Film

A ‘Matter of Right(s)’: Films and Conversations on Human Rights

A film festival seeks to generate debates about human rights abuses around the world and their impact on human lives.

Matter of Rights. (L-R) DU professor Subarno Chattarji, CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika, filmmaker Harshawardhan Varma, filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, filmmaker Abir Bazaz, CHRI manager Mohan Sundaram. Credit: Samarth Pathak

Matter of Rights. (L-R) DU professor Subarno Chattarji, CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika, filmmaker Harshawardhan Varma, filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, filmmaker Abir Bazaz, CHRI manager Mohan Sundaram. Credit: Samarth Pathak

New Delhi: “Why have arms and nuclear bombs been created?,” asked an elderly man sitting on the bank of a river, his voice tinged with anger. After a short silence and no response from the other person, pat came his statement, “To kill human beings”.

Then he asked, “Who will kill human beings?… Human beings themselves.”

“Who have made these?…Human beings have…to protect themselves from human beings.”

Now a wry smile came upon the man’s face. The sorrow behind the smile quite apparent.

Through this iterative dialogue Sirajuddin was perhaps trying to understand the horrors inflicted on his family during the Nellie massacre on February 18, 1983 in Assam. He lost his parents and four daughters along with 47 members of his extended family that day. While official figures put the death toll at 1800, unofficial figures said that between 3000-4000 had died during the massacre.

I met Sirajuddin through a screening of Subasri Krishnan’s film What the Fields Remember on March 25. It was one of a dozen critically-acclaimed films and documentaries from India and abroad showcased at the Matter of Right(s) film festival at the English department of Delhi University’s faculty of arts on March 24-25.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) organised the two-day event in association with the English department and Centre for Studies in Violence, Memory and Trauma at DU and Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia. Another leg of the event took place at Jamia on March 27.

Sanjoy Hazarika, director of CHRI, told The Wire, “We are hosting this film festival to mark CHRI’s 30th anniversary, and in continuation of Commonwealth Day celebrations. We hope this will be an annual feature and if possible (we) would like to make it a traveling festival”.

On the motivation behind the film festival Hazarika said, “Films are easier to absorb for people than heavy prose.”

“We have to show them something that they can access, understand and think upon,” he said pointing towards a sheet of paper stuck on a window with the word ‘Think’ written on it.

Samarth Pathak who leads CHRI’s public outreach told The Wire over email that the event was organised in order “to generate debate around human rights abuses around the world and their impact on human lives”.

Following the screening of What the Fields Remember, Hazarika narrated his experience reporting the aftermath of the Nellie massacre with a group of journalists from across the world.

“At first nothing was visible. We even thought if something had actually happened,” he said. But then the group came across a young man who had survived the attack. He took them close to a stream where bodies had been dumped into mass graves.

“We walked up an embankment where an entire family was laid out. The youngest infant had been beheaded,” Hazarika said poignantly. “At that moment, watching the sight of brutality, I made up my mind about helping out people who were victims of such torture.”

Hazarika stated that nothing of that scale had ever been witnessed in India. According to the young survivor only a few guns were available so neighbours had used spears, bows and arrows and machetes for killing their neighbours.

According to Hazarika, some of the perpetrators were arrested and interrogated in the days that followed. When asked what had happened to them, they simply said that an evil wind had come over them and had made them do what they did.


Also read: And Quiet Flows the Kopili


Other films screened at the festival were Candles in the Wind by Kavita Bahl and Nandan Saxena, Le Cas Pinochet (The Pinochet Case) by P. Guzman, Rambuai by Maulee Senapati and Diamantes Negros (Black Diamonds) by Miguel Alcantud.

Eminent filmmaker Mike Pandey’s film Not My Life was also screened at the festival. Not My Life documents human trafficking across 13 countries including Brazil, Cambodia, Ghana and India, and focuses on multiple forms of modern slavery, such as forced labour and sex trafficking.

In a post screening discussion with Hazarika, Pandey urged the youth to be “change agents”.

“Trafficking is a huge issue globally, and is a $120 billion industry. The film seeks to stir people into thinking what we as human beings are doing to each other. It hurts me to see that as thinking human beings we allow such travesties to happen. Instead of being self-consumed, we should think about those around us,” he told the audience.

(L-R) filmmaker Mike Pandey, filmmaker Harshawardhan Varma, CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika, CHRI senior advisor Maja Daruwala. Credit: Samarth Pathak

(L-R) filmmaker Mike Pandey, filmmaker Harshawardhan Varma, CHRI director Sanjoy Hazarika, CHRI senior advisor Maja Daruwala. Credit: Samarth Pathak

Paradise on a River of Hell  by Abir Bazaz and Meenu Gaur was the last film to be screened at the festival. The film talked about the violent events that unfolded in the Kashmir Valley in early 1990, the victims of which, Bazaz and his family among them, have not yet found closure.

During the closing panel discussion, moderated by filmmaker Harshawardhan Varma, Bazaz found it was sad that his film, made in 2002, remains relevant 15 years later.

DU professor Subarno Chattarji asked Bazaz about the politics of deep nostalgia depicted in his film. He replied that there was a politics of hope in nostalgia which he himself does not feel. But said that the film still had it. He wanted to be hopeful about the future but was not. Bazaz now teaches literature at the University of Minnesota.

During the discussion, filmmaker and critic Utpal Borpujari said, “people often misunderstand human rights as everything to do with the state.”

According to him the issues went much deeper. He then talked about the relevance of Bimal Roy’s Do Bhiga Zamin in today’s mass migration to the big cities. He further listed various contemporary films that throw light on human rights.

Participants also discussed how university spaces are important places for the continuation of discourse on human rights issues, especially in “an era where dissent is dumbed and psyche is numbed,” as Pathak described it.

To reiterate the importance of dialogue, Hazarika said, “Violence can never replace conversation. The fact that somebody is resorting to violence shows the weakness of their argument”.