After fifteen years watching and presenting human rights films, I can tell you that there are two things that inspire change: good guys and bad guys.
In human rights films the 'survivors', or the 'wounded healers', are generally the good guys. And the good guys (often girls, in fact) always spark something in our hearts. They are the inspiration, the ones who make us believe and help us find the courage to try to change things.
But it's the 'perpetrators', the 'villains', the bad guys who light a fire that burns in our hearts like no other. They are the motivation, the ones who compel us to act, who push us to fight for change - even when we might think it is impossible.
Think about your own life. Think about the individuals who have inspired you. And consider the ones who have made you so angry, so outraged that you've thought: I am going to do something about this if it takes me the rest of my life.
Some of the best human rights films I know introduce us to perpetrators and allow us spend time with them, listen to them, watch them. We may not like what we see and it might make us feel uncomfortable, to the point that we do look away, even walk away (or walk out in the case of a cinema).
It is comforting to watch a hero - and painful to watch an anti-hero.
Why? If we can relate to perpetrators as well as survivors of human rights abuses, what does that signify? Perhaps it reminds us that in the world of human rights - humans commit the abuses and carry out the atrocities. Not monsters. Humans. And we are all human.
We are all capable of any number of things 'good' or 'bad'. And that is what the films we show remind people. We are all powerful in some way. It is up to each of us to recognize that and hopefully utilize that power to make a positive difference.
And we see heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, in everyday life all the time. In Kim Longinotto's film Salma we meet a woman in India who despite the cultural and social restrictions on her life becomes a famous poet.
Salma is most definitely a hero, an inspiration. But is her husband a villain? A complicated question. As an individual, he has certainly done things to stop Salma, to keep her down. As part of a system that represses women, he has played his part. Like so many...
At the other end of the spectrum, we meet an almost surreal set of villains in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer introduces us to Anwar Congo and his cohorts who were paramilitaries in Indonesia, carrying out mass killings with total impunity in the 1960s on the heels of Suharto's takeover of the country.
The detailed re-enactments of their atrocities are so intense that they are almost paralyzing to the viewer. How could one ever fight against a person or group who appears to be so completely convinced of their right to torture, rape and kill?
But there are always glimpses of light, even in the darkest places. If I never met a perpetrator, I might not know that. But I have met one. I have met many in fact.
And I have learned that those truly interested in change, truly committed to human rights are willing to walk into the lion's den, to talk with a perpetrator like Anwar Congo - even relate to him as a fellow human being.
Because if I can see something in myself that I see in a villain, then maybe I can see a way forward in this world. A way to change the things I find unjust. Paradox? Perhaps. But that is why I believe there are two things that inspire change in the world of human rights films: good guys and bad guys.
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