By Aidan Kim
Breaking silence one film festival at a time
“What does it mean to be in solidarity with others? At what point does one challenge their own sense of self-privilege?” mused English Professor Roger Hallas, who co-directed the 17th annual Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival (SUHRFF) with television, radio and film Professor Tula Goenka this year.
Goenka was initially inspired to host the festival to showcase the array of vibrant cinemas emerging from South Asia, especially her native country of India. Working with nonprofit organizations in New York City, Goenka founded the film festival in 2002 to showcase films from South Asia and screen them both on campus and in New York City.
Eventually, it evolved to include films from around the world dealing with a wide range of human rights and social issues. “My focus was always students and I wanted to engage more people,” said Goenka about including a wider selection of international films. “Human rights violations, social justice issues happen everywhere, so (the transition) was very organic for us.”
“The festival is not just about the passive consumption of film. It’s as much of a screening as it is a meeting place to illuminate our understanding of the world,” said Hallas.
On making the selections each year, Goenka said she looks for films dealing with a diverse range of issues and doesn’t focus on any one part of the world. This year’s selections were certainly no exception.
The festival, which took place from Sept. 26 to 28, presented attendees with five films from Spain, South Africa, India and the U.S. that confronted the theme of silence.
Each film approaches the theme with nuanced complexity, at times explicitly like in “The Silence of Others,” a film directed by Almudena Carracedo, who captured the groundbreaking story of victims of war crimes under the Franco regime fighting to have their voices heard by the Spanish government. “It raises the question of what is our ethical responsibility within our own context. What are the silences we help to perpetuate?” said Hallas about the film.
Other works, like “Everything Must Fall,” which follows a group of students opposing rising university tuition costs in South Africa, “speaks to the refusal to be silenced within spaces of power,” Hallas said.
Sociology Professor Arthur Paris, who attended both films, said that the festival provides students with a glimpse into historical and contemporary issues they might otherwise be unaware of, adding that it’s useful for American students to be aware of ongoing issues happening overseas.
He’s right. Many of these films deal with complex intersectional issues that many students and faculty alike on campus are oblivious to and far removed from.
Goenka said that exposure to these issues is an important goal of the festival, in addition to educating students on what great cinema looks like. She added, “I think what students respond to is a story that’s well told and characters that are well defined and can empathize with.”
Goenka believes highly in students being global citizens, and as such, interacting with the world on a global scale. She hopes that these films challenge their perspective and shed light on unfamiliar issues.
“I told Roger, let’s do 20. We’ll do 20 and see how we feel from there” Goenka remarked when asked about the future of the festival. While these films won’t solve the issues alone, exhibiting them brings awareness to their cause.
“Film alone cannot change the world,” said Hallas. “The power of film and particularly documentary is to create a space of encounter where we encounter realities were not familiar with.” Indeed, both of their work in showcasing impactful cinema over the years have certainly done so.
In an increasingly complex and interconnected world that demands an awareness of human rights violations and social injustices taking place outside of our own communities, the SUHRFF is a necessary addition to our campus agenda and to becoming a true global citizen.
Aidan Kim is a senior studying Television, Radio and Film at Syracuse University.