The ‘Knowing Our Rights’ project has sponsored, and supported, a programme of screenings and panel discussions as part of the Refugee Week at the BFI Southbank this summer, helping shed light on the human tragedies that we are witnessing on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and across the Channel, and our inability to put an end to the blatant violations of international human rights happening there.
David Somerset, Education Programmer (Adult Communities) at the BFI, reflects:
JULIA + CHILDREN OF THE RUINS
The original inspiration for screening JULIA as part of Refugee Week was to begin establishing a time line between earlier Refugee crises, provoked by war and fascism of WW2. The big screen historical epic, JULIA narrating Lilian Hellman’s connection with what was, essentially supporting ‘people smuggling’ out of Nazi Germany finds actress Vanessa Redgrave starring alongside fellow radical Jane Fonda, and shows how commitment grows out of friendship and consequent empathy. Screening with Jill Craigie’s documentary short for the UNHCR, CHILDREN OF THE RUINS caused us to reflect on the terrible consequences of war and the hope that can be found if we combat resulting ignorance and hatred with education. Craigie’s film was made in the aftermath of WW2 but has much to tell about today, and is a warning to us if we continue to ignore the plight of the young in regions of devastation.
STRANGER IN PARADISE
Programming this film wasn’t an obvious decision. When I first viewed it, I was both attracted but also uncomfortable with its blatant statement of two strongly opposed arguments in light of a response to the Refugee crisis. I was certainly impressed with its simple invention, taking as its protagonist, a young European middle class male and combining his two different arguments, in two scenes which included a group of real-life asylum seekers facing him in a classroom. The film could be interrogated on several different levels. Not just in terms of the two opposing arguments themselves (one sympathetic and one opposed to migration) but also their framing within a very constrained (albeit fictional) setting of a classroom, with a teacher from a privileged European background and with students from a wide ranging group of hopeful, at times desperate people, all yearning for a better life. Another frame of interpretation was of course the actual plight of the Asylum seekers as we learn about the real life outcome of each of the students within existing Refugee law. STRANGER was a piece of fascinating cinema with the director including both a Marker-esque montage of archive to open the film and expand its terms of reference well beyond the current crisis. A finale included a Brechtian rupture of all what was essentially a ‘fiction’ to show both the protagonist and Asylum seekers breaking out of the earlier ‘fiction’ and grounding their contribution in their individual wider reality. For REFUGEE WEEK, where content could be dominated by worthy, sympathetic accounts of the Refugee crisis, such provocation for wider discussion and consideration was a healthy addition. It is certainly worthy of much more in-depth discussion and analysis. STRANGER is a film that I would recommend to teachers and educators as well as general audiences.
THE GOOD POSTMAN
The final film in the programme, like STRANGER (and also elements of our VR content), explored and exploited the boundary between fiction and documentary. Its director takes high production film techniques and applies them to a ‘real life’ situation – in this case the mayoral election on the Bulgarian border. After observing carefully a particular context and shaping it into a narrative, the actual unfolding events are re-enacted and capture for the big-screen, the actual characters themselves and their plight. When we programmed the week, the need for content that was cinematic and unique informed this selection, although in a markedly different way to STRANGER. Its gentle protagonist, responds to his own loneliness and that of the elderly community in their dying village, (beautifully captured faces on screen); he proposes that refugees crossing the border with Turkey, far from being a threat or even a problem requiring our charity, could actually be the villagers (and by extension, us and our salvation). It’s a call we could all heed for many different reasons – saving others from their terrible plight could also preserve our own humanity.
Continuing a fruitful collaboration with the civil rights organization Liberty, ‘Knowing our Rights’ invited their director Martha Spurrier to speak at the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ panel, chaired by our own Prof Julian Petley.
‘The different areas of expertise on the panel opened up a range of perspectives’, said the BFI’s Maggi Hurt, ‘exactly as we were hoping’
‘The film has many complexities of perspective and will surely cause debate in its various screenings – I valued its ability to make us question how and why we have the perspectives we do’, she added.
Knowing our Rights Director, Dr Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, said about the Refugee Week and the Virtual Reality elements of the programme: ‘We were privileged to support such a thought-provoking range of events, at the home of independent cinema in London and for such an important cause, which allowed participants to explore controversial human rights issues through the medium of film’.
‘The screenings gave us a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in the dramatic experiences exhibited there. I watched Aamir, a 360 film exploring the meaning of home through the stories of refugees in the Calais Jungle, and the VR short story We Wait, exploring one Syrian family’s story as they wait to cross the Aegean seas. Part of my human rights work concentrates on applications in national legal systems of the right to private and family life, as enshrined in Art 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Comparing the level of interference that (quite rightly) usually leads to violations of Art 8 in national legal systems with the brutal disregard for any concept of entitlement to home or privacy that refugees are experiencing in places like the Calais Jungle exposes the ugly divisions between individual human beings who are entitled to protection and those who aren’t’.
‘One of our discussion panels also explored the medium of VR. When the technology becomes more widely accessible, perhaps we, in Universities, could take a closer look at how we could use it to bring students closer to the human experiences we are theorising about in our classrooms. There are numerous opportunities here for giving students a deeper understanding of the physical environment within which they will be operating as professionals in the future’.