Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Movies that Inspire: Human Rights on the Big Screen

Reading Time: 5 minutes

During the last two weeks of June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) celebrated the 22nd (1989) version of the HRW International Film Festival in Walter Reade Theater in New York.  I only saw two of the screenings, but even today I’m still haunted by what I saw. 

When sitting alone in my apartment I think of the 25-year-old Canadian Muslim who’s been locked up in isolation for the last nine years in a window-less cold room at Guantánamo Bay. Or I remember the words of Carlos Horacio Urán Rodríguez’ daughter when she addressed the audience after La Toma: “I was 2 years old and I remember” how her father was mysteriously found shot after the siege of the Colombian Supreme Court in 1985. He left the Court alive and contradicting any logic was found shot dead the next day in that same building.

This is a testament to the power of film—a particularly important and powerful medium for human rights.

More than 7,500 people attended this year’s 19 films, which covered human rights in 12 countries including Guatemala, Colombia, the U.S., Kenya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Bulgaria. The good news is that the festival premiered 17 films in New York—five of them for the first time in the United States.  The bad news?  Most of them were hardly screened in their country of origin.

The Festival’s goal was to exploit the power of media in all its forms to create awareness, promote debate, inspire, and inform.  What better way to do that than through film which can bring to life past (or even worse, current) events—many of which the public often considers foreign or remote.   (It’s an unconscious—if not unforgivable mistake we all make: if we don’t see it, it’s not happening).   Movies can vividly transport audiences by recreating sensations and personalizing trauma that—more than anything—can shake the public out of their complacency or disbelieve.  It was what allowed me to know about and empathize with Omar Khadr’s life in Guantánamo Bay and the suffering of Colombian families who after 25 years of the Supreme Court’s siege by M-19 guerrillas still don’t know the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones.

Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s shocking You Don’t Like The Truth-4 Days Inside Guantanamo is now my ‘everyday bread.’ Imagine you are buried alive. It’s dark. You’re running out of oxygen (are you really imagining this?) and even though you scream for help no one is there to assist you. You’re alone. No exit. This is the feeling I imagine Omar Khadr has felt for the past nine years he has been imprisoned without trial under the harshest conditions.

Allegedly, when he was 15 years old and the U.S. Army ambushed the camp in Afghanistan where his father had left him, he threw a grenade and killed U.S. soldier Christopher Speers. After being shot in the chest, losing an eye, and suffering painful leg injuries, Omar was taken to the Bagram Airfield camp in Afghanistan, well known for the infamous and humiliating tortures that occurred there. Soldier Damien Corsetti, nicknamed Monster by his unit, remembers in the movie, saying in tears: “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t allowed. But the things we allowed in Bagram outrage human dignity.” And Omar survived. Still a child—and defenseless as any 15-year-old youngster—he was taken to Guantánamo, in Cuba, a black hole where individuals accused of terrorist charges are held.

In October 2010, Omar—now 24 years old—pleaded guilty to the charges (on the basis of a pre-trial agreement) and was sentenced to eight years, excluding the time served already. Outside the U.S. judicial system, outside the Uniform Code of Military Justice and contrary to the Geneva Conventions of 1946, Omar became the first child to be prosecuted in a military commission since World War II. HRW, UNESCO and Amnesty International made numerous appeals to the U.S. and to international bodies for Omar’s release—all to no avail.  It may not have mattered anyway.  The U.S. (along with Somalia) never ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children (1990). If it had, the U.S. would had had to give Omar the proper treatment to save his good eye, allow him to communicate with his family, and protect him from his interrogators who literally mopped the floor with him.

You Don’t Like the Truth shows seven hours of declassified security camera footage from the four-day interrogation the Canadian government had with (then) 16-year-old Omar. “Promise you’re going to protect me from the Americans,” says Omar repeatedly to his compatriots when he sees them for the first time and they give him a Subway sandwich. 

Later he realizes Canadian agents only want information from him.  Once he realizes they aren’t there to help but only to continue the interrogation, Omar loses hope.  He breaks down crying, repeating, “You don’t like the truth. No matter what I say, you don’t like the truth,” referring to his interrogators’ refusal to accept his inability to provide information about Osama Bin Laden. Four days of psychological anguish and manipulation ends with a touching image: Omar crying for his mom, and Canadian agents going out of the room saying “Omar, the solution is in your hands. If you don’t tell us the truth we cannot help you. You are the one going back to your cell. We’ll go back to our families.”

Events like the HRW Film Festival need to be done more frequently, at a larger scale, and with government and citizen support. La Toma, produced by Colombian Miguel Salazar and South African Angus Gibson should be screened in Colombia’s main theaters. It recalls the November 6, 1985, siege of the Supreme Court in Bogotá by 35 armed M-19 guerrillas. To regain control of the Court, the military moved in. Almost 100 people were killed and 12 disappeared. Nearly all of the Court’s justices were killed and others such as the cafeteria personnel were tortured and are now missing.

As a Colombian I can say that often we Colombians forget too easily. I was ashamed of the blurry memory I had of the siege; I was even more ashamed of the biased version that had been passed on to me. Now I know better about the parties affected and about their lives after the siege. The family of Cristina del Pilar Guarín knows she came out of the Court but still don’t know about her remains; justice Urán Rodríguez’ wife and daughters are exiled in the U.S.; and the father of Hector Jaime Beltrán, a waiter in the cafeteria, is still battling in the courts against militaries involved in the siege.

The Festival allowed me to be aware of the suffering and injustice that continues around me and made me understand two things. First, hatred only brings more hatred. The U.S. military commissions and the trials that defy all standards of justice will only cause more hatred from the Muslim community. I keep asking myself how a country that preaches its protection of basic civil liberties, respect for the rule of law and preservation of democracy can have such an independent, unaccountable system of administrating justice. A state cannot protect its citizens by itself flouting the principles it proclaims and upon which its entire political system is intended to be based.

Also, I realized the importance of truth and justice to a country like Colombia that aims to get over a violent history through reconciliation and peace and justice laws. How can we insist on these initiatives if we are forgetting our history? Forgiveness yes, but we cannot forget.

This leads to my third conclusion: I can do something. La Toma and You Don’t Like the Truth shook my heart, my conscience. They made me realize human rights are at stake every day, and governments have failed to protect them. I have the duty to do something, even if it’s small relative to what other activists accomplish. My contribution will be to give visibility to other “Tomas” and “Guantánamos.” I want to replicate the message and make people aware of the importance of human rights to any country’s memory. My goal is to share. I’m Twittering about it; I’m circulating information; and I’m making this a topic of my every day conversations.

Human rights are too important and too fraught with conflicts of interest to be left to policymakers. As Dennis Edney, Omar’s lawyer said in May at the Conference on Islamophobia and The Politics of Fear, “the only crime in my view, equal to willful inhumanity is the crime of indifference, silence and forgetting.”

Lina Salazar is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She works with Americas Quarterly and in the policy department at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.


Lina Salazar Ortegón works on technical cooperation, communications, outreach and partnerships, and knowledge with the Opportunities for the Majority sector at the Inter-American Development Bank. Follow her on Twitter @LinaSalazar.

Tags: Colombia, Guantanamo, human rights in Latin America, Human Rights Watch, Military Tribunals
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter