Using cinema to promote discussion and understanding of human rights culture

The Human Rights for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAP) in Egypt used cinema to promote discussion and understanding of human rights culture.  

HRAP wanted to raise public awareness of human rights issues and particularly awareness of the conditions of prisons. The chosen film topics have thus revolved around human rights issues dealing with conditions in prisons for men and women, torture, disappearances, judicial system corruption, wrongful accusations, rights of the accused and imprisonment of the innocent and conditions in mental hospitals.

HRAP follows a set protocol for each film seminar. This includes a review of the content to ensure that it is of high artistic quality and is a good example of a human rights issue. Films areselected by a board of four people consisting of the chairman of HRAP, the art coordinator, a professor, and a film director.  The group publicizes the film through e-mail, fax, and other forms of publicity such as radio.  HRAP invites guest speakers, including the film’s director and sometimes the film stars, which helps to draw a larger audience.  Also invited are those with expertise related to the human rights issue to be discussed.  The films are shown in well-known hotel venues, both to draw the audience but to also bypass the need for obtaining government permits required for other kinds of venues. A diverse audience is sought in order to lend richness and validation to the discussion.

A research paper of approximately ten pages in length is prepared about the film by the art coordinator. The research paper is written in simple language and meant to spark excitement and interest. The contents of the research paper include background on the relationship of art to human rights, a review of the film as it relates to the human rights issue, and a summary of the film including the director, producer, actors, and the story.  The paper also includes existing examples and cases brought up by the film relating to the human rights issue presented and a general artistic evaluation of the film.  An artistic evaluation of the film and the human rights issue to be used for points of discussion in the public seminar is added to the paper as a supplement.

Each of the fifteen seminars held followed a particular flow within a three to three and a half hour time period—two hours for the film showing and one to one and a half hours for the discussion.

  • Welcome and introduction to the members of the seminar “high table” (the standing members—HRAP chairman and Art Coordinator—and the invited guests related to the film being presented—director, actors, and topic experts) and the audience
  • Introduction and showing of the film
  • Discussion in the framework of human rights and the human rights issue and related topics illustrated by the film
  • Audience discussion and questions for the “high table” members
  • Summary and evaluation—how the discussion has related to human rights as well as the artistic value of the film that was presented.

At first, HRAP had difficulty getting authorization for events and the police would always have an officer present at seminars; however, the organization has overcome this problem by using respected venues and gaining the trust of the police. The organization has had a lot of success using this tactic to increase awareness of prison conditions and other related issues. Until this method of using cinema to present the human rights issue was developed and instituted, HRAP had not been very successful in raising public awareness at all. In general, attendance at events has continued to rise due to the publicity and the variety of films offered.  Each of the seminars has been attended by a diverse audience consisting of at least 100 to 250 people.

This tactic provides a safe way to discuss human rights issues without major difficulties from the government or others who might raise objections to such topics.  It makes it possible to reach a broad audience (age, gender, professions, literate or illiterate, religions, etc.). Generally, audiences like exciting films and human rights issues produce this kind of tension and excitement. They also lend themselves well to discussion.  Cinema also provides a venue to introduce and discuss the concept of a human rights culture by highlighting art and literature, using ancient and modern examples from Egypt and elsewhere.  This tactic also encourages film makers to produce more films dealing with human rights issues.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

HRAP found success in publicizing its issues by reaching out to the public in a way that was accessible to them; in this case, cinema. Human rights issues are very important, but it can be difficult to make people realize that they exist or care that they do. By presenting human rights in an enjoyable, accessible format like film and encouraging audience participation in the discussions afterwards, HRAP was able to work around this problem. Other organizations may or may not be able to use film, but other enjoyable activities such as theater, art, and music could serve as the window for community involvement in human rights.