How Documentaries Are Combating "Deafening Silence" on Human Rights Crises

Cries From Syria - Premiere at Sundance - HBO - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

A slew of films have sparked powerful narratives that, "like weather, gradually change the temperature and will build some kind of movement."

Filmmakers addressing world issues had a tragic wealth of material to draw on in 2017. Matthew Heineman, who was Oscar nominated in 2015 for his vigilante-themed Cartel Land, revisits similar territory with IFC's City of Ghosts, which follows a group of citizen journalists fighting ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, before the recent liberation. New Century's Nowhere to Hide is director Zaradasht Ahmed's grim look at life in Central Iraq's triangle of death. And internationally renowned artist-activist Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, a Magnolia release, presents a close-up look at life in refugee camps spanning more than 20 countries.

"The casualties number a few hundred thousand people, and it's right in front of the world and modern media," Ai says of the largest refugee population since World War II. "Daily we see images of human bodies, a town or city being destroyed. It doesn't seem real. It's more exaggerated than a Hollywood movie."

As a child, Ai became a refugee in the 1950s when his father, activist-poet Ai Qing, was exiled. It's one reason respect for the dignity of his subjects remained a top priority. "You film them in close range, and you have to hold them sometimes. You're not just shooting, you have to be a person to them," he says. "You also have to think somehow you can help change their condition. I would say they're very, very brave people. They have a strong human dignity. They're not beggars."

Candid and often graphic, these documentaries depict the worst and sometimes the best of humankind while hinting at a deeper systemic problem — a casual approach to human rights on the part of world leaders.

"Where is the world? Does anyone care?" asks Khaled Omar Harrah in Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen's unsettling Last Men in Aleppo, about the heroic White Helmets, who rescue bombing victims in Syria and Turkey (Netflix's 2016 documentary short about the group, The White Helmets, won the Oscar). The moment reflects these workers' frustration that world powers are silently standing by while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Russian bombers, wages war on his own people.

"I've heard a sort of deafening silence" is how Sebastian Junger characterizes global leaders' response to the ongoing crisis. His movie for National Geographic, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, blends footage from multiple sources — including cellphones and local freelancers who live amid the conflict. "I don't think the Trump administration has formulated or articulated a coherent policy toward Syria," he says. "Among other Western powers, certainly no one wants to wade in there on the ground. No one's going to topple Assad."

Director Evgeny Afineevsky won film competitions as a teenager in Russia before emigrating to Israel and the U.S. As a result of his Oscar-nominated 2015 film, Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, he is persona non grata in Moscow. His new project, HBO's Cries From Syria, won't change that: It heaps condemnation on the Russian Air Force for bombing civilians.

"Talking about fake news, it's becoming our responsibility as filmmakers to help people tell their stories," says Afineevsky. "As an American filmmaker, I have freedom of speech to bring this big story to the entire world."

The trampling of human rights is a theme explored in several other docs as well. Fourteen-year-old Joshua Wong stood up to the Chinese government — which restricts free speech and jails hundreds of human rights lawyers — when it tried to propagandize school curricula in Hong Kong. Wong later became a leader of that city's 2014 Occupy Movement. Currently serving a six-month jail term, he is the subject of Joe Piscatella's latest work, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.

"Hong Kong in particular is the canary in the coal mine for how China treats the rest of the world," cautions Piscatella about the broken promises that Beijing had made around the time of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain. "It's a little bit of a wake-up call. This is where it's going."

With Risk, Laura Poitras, who won the 2015 Oscar for her Edward Snowden film Citizenfour, shadows WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and explores his controversial role as a media agitator, as well as accusations of sexual assault against him. Other docs look into long-standing conflicts and the effects that those incidents continue to have on people around the world: Surviving Peace, helmed by Israeli attorney Josef Avesar, delves into the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict; prolific documentarian Joe Berlinger's Intent to Destroy centers on the Armenian genocide of 1915; and post-Holocaust documentary Aida's Secrets follows two brothers born inside the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp who are reunited decades later. And the headline-grabbing 1999 story of the 5-year-old boy who was found off the coast of Florida attempting to flee Cuba with his mother is revisited in Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell's Elian.

Whether revisiting old battle wounds or focusing on the wars that continue to rage today, documentaries give audiences access to stories that they aren't able to witness firsthand and, as many filmmakers point out, are key vehicles for creating empathy.

"We need to see, to understand and feel the same thing these people are feeling in order to prevent something like this happening anywhere else," says Afineevsky. "As an American citizen who's deeply concerned about what's happening in our country, [I believe that] artists can help educate people to understand disconcerting issues the world faces right now."

In 2011, the Chinese government beat and arrested Ai, then confined him in solitary for 81 days. His studio was bulldozed, and he was targeted in a $2.5 million tax-evasion case, which was no doubt weighing on his mind when his travel rights were restored in 2015. He promptly relocated to Berlin, where he remains a committed activist.

"It's very important to do anything that's necessary, like a documentary. Those things, like weather, gradually change the temperature and will build some kind of movement," says Ai. "If you see things that are happening in Spain or Puerto Rico, all those things help people have a much more profound understanding about issues. Things are preparing for a revolution. A revolution doesn't just drop down from the sky. A revolution comes from a long time of preparing."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.