SU hosts 16th annual Human Rights Film Festival

SU hosts 16th annual Human Rights Film Festival

This year's festival brings five films telling stories of social injustice around the world to SU campus.
Published: September 26, 2018

The end of September marks a unique event on Syracuse University’s cultural calendar, the three-day Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival. The campus event runs from Thursday to Saturday, hosting illuminating screenings and discussions of social justice around the world.

Festival co-director, Roger Hallas, encourages would-be festival goers to attend the event despite the heavy subject matter. Though it can be cumbersome for a Thursday or Friday night, he finds that it can also be an opportunity for personal change. “Go out a little bit on a limb,” Hallas said. “Because you might experience a profoundly moving or even transformative experience — even if it’s a challenging one.”

Highlighting human rights through a visual storytelling lens, the event begins Thursday evening with the film “The Sentence,” an award-winning documentary that will debut on HBO in October. Tackling a timely domestic issue in a deeply personal context, the feature documentary tells the story of a Mexican-American mother whose relationship with an abusive small-time drug dealer earned her a 15-year prison sentence.

The film is filmed and directed by the subject’s brother, Rudy Valdez, who constructed the film from home videos to tell his sister’s story. He places his loved ones most effected by mandatory minimum sentencing at the center of the documentary. When SUHRFF director, Tula Goenka, first saw the film at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival she found herself profoundly moved by the film’s inherent intimacy.

“I went to see the film and it was at 8:30 in the morning, I still remember, [it was] a cold winter day,” she said. “Everybody was crying in the movie theatre, including me, and I came out of it and I texted (Geeta Gandbhir, the film’s co-producer) right away. I said ‘Geeta, I have to show this at the film festival.'”


A poetic reflection on life, "I Dream In Another Language" (below) is winner of World Cinema Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. "White Sun" (above) by Nepalese filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar explores the damage done by a decade-long civil war.

Shank’s story is an example of the disproportionate effects mandatory minimum sentencing can have on women of color — an issue that often goes unrecognized. Paula C. Johnson, professor at SU’s College of Law and author of “Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States,” says that cases like Shank’s are not rare.

“Somebody like a boyfriend or a husband or some other male figure would often get a lighter sentence than a woman would get,” Johnson said. “So, [women] would be serving these extremely long sentences for relatively minor roles in the whole enterprise, and I think that [Shank’s] case epitomizes that phenomenon.”

The film festival is more than just an observational experience, but positioned to foster social awareness through an engaging Q&A students can participate in with the artists themselves. A discussion with the director will immediately follow the 7 p.m. film screening at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium on Thursday.

“The thing that we cherish very highly at the film festival is also dialogue,” Hallas said. “It’s not just that you go and see the film and it really moves you, but you actually have the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker.”

The festival will include two other documentaries (On Her Shoulders, Call Her Ganda) and two narrative features (I Dream In Another Language, White Sun) from countries including Iraq, the Philippines, Mexico and Nepal.

The Syracuse Human Rights Film Festival will take place September 27-29. Weekday screenings will be at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium. Weekend screenings will be at Shemin Auditorium. Admission is free.