was organized by this year’s festival co-chair, Roger Hallas of the English and Textual Studies Department. Hallas is co-editor, with Frances Guerin, of “The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture” (2007), which brings together essays about the role that a variety of images play in how we document, define and remember horrific events. The Digital Witness Symposium focuses on the rising use of new media among human rights activists. Speakers are, again, Mallika Dutt, Sam Gregory of WITNESS, and NYU’s Fred Ritchin.

HRFF resumes Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. with two films in a program titled “Promises and Lies.” The 17-minute documentary, “Bound by Promises: Contemporary Slavery in Rural Brazil” (2006) recounts the treatment of workers by rural landowners in Brazil, a film made in conjunction with WITNESS, Comissao da Terra, and the Center for Justice and International Law. This is followed by the feature-length documentary “Good Fortune” (2009) which lays out how massive international efforts to assist the poor in Kenya may backfire. Co-director Jeremy Levine will be here for a Q&A after the screening.

Saturday offers three screening programs, at 1:00, 4:00 and 7:00. The one o’clock program is titled “Queering Colonial Power” and has two films. It starts with the 2008 Canadian short “Rex vs. Singh” (Canadian film buffs will recognize John Greyson who is one of the filmmakers). This film restages an early 20th century sodomy trial in Vancouver involving anti-South Asian racism as well as homophobia. Following this, the 2008 New Zealand feature by Annie Goldson, “An Island Calling,” a murder mystery about a gay couple in Fiji.

At four o’clock Saturday the program is titled “Haunted Lives,” again a short followed by a full-length film. The 2009 Swedish film “Slaves” is an award-winning animation about child kidnapping and slavery in Africa. “October Country” (2009) was made in near-by Herkimer County and portrays the family of one of the filmmakers, struggling with war trauma and a number of other difficulties made worse by the frayed child welfare system. “October Country” won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Maryland’s prestigious SilverDocs Festival and the Denver Film Festival’s Maysles Award and was an Independent Spirit Awards nominee.

“Illuminating Oppression” winds up with Indian filmmaker Shyam Bengal’s 2009 political satire “Well Done, Abba!” about the rigamarole one might encounter with bureaucracies over water rights when one tries to simply dig a well in the backyard. Benegal is one of the 25 Indian filmmakers featured in Tula Goenka’s forthcoming book, “Bollywood and Beyond: Conversations with Indian Filmmakers,” due out in 2011.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Illuminating Oppression Annual Human Rights Film Festival, Tula Goenka, Roger Hallas, Mallika Dutt, Shyam Benegal, Guantanamo Bay military tribunals
EDITION: The Eagle

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