Defending Human Rights through Film: Cinematic Techniques and Ethical Concerns

By William R. Benner

How should art depict human suffering? This question is vital to understanding global and local human rights movements. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Agencia de la ONY para los Refugiados) developed an international social media campaign #ConLosRefugiados in 2016 with the purpose of mobilizing the local and international audiences to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, a tragic result of the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011.1 This campaign has produced various different content. There is one particular short video that is especially relevant to the ethical concern regarding how human rights activists and filmmakers utilize film to help the Syrian refugee crisis. The short film in question, Lo que se llevaron consigo, was meant to be seen on Twitter and other social media websites, with a clear strategy that Spanish-speaking and English-speaking viewers share the content to raise awareness.2 It poses the question: Si tuvieras que huir de tu casa, ¿qué llevarías? If you had to flee from your home what would you bring?

In many ways, this film utilizes various cinematic techniques that human rights groups, over the years, have developed and shared across the globe. The desire is not only to visualize the injustices of the Syrian Civil War affecting those who live (or lived) in Syria but to inspire the viewer to act. This is done by placing the viewer in the shoes of the Syrian refugee. The video opens with a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb that falls uncontrollably and explodes, blowing up an apartment building. The chaos of war is spliced together with images of mothers, daughters, families, fleeing Syria. Professional actors, including Cate Blanchett and Kit Harington, read the rhythmic poem “What They Took with Them” by Jenifer Toksvig, inspired by the testimonies of the refugees and the personal artifacts they brought with them when forced to leave their homes. The presence of the professional actors offers a jarring juxtaposition between the human rights abuses in Syria and the comforts experienced by many in the Western world who are witnessing these atrocities. Interestingly, the actors never once look directly at the camera, suggesting that they are speaking for those that cannot speak and that the West’s reaction has been both inadequate and shameful.

Incorporating Artistic Practices That Promote Human Rights in Class Discussions

I taught this video as part of a campus-wide brown bag discussion meant to offer interdisciplinary perspectives on the subject of refugees. My presentation specifically encouraged faculty and students to analyze the cinematic techniques used in the film, to debate whether this film can be considered critical art, and to post the video to their own social media accounts. Since I had only fifty minutes and it was an informal talk, only the short film was assigned. If taught in a classroom setting, I would incorporate Stella Bruzzi’s New Documentary: A Critical Introduction for a comprehensive guide to cinematographic techniques used in documentary film, Jacques Rancière’s chapter “On Art and Work” in his The Politics of Aesthetics, as well as other films relating to the plight of refugees.3 It would be relatively easy to incorporate a feminist perspective when analyzing the representations of refugees by human rights activists since the abuse of women’s rights is strongly associated with refugee crisis and the depiction of the refugees in film.

Framing Contexts Before Screening

Prior to screening Lo que se llevaron consigo, I briefly explained the Syrian refugee crisis, introduced and defined key cinematographic terminology needed to analyze the short film, and provided extra information to help illustrate what possible shots a director may use and what kinds of emotions or meanings can be conveyed by changing the angle or distance of the shot. Utilizing Rancière’s “On Art and Work,” I also included a definition of critical art and the goals of critical art. Although Rancière favors the collage as the ideal medium to convey marginalized truth(s) that expose injustices and invite the spectator to act, I argued that film can produce a feedback loop between truth and action similar to the Rancière’s thoughts on collage. After giving this background information, I made space for questions from attendees and assigned each person a specific element of the film to consider while watching it: sounds, shots, the script, lighting, editing, and actors.

Class Discussion

After viewing the film, I placed students and faculty in groups in which they discussed their first impressions and the particular filmic element they were responsible for. I checked each group’s progress and guided each to consider other aspects of the film. After about ten minutes, I opened up the room for discussion. Students and faculty shared their responses to the film, and each group offered comments about the filmic elements. The last element, “actors,” was a particularly helpful topic to transition toward the second half of the discussion. Professional, well-known actors—who were not Syrian—read a poem that was not by a Syrian poet. This fact led into the ethical debate about how human rights activism speaks of and for victims of human rights abuses. To explore this issue, I focused our attention around three themes: time is money, human rights activists speaking for those who are oppressed, and visual representations of individual suffering as a strategy to understand large-scale suffering. I also provided extra information on transnational activism, the notion of critical art, and Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on how surviving generations can honor their heritage by choosing to remember the past in a manner that exposes institutional and personal dogmas.4 Below are some prompts that educators could use to stimulate an analysis of ethics.

1. Time is money. Art costs money to make, even when it is a public service, and someone needs to fund it and buy it. This short video was a well-produced film that cost a lot of money. Many people worked on it and were compensated for their work. What is your reaction to this? Why? Why might some people feel uncomfortable about the fact that art that depicts human suffering costs money? What are some possible solutions that you can think of to work around this ethical dilemma? Should all art that depicts human suffering be made for and easily accessible to the public?

2. The video speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis, but it also speaks for Syrian refugees. What issues might arise when those who are suffering do not get a chance to speak for themselves? Do you see any possible issues with a large transnational human rights organization getting involved with a national or local crisis?5

3. Large-scale suffering represented by one person is a common trope for documentary filmmakers who want to depict a humanitarian crisis, and filmmakers with common interests often share stock footage. Focusing on one individual to represent many victims provides the viewer with a feeling of empathy; the viewer should feel sad. Human rights activists have relied on this practice across all different types of public and private spaces. Thus, there is a question about how the quality of the truth that the artist is attempting to share relates to the pressure human rights activists feel to produce a large quantity of art with an easy to understand and emotional message. This debate of quality vs. quantity continues to impact the future strategies of human rights activism (a really important debate when we consider how much social media consumes our time). Do you think this film helped with the Syrian refugee crisis? Why and/or why not? Is it enough for a film to inform us of an injustice, or should films that inform also fulfill critical art’s maxim of producing a response? Should there be an imperative that what is produced be original (i.e., not stock footage)? What if the film is very experimental? Who is responsible for explaining the importance of the experimental film? The artist? Should art that depicts human suffering be easy to understand so as not to confuse the spectator?

Post-screening Homework

After screening Lo que se llevaron consigo by the #ConLosRefugiados campaign and discussing it, I encouraged students and faculty to share the video on their own social media accounts.6 By deciding to post or not to post, they determined if the video indeed is critical art (critical art must produce a response from the viewer) and are making a choice to participate (even a simple act like sharing a video about human rights can be considered a form of activism).

1 It is estimated that 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria (Chris Huber, Kathryn Reid, and Denise C. Koenig, “Syrian Refugee Crisis: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help,” World Vision, March 15, 2019).

2 Lo que se llevaron consigo, YouTube video, 1:51. Posted by UNHCR-ACNUR, Sept. 16, 2016. The video is primarily in English, so there was no need to translate the subtitles that were in Spanish.

3 Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2011); Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006); Movies That Matter offers a wide range of films and other educational materials relating to human rights issues.

4 Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow…: A Dialogue (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); Andreas Huyssen, “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia,” Public Culture 12, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 21-38; Ksenija Bilbija and Leigh A. Payne, eds., Accounting for Violence: Marketing Memory in Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

5 Jeffrey D. Pugh, “Weaving Transnational Activist Networks: Balancing International and Bottom-up Capacity-Building Strategies for Nonviolent Action in Latin America,” MARLAS: Middle Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies 2, no. 1 (2018): 130-44.

6 Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).

William R. Benner ( is an assistant professor of Spanish at Texas Woman’s University, Denton. He has a PhD in Spanish and is affiliate faculty in the Department of Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies. His research and teaching interests include human rights literature and film in the Southern Cone, transnational activism, memory studies, and the artistic productions by the postdictatorship generations in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.