Document Film Festival – Centre for Contemporary Arts

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Paige Barclay

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Held annually over a long weekend in October, Document is Scotland’s only film festival focussed on human rights. Founded in 2002 in direct response to widespread negative media bias against asylum seekers – and particularly Roma families – the festival acts as a platform for debate about global human rights issues. Through documentary screenings, it aims to provide a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by people across the world. In this sense, Document operates in stark contrast to the ‘in-out’ approach taken by mainstream news outlets, where reporters dip into a conflict zone, press locals for quotes, type up an attention-grabbing headline, and then leave.

For the festival’s 12th year, documentaries followed the theme of ‘Access to Justice’: particularly, the institutionalised difficulty faced by citizens around the world in pursuit of their rights. The theme was directly inspired by one of the showings: Access to Justice: The Gray Zone of Diplomacy, by Sandra Budesheim and Sabine Zimmer, which sought to expose the dark side of diplomatic immunity in Germany. The key question here is whether universal human rights should be subordinate to diplomatic immunity, as Budesheim and Zimmer find to be the present reality. Through exploration of three specific cases, including one in which the employee of a diplomat was trapped in her employer’s apartment, the film points to a number of structural problems which make it impossible for domestic workers to hold diplomats accountable. One such problem involves the employee having to give up their passport – often their only form of identification – to their employer in order to be registered with the German Home Office. This film is a concrete example of an important human rights issue that would simply have been tossed aside by the media machine in favour of greater, pre-packaged sensationalism. It is this lack of voice, found to different degrees in both developed and developing countries, which forms the bedrock of the festival’s overall theme.

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The surprisingly humorous God Loves Uganda by Roger Ross Williams follows on from the release of a number of documentaries focused on homosexuality in Uganda since the emergence of the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Rather than being another case study of the dangers facing gay Ugandans, however, Williams takes a different approach. He documents what he believes to be the cause of the rise in anti-gay sentiment in Uganda: US evangelical missionaries, who view the country as the ‘pearl’ of Africa. Lacking receptive audiences in the increasingly-secular Western world, these missionaries come to Uganda to preach views that would not be acceptable in their home country. Whilst it is important to understand the everyday lives of gay Ugandans – and the impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – Williams’ focus on evangelical missionaries presents a compelling case, and offers insight into a probable cause absent from other documentaries chronicling the situation.

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Alongside the overall theme, Document also ran Women’s and Youth programmes – both of which allowed for greater focus on issues specifically affecting these two, often underrepresented, groups. A notable film from the Women’s programme was When the Time Comes by Charles Gay. This short documentary centers on the Samburu, a semi-nomadic Kenya tribe, and the debate currently ongoing in their community regarding FGM. An increasingly vocal group within the tribe believe the ‘coming of age’ ritual undertaken by women should be altered in such a way that the symbolism and culture of the ritual remain intact, minus the dangerous practice. Others, however, believe such a change is unacceptable, and fear it would undermine Samburu culture and tradition. Gay was eager to point out that religion is not the root reason behind the practice of FGM within the tribe, but tradition and culture. In this sense, the film offered another perspective on the debate, whilst also serving as an uplifting, inspiring account of young women taking the agency owed to them.

The highlight of the Women’s programme, though, was Deeyah Khan’s Banaz: A Love Story. Documenting the high profile case of Banaz Mahmod, a victim of honour killing in the UK in 2006, the film explores the potentially devastating consequences of culture clashes. The end result is a documentary that, though extremely difficult to watch, offers unflinching insight into a case which – though widely covered by mainstream media – had lacked a coherent, human overview of the events surrounding Banaz’s death. Unfortunately, the result of such a step-by-step review of her life proves to be a harrowing one. Use of footage from interviews conducted with Banaz during one of multiple visits to her local police station is chilling, and Khan points to police failure to take action in a case where all evidence pointed towards an inevitable conclusion.

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The Youth programme, on the other hand, featured Fully Focused’s Riot From Wrong. The film was especially interesting as it had no funds at its disposal for production. This ties in with Fully Focused’s belief that a minimal budget need not constrain the impact, or quality, of the end product. In direct response to the media’s demonisation of young people during the 2011 England Riots, the film set out to offer a more balanced view of the issues at the root of the riots. Extensive use of interviews presented a breadth of opinion across socioeconomic groups that were unheard of in media coverage. As per the film’s intention, this served to highlight just how damaging stereotypes and broad media tarring of social groups can be. Instead of further fuelling the alienation of Britain’s youth, Fully Focused call for a more responsible media that drives discussion towards workable solutions.

In total, over 40 documentaries were screened as part of the festival, alongside which a number of workshops opened to the public. Led by experts in their craft, the workshops fitted nicely into the festival – where the importance of collaboration and the sharing of ideas were encouraged. Of particular interest was photojournalist Marc Ellison’s Post-Conflict Journalism Masterclass, in which he spoke about the challenges he faced while documenting the reintegration of former female Lord’s Resistance Army child soldiers in Uganda. Central to the project was the provision of cameras to five of the women, who were free to take photographs of whatever they pleased. This interesting method allowed for greater insight into the social stigma the women faced, as conversation about the photographs uncovered stories not touched upon in normal conversation.

There is certainly an added awareness and responsibility taken on by those working within the human rights sector, as opposed to mainstream journalists. In particular, many workshop members emphasised the importance of avoiding re-traumatisation of interviewees as a paramount concern. Marc’s Masterclass specifically covered the dangers of ‘parachute journalism’ and ‘researcher fatigue’, where potential interviewees are swamped with interested, and pushy, reporters during conflicts. This over-saturation – as well as promises of recompense that are not kept – lead to understandably greater reluctance to partake in more fruitful research, as well as further dehumanisation of those trapped within the conflict zones. Document’s workshops allowed for unrivalled insight into the ‘behind the scenes’ issues surrounding human rights and documentaries, such as ethical considerations and the danger faced by those working in conflict and post-conflict zones.

The niche nature of a documentary film festival in itself means you have a lot of talented filmmakers – who lack the same attention afforded to those in fiction – under one roof. There is no air of superiority, but instead a humble desire to further improve and inform. In fact, it was highly common for filmmakers to sit in on screenings of other documentaries and take part in workshops, unafraid that a question will ‘expose’ them as inexperienced. In this sense, the Document film festival was a fantastic opportunity to hear, and learn, from some incredibly talented people. The weekend was hugely inspiring, and is something I do not hesitate to recommend attending in October 2015.