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Documentary Film: evoking emotions for human rights

By Laurie Jones for Generation C Magazine

How can we make people care about human rights? Using the example of the documentary 'Unmanned: Americas Drone Wars', Laurie Jones from Brave New Films explores why and how this type of storytelling can make a difference in Human Rights Education. 

Storytelling drove my interest in human rights work. It was through hearing first hand accounts of women in war-torn Bosnia that I began to care about women’s rights on a global scale; through narrative fiction that I first considered the urgency of guaranteeing economic rights; and through documentary I began to feel a drive and a passion for programs that help to decrease maternal mortality. It may seem obvious to point out story’s role in our everyday lives. 

But while I think we often acknowledge the abundance of stories, we do not always consider the importance of the specific collection of stories that form our beliefs and opinions. When I think about Human Rights Education, that thought is in the forefront of my mind- what stories will students hear before they enter the world to advocate for policies? I certainly believe that it is vital they she hear many different stories of the events that we hold as fact in our world.

The fight for human rights has often risen out of the idea that the state history, the state story, did not accurately represent the trials and tribulations of its citizens. Therefore, as we teach the history and the present existence of the human rights framework it is absolutely necessary to present the student with many different narratives and first hand accounts. With the framework for Human Rights Education (HRE) being divided into three areas:cognitive, emotional and action, how can we teach students the ‘facts’ as they can best be described, create empathy and then encourage them to create action based on how they learned and perceived events? I argue that this is where documentary film comes in. Documentary combines emotional and cognitive elements primarily through personal accounts. 

There is some pretty interesting science behind our emotional reactions to hearing personal accounts and seeing a human being experiencing a certain situation (even on screen!). Vilayanur Ramachandran, for example, says that mirror neurons – which he refers to as Ghandi neurons – help humans to interpret human behavior and also to empathize with other people without ever having experienced a certain event. Ramachandran’s point is that humans are pre-wired for empathy. Susan K. Perry also wrote in Psychology Today that researchers have found that showing subjects pictures elicits emotions that they would have felt under the actual circumstances. Since this empathy is necessary in the framework for HRE, the combination of visual and audio accounts aids greatly in creating such a response. The knowledge of the facts surrounding certain events plus creating empathy could lead to action. And the action is most certainly the point.

I have had the pleasure of coordinating a program where these concepts can come to light. Brave New Films has developed a brand new education outreach program called Brave New Educators, using documentaries to start a dialogue with students and professors across college campuses. Through the use of screenings and in-class participation, our mission is to champion social justice issues by using a model of media, education and grassroots volunteer involvement that uses all of the elements of human rights education. The best part, it’s free for educators, so we can take honest feedback and improve without the pressure of selling something. I just get the opportunity to share our stories with students. It is that simple.

Student reactions have been very insightful. What we have learned from our pilot screenings is that students challenge what they are being told (thank goodness!), so they need to be provided with references to further their own research – which we make available through our program. From the feedback we have gathered, we have also seen that most students have extreme empathy after watching the films and the majority want to share our films with a friend.

After a screening of Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, at Johns Hopkins University, many students discussed how the personal stories added to their overall understanding of the issue. One student said, “Drone warfare was a subject that I knew about, but of which I never fully understood the consequences. The documentary humanized the subject for me, and raised important moral questions about the use of such tactics.” Other students did not reveal their opinions but said that the film would inspire them to do more research. We received responses such as, “This film gave me a lot of new information on drone warfare and how it is utilized, and it has given me a lot to seriously consider.” We are very happy with these responses.

Hopefully students feel inspired by our stories and then go and seek more knowledge. Not everyone will agree with our fight for human rights, but I am certain that we are beginning conversations in universities – and that is the entire point.

I realize that our program is a very small piece of a whole. As a film company, we see an important opportunity and a responsibility to share our films for education, but ultimately we know that we are providing tools. It is the educators themselves that will really shape student perspective and create future activists. We hope professors and students use films to explore human rights further, feel empowered, and use as fuel to create change.

No matter what, I can see that story’s significance will be ever present to engage students, and I am so inspired by that.

Laurie Jones is the Education Outreach Coordinator at Brave New Films. Through her work in storytelling, particularly theatre and community arts, Laurie developed her passion for human rights and social justice. She holds an MA in Applied Human Rights from the University of York as well as a BA in Production Studies from Clemson University.