Archive for the 'films' Category

Profile of Barun Ghimire, human rights defender from Nepal

July 5, 2021

The rights of migrant workers is a global problem, and actors in different jurisdictions have to come together to make a difference in this particular area,” says Barun Ghimire, a human rights lawyer based in Kathmandu, Nepal. “And we need to create a collective narrative that is based on a rights-based approach of migrant workers”.

Barun Ghimire is a human rights lawyer and programme manager at the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice. Barun works for the protection and defence of the rights of migrant workers in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

In this video, Barun explains his work in relation to the rights of migrants, as well as how Covid-19 has affected this group, which is facing even stronger vulnerability. He also calls the international community and other actors to come together and help improve the situation of migrants workers as well as their families.  To achieve this goal, it is necessary to create a new narrative and defend and promote the rights of migrant people in vulnerable situations, especially during and after Covid-19.

Barun was also a participant in ISHR’s Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme (HRDAP) in 2020.

https://www.ishr.ch/news/human-rights-defenders-story-barun-ghimire-nepal

“A Seat At The Table” a guide for engaging with the UN system: 30 June 2021

June 22, 2021

The ISHR is Launching “A Seat At The Table”A guide to crafting effective narratives at the UN
about human rights and the people who defend them

The stories and narratives that are told about human rights defenders at the UN have a major impact on how they are understood and supported on the ground. Over the past 9 months, the ISHR has explored perceptions and views that diplomats working at the UN have about human rights and people who defend them. The objective was to understand the messages that best increase support for human rights defenders and to craft more effective human rights narratives, particularly as they relate to people who defend human rights. ISHR is now ready to share its findings with you and launch the new practitioners’ guide “A Seat At The Table“, meant for anyone working within or engaging with the UN system to promote and protect human rights, whether they be advocates with organisations, diplomats or frontline community activists and leaders.

This event will be held online. In order to attend the event, please RSVP here.

Welcome:    Ambassador Marc Bichler, Permanent Mission of Luxembourg

Panelists:   

Tom Clarke, human rights campaigner, communications specialist and guide co-author

Sophie Mulphin, human rights communications specialist and guide co-author

Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Ambassador Nazhat Shameen Khan, President of the Human Rights Council

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for human rights

Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International

Thomas Coombes, human rights strategist and communications expert, founder of hope-based communications

Moderator: Marianne Bertrand, International Service for Human Rights

30 June 2021  
1:00-2:30pm CEST 
Online event Register now

https://mailchi.mp/ishr/749qlxejj6-33142?e=d1945ebb90

Continued harassment of Mother Nature defenders in Cambodia

June 22, 2021

The Cambodian government should immediately drop baseless conspiracy and “insulting the king” charges against four environmental activists affiliated with the Mother Nature Cambodia environmental group and release the three in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 16, 2021, the police arrested Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Seth Chhivlimeng, 25, in Phnom Penh, and Yim Leanghy, 32, in Kandal province, apparently for their documentation that raw sewage has entered the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace. On June 20, the court charged Ratha and Leanghy with “conspiracy” and lese majeste (“insulting the king”) under articles 453 and 437 bis of Cambodia’s penal code, and Chandaravuth with “conspiracy.” If convicted, they face between 5 and 10 years in prison, and fines of up to 10 million riels (US$2,500). The authorities also charged in absentia aSpanish national, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, who had been deported in 2015. Chhivlimeng was released without charge.

The Cambodian government has stepped up its campaign to silence activists peacefully advocating to protect the environment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donors should call on the Cambodian authorities to drop their absurd charges against the environmental activists and publicly condemn any further clampdown on peaceful activism.”

An Interior Ministry spokesperson alleged that the authorities had proof that “rebellious” Mother Nature Cambodia had used foreign funding to try to topple the government, but did not make any evidence public.

This case followed earlier harassment of five Mother Nature Cambodia activists. On May 5, the Phnom Penh court convicted three environmental activists – Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keoraksmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 – of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order,” articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code. The judge sentenced them to between 18 and 20 months in prison as well as a fine of 4 million riels ($1,000) for their peaceful activism protesting the authorities’ filling-in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tamok lake.

All three activists had been arrested in September 2020 and spent almost eight months in pretrial detention. Gonzalez-Davidson and Chea Kunthin, another activist, were also convicted in absentia and sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/09/cambodia-arbitrary-arrest-of-mother-nature-activists/]

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Cambodian authorities have stepped up their crackdown on youth and environmental activists engaged in peaceful activism and protest. The government has often used draconian new laws to arrest and prosecute activists in an apparent attempt to silence their voices and shut down their activism.

In March 2020 and early 2021, the authorities arrested environmental activists affiliated with the Prey Lang Community Network along with a prominent environmentalist and lawyer, Ouch Leng, to stop their efforts to document illegal logging and deforestation within the Prey Lang forest.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of nearly 70 current political prisoners, including members of the political opposition, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists who are awaiting trial or are serving prison sentences. Many other activists have fled Cambodia to seek refuge abroad.

Because of the higher risks of getting Covid-19 in prison, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly appealed to the Cambodian authorities to conditionally release pretrial detainees not held for violent offenses. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and civil society groups have often criticized the government’s routine use of pretrial detention.

“Cambodia’s highly politicized courts mean that the environmental activists charged have no chance of getting a fair trial,” Robertson said. “Only international pressure on the Cambodian government holds out the possibility of saving these activists from unjust prison sentences.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/23/cambodia-free-environmental-activists

https://www.jurist.org/news/2021/06/cambodia-court-charges-environmental-activists-with-conspiracy-insulting-king/

https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/human-rights-defenders/cambodia-arbitrary-detention-and-judicial-harassment-of-mother-nature

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/cambodia-assault-on-environmental-defenders-escalates-as-four-more-charged-imprisonment/ 

Human Rights Defender Rehana Hashmi Activist in Residence at Carleton

May 12, 2021

On 12 May 2021, Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies welcomed human rights advocate Rehana Hashmi as the inaugural Activist in Residence (AiR). Hashmi will teach students and provide them with access to her first-hand experience and an international perspective.

I didn’t choose to become an activist,” says Hashmi. “I was forced into activism at age seven when my father went to prison for speaking out against the dictatorship. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/01/14/rehana-hashmi-woman-human-rights-defender-from-pakistan/

“Carleton is one of the first in Canada to start this type of program to help protect human rights defenders. They can come, rest, reflect, recharge and do their work without being silenced.”

Building on the department’s successful participation in the Scholars at Risk initiative, the new AiR program provides a home base for human rights activists within an academic setting, particularly for those at-risk. Students and faculty will have the opportunity to learn from someone with personal, lived experience fighting to protect human rights.

As part of the AiR program, Hashmi is working on a series of video interviews with human rights defenders from around the world. “When they are in exile, there should be mechanisms to protect them,” says Hashmi. “The Activist in Residence program is one way to do this.”

Hashmi also teaches a fourth-year seminar on patriarchy, human rights and informal justice. Students learn how traditional patriarchal attitudes operate towards women and minorities seeking legal justice.

“Students in the course get to learn from many human rights defenders,” says Hashmi. “Through online learning, we have been able to bring in experts from around the world. Recently, mothers from Palestine and Israel presented in a JurisTalk about how they lost their children, but are still doing reconciliation work.

“Activists bring knowledge from the field to help students get a firsthand experience on how advocacy works. This knowledge narrows the gap between the Global North and Global South. Faculty and students benefit from stories from the field, but it also helps activists at-risk.”

After being exiled from her home city for her activist work, Hashmi became even more involved with activism, giving shelter to women who were beaten or had acid thrown on them. Through Sisters Trust Pakistan, Hashmi helped victims of domestic violence and women and girls to break free of religious fundamentalism and forced marriages. This was just one step in her journey to support and protect the vulnerable.

The challenges in Pakistan are more difficult for women like Hashmi who are fighting to defend human rights. Offenders target women’s children and extended families. Women can’t always leave when they are at-risk. They may have many obstacles including limited mobility, family and societal restrictions to consider

https://newsroom.carleton.ca/2021/carleton-welcomes-inaugural-activist-in-residence-rehana-hashmi-human-rights-defender/

Viasna staff win People in Need’s Homo Homini Award 2021

May 12, 2021

On 11 May 2021 Czech Radio announced that the annual One World festival of human rights documentary films got underway on Monday evening under the motto Connection Lost. The festival, which has moved entirely online due to Covid-19 restrictions, started by presenting its annual Homo Homini prize for human rights advocacy.

During the virtual opening ceremony on Monday evening, the People in Need foundation presented this year’s Homo Homini prize to four members of the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, who have been persecuted for tracking detained protestors, documenting human rights violations and helping victims of police violence.

Despite having committed no crime, they were detained and face up to 12 years in prison. Prague mayor Zdeněk Hřib presented the award to Nathalia Satsunkevich, their colleague from Viasna. Zdeněk Hřib, Nathalia Satsunkevich. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/7b5ccf60-bf81-11ea-b6a7-3533a3c74ec1

For the first time in the 25-year history of Homo Homini Award, it was presented to the same organization. People in Need director Šimon Pánek explained the decision to Czech Television: “15 years ago Ales Bialatski, founder of Viasna, received the Homo Homini Award. He saw what was happening at the time and put together a group of people to defend the rights of detainees. In the end, he himself ended up in prison.

“He was presented the award by Václav Havel, who said he hoped Belarus would live to see its 1989, but unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.

“For a while it looked as if Belarus has resigned, but the new generation of young people have not accepted the situation and despite the brutality of the regime, they have repeatedly taken to the streets.”

The festival was launched with the screening of the Belarusian documentary film Courage, about an underground theatre group The Belarus Free Theatre, which has been criticising the practices of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime for the past 14 years. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/04/12/havel-prize-for-creative-dissent-2018-two-of-three-winners-announced-today/

The festival, which runs until May 19, will present over a hundred films in 15 thematic categories, the main one focusing on technology and its impact both on the society and individuals. Some of the screenings will also be accompanied by live discussions as part of the One World Live Programme.

https://english.radio.cz/detained-belarussian-activists-win-people-needs-homo-homini-award-8717241

Festivals and Human Rights NGOs Call For Release Of Belarus Festival Director Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska

April 15, 2021
Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska
Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska Watch Docs Film Festival

Tom Grater in Deadline.com of 14 April 2021 reports how an unusual collective of human rights organizations, film festivals and industry have called for the release of Tatsiana (Tanya) Hatsura-Yavorska, the director of the Watch Docs Festival in Belarus, who was arrested on April 5 for her role in organizing an underground photo exhibition celebrating health workers.

The Human Rights Film Network and the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk have put out a joint open letter calling on authorities to release Hatsura-Yavorska, who is regarded as a political prisoner, as well as others who have been incarcerated in the country. The letter has been signed by a broad selection of film festivals and organizations including Sundance and Berlin.

“We urge the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release our colleague Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska and other human rights defenders, and to end acts of judicial harassment against them,” the letter reads. You can see it in full here.

Following the event that she jointly organized, which was titled Machine Is Breathing, and I Am Not and was dedicated to the country’s medics and their battle during the pandemic, Hatsura-Yavorska was initially fined 700 Belarusian rubles for “protesting against police” and placed in a detention facility. She has not been released and is now facing trial on charges of ‘raising money for protests’, with her court hearing set to take place 16 April according to those close to her. It is thought she could face several years in prison.

Maciej Nowicki, Director of Poland’s Watch Docs Film Festival, told Deadline that “it is still unclear on what grounds” Hatsura-Yavorska is being prosecuted.

“Numerous reports by the UN, other international organizations and NGOs, unfortunately, have documented various types of violations of law and human rights in Belarus, including the rights of persons deprived of their liberty. This is why we are truly concerned about Tanya,” he continued. “Tanya is an amazing and beautiful person, as well as a very strong one. But now she needs our solidarity.”

A collection of Belarusian organizations and associations also released a statement this weekend, which read: “We consider the persecution of Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska by the authorities to be politically motivated, aimed at stopping her public and non-violent activities aimed at protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/b5785052-8efa-42e7-8508-d6de0a8c1b3d

Elsewhere, Filmmaker Mark Cousins penned an article for The Guardian expressing his support for Hatsura-Yavorska, detailing how he interacted with the festival exec though his work with the Belfast Film Festival. “Nonfiction cinema is our lingua franca. Those who speak it to governments should be defended,” Cousins wrote.

https://deadline.com/2021/04/call-for-release-imprisoned-belarus-fest-director-tatsiana-hatsura-yavorska-1234734095/

Victims of ‘forced confessions’ urge Western TV channels to ban Chinese TV

April 12, 2021
Erkin Tursun, a former TV producer whom officials said is serving a 20-year sentence in Xinjiang province, is seen speaking in a video shown at a news conference in Beijing, China on April 9, 2021.
Erkin Tursun, a former TV producer whom officials said is serving a 20-year sentence in Xinjiang province, is seen speaking in a video shown at a news conference in Beijing, China on April 9, 2021. © Reuters TV via Reuters

NEWS WIRES of 12 April 2021 reports that thirteen people who describe themselves as “victims of forced confessions broadcast on Chinese television” are urging European satellite operator Eutelsat to reconsider carrying Chinese channels CGTN and CCTV4.

The letter published by human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders details a list of violations that the signatories say China is guilty of using to extort confessions from them and “refuse the right to a fair trial”. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/04/12/how-china-extracts-televised-confessions-from-human-rights-defenders/]

We are asking you… to determine whether television providers in democratic societies ought to continue to be morally complicit in the broadcast of information that is intentionally twisted and obtained through torture,” the group said. 

We are only a dozen victims able to speak out…. Many other victims are in prison. A few have been executed...The victims have no way of demanding reparations. The only way to stop this is for television regulators to investigate and take measures,” the group added. 

The letter notes Australian public broadcaster SBS stopped using content from Chinese state-run television in March pending a review of human rights concerns.

The UK also fined CGTN for partiality and violation of privacy and removed it from the airwaves, a ban that pushed the channel to set up shop in France. [see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/08/forced-television-confessions-in-china-lead-to-request-to-ban-cctv-in-uk/]

French audiovisual regulator CSA determined in March that CGTN met the technical criteria necessary for broadcasting but just this week Safeguard Defenders submitted two complaints against the channel. 

One cited an allegedly coerced interview with a Uighur child and the other was a defamation complaint from German researcher Adrian Zenz, whose reports on the treatment of Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang region have drawn rebukes from Beijing.

The signatories are from China and other countries, including Chinese human rights lawyers Bao Longjun and Jiang Tianyong who have been targeted by authorities in their country. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/07/29/the-remarkable-crackdown-on-lawyers-in-china-in-july-2015/]

Simon Cheng, a former British consulate staffer in Hong Kong, who was granted asylum in the UK after allegedly being tortured by Chinese secret police also signed the letter. 

Also giving support is Swedish activist and Safeguard Defenders co-founder Peter Dahlin, who spent three weeks in jail in 2016 before being expelled from the country as a national security threat.

Angela Gui, daughter of Gui Minhai who published in Hong Kong until he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2020, signed on behalf of her father. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/25/gui-minhai-10-years-jail-sentence-in-china/]

https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210411-victims-of-forced-confessions-urge-western-powers-to-ban-chinese-tv-channels

https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/forced-confession-victims-urge-chinese-tv-channels-ban-2411414

Geneva Film Festival: Grand Prize of Geneva to “Shadow Game”

March 16, 2021
KRO-NCRV Shadow Game Documentary Won Awards at Geneva Film Festival |  Currently

The 19th Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) has wrapped its first digital edition with the announcement of its winners. Running from 5 to 14 March, the event gathered nearly 45,000 people who watched the films, debates and various content available online. “While we regret not having been able to open this Festival to a physical audience, some of the experiments carried out this year will be perpetuated. We must pay tribute to the FIFDH team, which has been able to adapt to many challenges with increased energy,” mentioned general director Isabelle Gattiker.

Starting with the Creative Documentary Competition, the jury headed by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, and featuring Lamia Maria Abillama, Yulia Mahr, and Arnaud Robert, bestowed the Grand Prize of Geneva valued at CHF 10,000 – offered by the city and state of Geneva – upon Shadow Game by Eefje Blankevoort and Els Van Driel. The jury’s statement mentions that the film “deals with a crucial issue in modern time: young migrants alone on their road, trying to cross boundaries and as they say: ‘playing their game’. With the use of videos and social media material produced by the teenagers themselves, it has innovative filmmaking, and it is pushing cinematic boundaries in many ways.

Shadow Game also picked the Youth Jury Prize, as it “brings to our attention the fact that we need not look far to find human rights’ violations. This confrontation makes it necessary to take greater responsibility at the sight of this injustice and to abandon the often-stereotypical image of migrants,” the jury stated.

The CHF 5,000 Gilda Vieira de Mello Prize in tribute to her son Sergio Vieira de Mello, went to Downstream to Kinshasa [+] by Dieudo Hamadi for its “powerful and brave character-orientated filmmaking, about reparations for forgotten communities who endured atrocities (the Six-Day War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000). This film is haunting and shows such a rage of the protagonists seeking justice and reparations.” Once Upon a Time in Venezuela [+] by Anabel Rodríguez Ríos received a Special Mention by the jury as the director “approaches the protagonists in a very crude and yet subtle way, showing brilliantly the inextricable relation between industrial pollution, political and electoral constraints as well as citizens’ welfare.”

In the Fiction Competition, the Grand Prize Fiction and Human Rights, valued at CHF 10,000 and offered by the Hélène and Victor Barbour Foundation, went to Veins of the World [+] by Byambasuren Davaa as it “points beyond itself, towards a formless totality, a shared human experience often forgotten and instantly remembered where the beauty and pain of a profoundly essential human longing is unearthed and laid bare,” according to the jury presided by American filmmaker Danielle Lessovitz, with Santiago Amigorena, Laïla Marrakchi and Philippe Cottier. The film also won the Youth Jury Prize.

The Special Mention went to Should the Wind Drop [+] by Nora Martirosyan, “an important film, especially in the current context where borders are moving and closing and where it is difficult to travel.”

Finally, in the Grand Reportage Competition, the CHF 5,000 Prize of OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture), went to Coded Bias by Shalini Kantayya which, according to the jury, “powerfully depicts the threats that artificial intelligence poses to our liberties, including by hardwiring into algorithms racist and sexist biases.” The Public Award went to Dear Future Children [+] by Franz Böhm, which received CHF 5,000 from the FIFDH.

https://www.baltimoregaylife.com/kro-ncrv-shadow-game-documentary-won-awards-at-geneva-film-festival-currently/

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/film-festival-in-geneva-showcases-youth-migrant-struggles-in-top-honours/46447346

https://www.cineuropa.org/en/newsdetail/398837

‘Beijing Spring’ The Story of Chi Xiaoning and His Smuggled Camera

March 6, 2021

Revealed for the first time: Reminiscent of what is happening in Hong Kong today, this is a story about underground film-making, radical art, and censorship. In 1979, Chi Xiaoning created his “Film of Star Group Activities of 1979.” It is the only known video documenting the radical activities of the Stars Group, avant-garde artists from China who championed individuality and freedom of expression. The only copy of the footage is in the M+ Collections in Hong Kong. American film-maker Andy Cohen, a regular Global Insights Magazine contributor, portrays this story in his 2020 film ‘Beijing Spring’, which is being premiered internationally at the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH) in March, 2021. [see https://fifdh.org/en/2021/film/120-beijing-spring]

In Global Geneva of 11 February 2021 Andy Cohen writes about the challenges behind Chi Xiaoning’s daring film-making during a period that was subject to severe censorship in favour of official propaganda art.

Stars Protest March Demanding Artistic Freedom— Beijing, National Day (1979) (Photo: ©Wang Rui)

Before the 1980s, documentary films in China were mostly propaganda made to serve the ideological purposes of the Communist Party. Views critical of the party were prohibited. Only one official voice could be heard: that of the government. Film-makers obeyed Mao Zedong’s dictum that artists’ works should reflect the lives of the masses — the workers, peasants, and soldiers—for whom they were made. These films, scripted and staged using ‘model people’ instead of ordinary subjects, were crafted in a dogmatic, formulaic style that put a positive spin on government policies.

By 1979, however, the political tide in the People’s Republic had turned and the scent of reform began to fill the air, heralding what would become known as the Beijing Spring. Mao Zedong had died a few years earlier, and the nation had begun to reawaken after thirty years of oppression that had claimed more than fifty million lives. Deng Xiaoping, the new ‘paramount leader’, experimented with not only economic reforms but also loosening restrictions on freedom of speech. He even tolerated the open postings of government criticisms in one easily monitored locale in central Beijing — a long brick wall running along Xidan Street just west of Tiananmen Square that came to be known as Democracy Wall.

Originally intended for workers and peasants to post the grievances they’d suffered during the Cultural Revolution, the wall was quickly overtaken by artists and activists, who seized the opportunity to post their radical works in such a prominent place. These artworks and writings not only exposed the suffering the country had been through but also focused on the present plights of ordinary people, emphasising that every individual is unique, equal, and imbued with the right to openly express thoughts and emotions without being crushed or silenced.

A young Beijing film-maker named Chi Xiaoning used this moment to shoot an unofficial documentary about the Democracy Wall movement in a style different from its predecessors. Chi chose to focus his film on the daring activities of one specific group that had arisen from the underground magazine Today: a band of artists who called themselves the Stars Group (Xingxing). Explaining the imagery behind the choice of the name, the group’s co-founder Ma Desheng said: ‘When I was growing up there was only one star in the sky: the red sun, Mao Zedong. Many stars mean many people. Every individual is a star.’

In order to realise his vision, Chi needed to overcome one major obstacle: finding a camera and film stock, both of which were unavailable to the average person. Luckily for Chi, his faithful friend Ren Shulin was among the precious few who not only knew how to operate a camera but actually had access to one.

In May 1979, Ren was assigned to work at the Institute of Coal and Carbon Science. His job was to film official documentaries about safety in coal mines. ‘To smuggle one or two boxes of film out of my service was easy. To get more? That took some time. And to get the movie camera out — that racked my brains,” Ren later stated. In the end, Ren succeeded and the two began filming on 27 September, 1979, the first day that the Stars Group hung an unofficial exhibition on the perimeter fence outside of Beijing’s China Art Gallery (now known as the National Art Museum of China). Simultaneously, an official propaganda art show was being held inside the space.

Adding to this paradox was the name of the film Ren had smuggled out: Every Generation Is Red (Dai Dai Hong). Ren’s knowledge and courage enabled him to play the crucial role of camera assistant, steadily unloading and reloading the reels under the cover of trees at the eastern wall of the gallery. By keeping the film stock safe from the crowds, avoiding the scrutiny of undercover police, and feeding him reels, Ren enabled Chi to continuously film the Stars exhibition on the fence.

The camera Ren smuggled out was a hand-wound Gansu’s Light model (Gan Guang). This made Chi’s already difficult task all the more so, as he aimed to capture real events unfolding in real time. A fully wound camera could shoot for only thirty seconds, and an entire box of film produced only three minutes of footage. This time constraint, coupled with having to avoid the police, tested Chi’s improvisational style.

Filmmaker Chi Xiaoning on Top of Democracy Wall (1979)  (Photo: ©Wang Rui) 

Chi climbed the back of the fence to capture the impressions of onlookers as they stared at the artworks with shock and awe. Chi’s method, like the Stars artists’, focused on ordinary people such as factory workers, teachers with students, and the elderly. He recorded their genuine emotions and free expressions typically hidden beneath the outer masks that had become the default after years of toeing the party line.

The fact the Stars artists also employed original, modernist styles and content, utilising free forms and abstraction, added a meta-artistic layer to the undertaking. Chi shot an avant-garde film about avant-garde artists during a time when the act of filming was also considered an act of protest. This was art for art’s sake, produced about and with the aim of freedom of expression. Chi’s lens revealed faces viewing never-before-seen artworks that challenged the aesthetic conventions of the party, and that depicted the naked female body in twisted modern forms. The first day was a success for both the Stars artists and the greater artistic principle.

Early the next morning, Chi and Ren were back at the fence, locked, loaded, and ready to film, when the police suddenly arrived to take down the Stars Group exhibit. As the police closed in, Chi wound his way through the crowds, in and out of the chaos ‘like a wartime journalist in a battlefield’, as Ren later described it. After tearing the art off the fence, the police surrounded Chi and Ren. They had no chance to escape. The police confiscated the camera from Chi. From Ren, they took the camera bag containing the used and unused film stock.

“I was very nervous,” Ren recounted. “If the camera was confiscated, I’d be fired from my job at the institute. But Xiaoning was calm, arguing with the other side.” After being kept in a windowless room inside the museum for hours, the film and the camera were abruptly and inexplicably returned to Chi and Ren. For some reason, the authorities’ mood was sympathetic to the artists that day.

Stars Artists Group Portrait (1980)  (Photo: ©Helmut Opletal)

The Stars Group artists, on the other hand, were angry that their show had been terminated and their artworks confiscated. Together with other political activists, they planned a protest rally and march. Everyone knew this could mean jail time for the ringleaders.

The Stars rally was an enormous provocation to the Communist leaders — it was reported on and documented by foreign media at the time — and it was planned for 1 October: National Day and the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The big parade had been cancelled in light of Mao’s death in 1976; now, in its stead, the Stars and their supporters took it upon themselves to march from Democracy Wall to the Municipal Building. Chi planned to film it but told Ren not to assist him. If caught, there was no sense in both of them going to jail, as he would need Ren to develop the reels and edit the film.

Chi stood atop Democracy Wall, filming as the rally began. When the group headed for the Municipal Building, Chi and his camera weaved in and out. He went inside factories and shot from windows to capture workers’ perspectives; he zoomed in on passengers’ reactions as they peered from the windows of passing buses; he filmed the crowds of protestors marching along rainy streets, zooming in on their puddle-pounding feet.

While the crowds marched on, Ren waited anxiously all day for news of his friend. This was an era before cell phones and pagers. It was inevitable that, with a 16mm camera in hand, filming in highly visible locations, Chi once again attracted the omnipresent authorities’ attention. When asked how Chi had saved his film, Stars Group artist and friend Wang Keping recounted that Chi had told him he’d exposed the part that had not yet been filmed, tricking the police into thinking it was useless. Beyond showcasing his enormous talent, what makes Chi’s footage even more spectacular and immediate is the constant risk of arrest he faced while filming.

In stark contrast to his main action footage of the protest march, Chi also shot B-roll focusing on scenes by the lake in the park of the Old Summer Palace. In its deceptively quiet manner, however, the B-roll is just as avant-garde. From the weather conditions it is evident that he filmed on two different occasions. On the first day, the water was calm, as were the demeanours of the subjects—rowing on the lake, playing guitars or mah-jong, strolling along tree-lined trails, and picnicking. This idleness was diametrically opposed to the ‘heroic’ actions of the ‘model people’ in official documentaries. The calmness of the lake mirrors the first quiet day of the exhibit.

Artist Ma Desheng Speech at Democracy Wall (1979) (Photo: ©Wang Rui)

On the second day of B-roll, the wind was flapping the red flags on the bridge and bending the branches of trees, reflecting the chaos of the protest march. Chi’s use of contrasting weather filmed at the park echoes the inner emotions of his subjects as well as the political events surrounding them. The B-roll shows close-ups of everyday objects with an anthropomorphic introspection: the empty rowboats lined up like cadres, crates of empty soda bottles (Coca-Cola had just entered China in December 1978), goldfish swimming in a vendor’s water-filled plastic bag—all shots considered unsuitable for documentaries at the time.

When asked why the style of this footage can now be considered groundbreaking, Ren replied, “Documentary films in China were almost all propaganda, not the expression of the author himself. We were conscious of this, so our film, from idea to structure to visual language, was different from documentaries of that time.”

Despite its significance, almost no one knew about this unfinished film until recently. In total, it comprises forty-seven minutes of raw footage, out of sequence, that was hidden from the authorities for the past thirty-five years. Fearing for the safety of his friends and his family, Chi hid the salvaged footage in a confidant’s home, swearing him to secrecy.

After Chi’s untimely death in 2007, no one knew the whereabouts of the footage, not even Ren, as it had been kept underground, passed from friend to friend. The footage was eventually recovered and the only copy now resides in the M+ Collections.

Film of Star Group Activities of 1979 by Chi Xiaoning and Ren Shulin reflects on and documents the social, cultural, and political changes that took place during the Beijing Spring. This treasure trove will be mined for years to come by film-makers, historians, and art historians alike. This pivotal moment in China’s history, which gave birth to its democracy movement, could not have been possible without the powerful combination of art and activism that coalesced at Democracy Wall. And because of the courageous feats of one documentarian and his assistant cameraman, history will forever have the visual accounts of those exciting times.


Andy Cohen is an American documentary film-maker, journalist and author based in Geneva. Much of his work is investigative and human rights-based. Cohen’s films have been shown at the FIFDH Geneva, Venice Film Festival, Telluride, Tribeca, Traverse City, Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival, among others, and broadcast on PBS, BBC, UK Ch4, ARTE, Netflix, and Amazon.For more information about AC Films, please go to his website.

A version of this article was first published by M+ HK.

Andy Cohen

Beijing Spring’ is scheduled for its International Premier at the Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva (FIFDH), which takes placed 5-14 March, 2021. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/03/06/2021-edition-of-geneva-film-festival-kicks-off-in-virtual-format/

2021 edition of Geneva film festival kicks off in virtual format

March 6, 2021
The FIFDH kicks off in virtual format for its 19th edition
  • Wolfgang Spindler  reported on 0 March 2021 that the 19th edition of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva has gone virtual. Usually every year some 40 000 visitors attend to watch and discuss films that focus on human rights violations. Around 300 filmmakers, human rights defenders and politicians from 25 countries across the globe used to be invited. But, this year, the festival has been forced to change and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants are now encouraged to click on ‘likes‘ instead of applauding, as physical presence is not possible.

Isabelle Gattiker is the FIFDH Festival Director. She said that the festival had to reinvent itself. They are proposing videos on demand, that she describes as not being able to replace real cinema theatres. But they have tried “to work on public participation despite the digital format”. Online audiences can comment and ask questions during the showings every evening from 8 pm (CET) from anywhere on the planet.

For the first time ever there will also be a public award, where the viewers can give a mark to the films they’ve watched. At the end of the festival, the film with the highest rating from the official selection will be awarded this prize.

Soltan Achilova This 19th edition is dedicated to Turkmenistan Photojournalist, Soltan Achilova. The 71-year-old was amongst this year’s finalists for the “Martin Ennals Award“, an annual prize known as “the Nobel prize for human rights defenders. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/23/soltan-achilova-has-issued-a-rare-rebuke-of-the-turkmen-president-on-youtube/

https://www.euronews.com/2021/03/05/the-fifdh-kicks-off-in-virtual-format-for-its-19th-edition

https://fifdh.org/en/program-2021