Legacies of Human Rights Violations: Beyond the Legal Paradigm

In this blog, the organisers of this IIF-sponsored film series reflect on the three events and issues raised. The series took place which took place between January and April 2018 at The University of Edinburgh.

The film series ‘Legacies of Human Rights Violations’ addressed the contemporary legacies of human rights violations from an artistic, cinematic perspective. The series involved showing four films: I Am Not Your Negro, My Beautiful Laundrette, REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony, and Kamchatka. The selected films tackled issues as diverse as racial oppression, gender norms and agency and institutionalised state violence. Specifically, the films focused the experiential reality of human rights issues that stands beyond the grasp of the legalist perspective and its disembodied standards of right and wrong. Indeed, our purpose was to shed light on how the structural, deeply entrenched practices of oppression and discrimination affect people’s everyday lives, intimate domestic spheres and interpersonal relationships, while also unearthing the everyday, relational forms of dissent, solidarity and resistance that arise in response. The film screenings ensued in a fruitful dialogue across the fields of political theory, anthropology, law, film and music studies. They were well attended and engaged students, staff and the broader public in a discussion on the ethical potentials and limitations of cinema as a mode of creative learning and democratic education.

The first film, I Am Not Your Negro, perhaps most explicitly exposed the limits of the Western liberal understanding of democracy and the supposed neutrality of its legal institutions, as revealed by the structural nature of racial oppression. In the film, the director Raoul Peck tells the story of James Baldwin, an American novelist and social critic, based on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House. At the forefront stands Baldwin’s conversations and friendships with prominent figures of the American civil rights movement, such as Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr, bringing forth an emotional insight into the struggles for racial equality in the US.

The film gave much food for thought, subtly exposing the ways that racism penetrates in the most intimate of spaces and is sustained by the relationally and systemically induced spectres of white ignorance and othering. With an audience of more than 200 people, the discussion that followed revolved around the perplexities of representing otherness, the merits and limitations of different forms of collective resistance, as well as the lingering remnants of racial oppression and economic inequality that were not adequately tackled by the granting of civil rights.

In My Beautiful Laundrette from 1985, director Stephen Frears explores the complex intersection between race, homosexuality and class in 1980s England. The film was selected in order to challenge the assumption that human rights issues are something that happen ‘elsewhere’ rather than ‘at home’.

Furthermore, we wanted a film that explored LGBTI issues and intersectionality long before these framings became so prominent in public discourse. The screening was attended by approximately thirty people from across the university. Dr. Delwar Hussain and Chanderkiran Thakur (undergraduate, social anthropology), led the discussion after the screening which focused on the question of categorization of sexuality (neither of the main protagonists openly identifies as gay) and class in 1980s Britain compared with today. The film was counter posed against more recent mainstream ‘British’ films such as ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Love Actually’ in which Asian Britons and non-heteronormative ‘white’ Londoners have effectively been ‘written out’.

The third movie, “REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony,” directed by Liza Key (2009) presents a cantata created by Phillip Miller’s about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC). With an emphasis on sound, Key portrays poetically the musical work of Miller that conveys the human stories behind the TRC testimonies. The documentary contains footage of the cantata itself that combines vocal soloists, chorus, and string octet footages, along the voices of victims, resistance fighters and government oppressors taken from recordings made during the actual hearings of the commission. All these different visual and sound aspects are put together to addresses oppression, violence and human rights violations that took place during Apartheid in South Africa. Rewind is an original piece of art about another piece of art that address human rights from sensorial perspectives. The discussions with the 20 students attending was led by Dr Morag Grant, an expert on Music and Human Rights from the School of Music, University of Edinburgh. She encouraged us to think who is the targeted audience of such piece? She questions the choice of Miller to address the Apartheid and the work of the TRC through Opera. As a rather elitist style of music, is it a relevant channel to give the voice of victims of oppression with different popular engagements with music? In line with many critiques of the TRC in South Africa, the discussions also addressed how victims can be silenced through the various institutional channels that allegedly aim to ‘give them a voice.’

The last movie, Kamchatka directed by directed by Marcelo Pineyro (2002), displays the horrors of Argentina’s 1976 military coup through the eyes of a ten-year-old-boy. In this fictional story, a human rights lawyer and his research scientist wife flee the city and hide from the military police in a vacant summer house after witnessing the “disappearance” of dissident friends. With them are their two kids: Harry, who is fascinated with the escape artistry of Harry Houdini, and El Enano, his little brother. The family adopts new identities and attempts to lead a normal life, even though the edginess of their situation is never far from the surface. Narrowing the focus on one family, Marcelo Piñeyro invests every little detail — a toad on its back, a trapped bird, the board game which father and son play — with neat metaphorical comments on capture and escape, resistance and repression, love and loss. Dr Charlotte Gleghorn, an expert in the field of Latin American film studies from the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh launched the discussions with a robust contextualisation of the movie. In contrast to the numerous movies produced about political oppression under Latin American authoritarianism, Kamchatka does not address explicitly the politics of oppression of the Military Junta in Argentina. Such silences depoliticise oppression while also demonstrating its very personal accounts and impacts. Students also questioned the romanticisation of resilience: Is the movie the projection of a left wing middle-class director rather than the voice of a child? Is it realistic and accurate to represent experiences of repression with so much play and fun?

Bringing together a multidisciplinary audience and engaged speakers, the film series offered original and critical discussions of the potential emancipatory role of cinematic representations of violence and oppression. The recurring theme was the ambiguities, intersections and cumulative effects of gender, racial and class oppression that cannot be adequately confronted by the perspectives of moral and legal individualism. At the same time, our engagement with the cinematic mode invited reflection on how the representations of the oppressed may themselves mirror or even actively reinforce the subtle mechanisms of systemic violence. For this reason, as we have learned, cinema’s ethical and political value does not lie in providing recipes to be enacted in political action, but in broadening of the space for dialogue that can enrich our understanding of the reality at stake and thus support our fight for a more free and just world.


The event was generously supported by the Global Justice Academy at the University of Edinburgh. It was organised by Dr Astrid Jamar (Political Settlements Research Programme, School of Law), Dr Maša Mrovlje (GREYZONE, Politics and International Relations), Dr Leila Sinclair-Bright (Social Anthropology).