Discovering human rights through documentaries

By Andrea Garcia Giribet

Amnesty International’s Human Rights Documentary Film Festival is the first of its kind in Hong Kong.

In 2011, Amnesty International Hong Kong decided to approach Human Rights Education differently: through film. For the first time in Hong Kong, they created a film festival focused solely on human rights, aiming to encourage people to learn about human rights and reflect on different issues shown in documentaries from all around the world.

The idea originated as a film festival screening films about the death penalty to shed light on the topic. However, from 2014, the festival shifted its focus to a wider range of topics, choosing to feature a different theme each year, from sexual and reproductive rights (2014), to education (2015), to art (2016) and digital security (2018). This year, the festival will focus on freedom of expression.

The festival features a few films each year, organising screenings followed by discussions where the audience can engage with the filmmakers or activists and talk about the film and the issue that it focuses on. Previous Q&As have included talks with political science scholar Professor Joseph Yu-shek Cheng and Umbrella Movement student activist Yvonne Leung.

Three people talk during the post-screening discussion of one of the films in a past edition of the festival Three people talk during the post-screening discussion of one of the films in a past edition of the festival
One of the post-screening discussions on free speech © Amnesty International Hong Kong

The films are selected through a careful process that reviews hundreds of recent Asian and international documentaries sourced from film festivals all over the world. To be featured, the film must be a documentary released in the last 3 years, with a duration of at least 70 minutes and a focus on human rights, that hasn’t been released in any other Hong Kong festival or is available digitally in Hong Kong. From this preliminary selection, films are considered based on their potential for discussion, quality and their human rights perspective. A final round, conducted by an external panel of filmmakers and film critics, focuses on story, technical qualities and possible appeal for the audience.

Sinlam Li, Senior Education Officer at Amnesty International Hong Kong, explains that “film screenings provide opportunities for members of the public and schools to [sic] be exposed to various [human rights] issues around the world”. She adds that they aim to “deepen the audience’s understanding about the issues covered” and also to “encourage them to learn more about and support Amnesty International”.

The festival includes different types of screenings: paid screenings for the general public, free screenings for school students and community screenings which are free to those who can’t afford paying for a ticket. Sinlam explains that the festival aims to be as accessible as possible, including Chinese close captions and audio description for the films and Hong Kong sign interpretation for the discussions that follow.

Post-screening discussion for 'Waiting for Giraffes', which included sign language simultaneous translation Post-screening discussion for 'Waiting for Giraffes', which included sign language simultaneous translation
Post-screening discussion for 'Waiting for Giraffes' © Amnesty International Hong Kong

The reception to the festival has been overwhelmingly positive since its inception. Over 10,000 people have attended screenings since 2011, and between 2016 and 2017 over 4,000 students were reached. Sinlam describes the audience reaction as “appreciative” of the opportunity to learn more. Attendants have praised the festival: “thank you for organising this event and [sic] letting people learn about the situation in Syria” wrote one. Another attendant also thanked the organisers: “thanks a lot for revealing this crucial part of the world to the audience”. A final attendant wrote: “Would be fascinated to learn more”.

The Human Rights Documentary Film Festival continues this year, with a focus on freedom of expression. For more information visit the festival website.