Human rights in the lens

Can art affect change on a global scale? Or is humanitarian art simply a band-aid for the guilty heart of the creative mind? The NW Film Center’s Global Concerns: Human Rights on Film series brings to mind such questions.

Can art affect change on a global scale? Or is humanitarian art simply a band-aid for the guilty heart of the creative mind? The NW Film Center’s Global Concerns: Human Rights on Film series brings to mind such questions.

The series, kicking off Sept. 28, aims to “broaden understanding and stimulate involvement” as the films “reveal the hardship, courage and commitment of those whose hearts and minds are focused on the many challenges facing humanity.” That’s certainly a heady and worthwhile goal, and one that is mostly met by films in the series.

The sticking point, however, is the “stimulate involvement” part of the equation. In recent years, it has become an incredibly common motif: there is a filmmaker who wants to expose something bad happening somewhere in the world. So they make a documentary (or hell, a drama). And the issue is exposed. And the film comes out. And … what happens exactly? It’s my sincere hope that the audience watches the work and does something to affect change. It’s my sincere belief that, generally, we have an “oh man, that sucks” moment, and the issue continues to be ignored. But we feel better because we know about it now.

All that being said, the films in the series are interesting and informative. The first two, Bamako and Crossing Arizona, take two different forms—the narrative feature and the documentary—and two different subjects (illegal immigration and globalization’s effects in Africa), but both are worthy in distinct ways.

Crossing Arizona

“The Immigration Debate” is an endlessly complicated, puzzling and sometimes repulsive look at economic, racial and xenophobic tendencies in America. Crossing Arizona is a documentary that examines this debate from all sides. It’s illegal immigration, but it’s hardly a black and white issue.

In the film, we hear from the immigrants, activists on both sides of the issue and from the people who just want to save lives in the desert.

See, it seems that since operations began in the mid-1990s to curtail border crossings in California and Texas, more and more immigrants have made the trek through Arizona—and the four days of desert hiking that route entails. Thousands of people, immigrants who really are just looking for a better life, have died in the desert each year. The responses to these deaths range from “it serves them right” to community activists putting out water along the trail. Crossing Arizona talks to these activists. For most it’s really as simple as it seems: letting people die is not OK, when the simple act of giving water can save them.

The film also explores the cause of illegal immigration, which to be blunt (and obvious), is the destruction of small and subsistence-level farming. The cause of this is linked to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which creates an economic climate best suited for multi-national corporations and giant farming operations.

The film shows the beginnings of The Minutemen Project in 2005, where American citizens went to the border and literally looked for illegal immigrants to prevent the immigrants from crossing. At the time they received a huge amount of media attention and were called both patriots and vigilantes. I would call them patriotic vigilantes responding to immigration in the only way they know how. Which is to say, very stupidly.

The height of the stupidity and knee-jerk symbolism in Crossing Arizona comes during the presentation of an anti-illegal immigration rally featuring Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo. He decries diversity and multiculturalism, saying, “Diversity can not be our only goal … it will tear us apart.”

Just let that simmer for a little bit.

OK, I’ll call this kettle black and say exactly what Tancredo’s statement is. It’s racist, xenophobic bullshit. It’s exactly the same type of rhetoric that has been used throughout history to gain power and discriminate against those who are unlike the majority.

Crossing Arizona is an interesting and important document of our country’s thoughts on immigration and a very worthwhile film.


Less clear (and definitely less concise) than Crossing Arizona, Bamako brings up similar issues, but from the other side of the world and in a completely different way.

The film revolves around the staging of a mock trial in Bamako, Mali, where the plaintiffs are the people of Africa and the defendants are the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and “their accomplices.”

Interwoven is the story of a relationship on the rocks and a very unclear vignette that presents a Western style film featuring Danny Glover. All of that is extremely confusing and wholly unnecessary to the film’s point.

Bamako shines when in trial mode, hearing the thoughtful and illuminating testimony from witnesses on Africa’s behalf. Debt relief isn’t a very sexy subject, but its effects on Africa are huge. And Bamako eloquently shows us that.

You can see the pain in the witness’ eyes as they describe in exacting detail how abstract economic policies have very real and very direct effects on human beings. It hurts because just by living in the United States, we are one of the accomplices on trial.

The film itself is well made and presented, with striking photography that makes what could be a boring procedure a watch able drama. While there is certainly some confusion as to the point of some aspects of the film (especially the tragedy at the end), Bamako persists in being a thought-provoking work of art.

Mali/France 2006
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Fri, Sept. 28: 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.; Whitsell Auditorium
Sat, Sept. 29: 4:15 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Whitsell Auditorium
Sun, Sept. 30: 2 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.; Whitsell Auditorium

Crossing Arizona
U.S. 2006
Director: Joseph Mathew, Daniel Devivo
Sat, Sept. 29: 7 p.m.; Whitsell Auditorium
Sun, Sept. 30: 5 p.m.; Whitsell Auditorium