Filmmaking and human rights

By Saad Hafiz



Haider, the recently released Bollywood movie, helps to lift the lid on the brutal conflict in Indian Kashmir. The artistic portrait of modern political rebellion, an exposé of government-sanctioned violence and a vision of hope that continued resistance may galvanise a new future. Set during the 1990s, the most intense years of the ongoing insurgency that has pitted Kashmiri militants and separatists against security forces and their local auxiliaries for more than two decades, Haider includes graphic scenes of torture in Indian army camps and other human rights abuses by Indian officials. The film goes beyond the typical to deliver a riveting story with harsh truths and enlightens the audience to the plight and the courage of individual Kashmiris. It brings to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenges each individual to empathise and demand justice for all people. Acknowledging these abuses, rather than burying them under propaganda, is a credit to Indian democracy.

See More: Jamat-e Islami, A Common Inheritance of Pakistan and Bangladesh

Feature films and documentaries play an important role in making the public at large aware of human rights violations and political violence around the world. The audience for such films is significantly greater than that of books or in-depth newspaper articles on the subject. Overall, human rights, generally associated with misery, make a good combination with films. Films can deal with tough topics like the insidious propaganda techniques and manipulation used to dehumanise the ‘enemy’. The demonisation of the adversary often leads to extreme criminal acts including brutal beatings, rape, torture and the senseless killing of people. The lasting images of conflict are little children collecting crumbs so as not to starve, women in search of their missing children, probably killed, soldiers who talk, seemingly unaffected, about atrocities they have committed, the young women who raise children born from rape.

The Vietnam and Cambodia war and its atrocities sparked many films. Some of these are considered to belong to the greatest films of their generation such as Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978) starring Robert De Niro and, once more, Meryl Streep, “one of the few great films of the decade”, with gruesome torture scenes, The Killing Fields (1984), showing all the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime and The Quiet American (2002) in which Michael Caine is the protagonist of Graham Greene’s story on how the US became involved in the war in Vietnam. Torture and disappearances in Latin America have been the theme of various major feature films since the 1980s. These include Missing (1982) with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek on disappearances in Chile and the US support to the military regime, La Historia Official (1985), a highly moving Argentinian film on a child who was adopted after his mother had been ‘disappeared’ and killed, Death and the Maiden (1994) by Roman Polanski, a claustrophobic account of a woman meeting her former torturer and Garage Olimpo (1999) by Argentinian director Marco Bechis, a film that spares the viewer no details of the tortures in a secret detention centre.

See Also: India and Pakistan in War Peace

Haider starts a welcome trend for more films on the subject of human right abuses in South Asia. For instance, so far, no Pakistani film has cast light on the serious human right abuses committed by state forces during the 1971 conflict that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The findings of the official Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission report accused the Pakistan army of carrying out senseless and wanton arson, killings in the countryside, killing of intellectuals and professionals and burying them in mass graves, killing of Bengali officers and soldiers on the pretence of quelling their rebellion, killing East Pakistani civilian officers, businessmen and industrialists, raping a large number of East Pakistani women as a deliberate act of revenge, retaliation and torture, and the deliberate killing of members of the Hindu minority. Movies that honestly deal with the events of 1971 will help to educate the public and allow the Pakistani state to atone for its crimes in 1971.

With the return to democracy in the country, support should be extended to movies that investigate the abuses carried out by previous military regimes and also address the wider societal implications of military rule in the country. Movies can help expose the significant human rights abuses committed in the unending insurgency in Balochistan. They could focus on the scores of people detained, tortured, murdered or disappeared. Many families affected by the violence believe their loved ones were ‘disappeared’, accused by state forces of aiding the separatist movement, tortured and then killed and dumped. They express their fear that they will never know the truth surrounding the deaths of their loved ones and that the perpetrators will escape punishment. In bringing up the circumstances from the victims’ point of view, we may be able to identify with their plight. This approach has thus far been entirely foreign to us. Occasionally, it is healthy for everyone to withdraw from their comfortable, opinionated selves and explore what someone else feels or how useful another idea or way of thinking might be.

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