Words by Heather Kincaid
Returning for its third year in 2017, Screening Rights Film Festival is Birmingham’s international festival of social justice film –screenings features from around the world, with Q&A sessions and panel discussions on the themes and issues they address.
Held at mac, Screening Rights Film Festival 2017 will run from Thursday 26 October until Wednesday 1 November – with ticket deals available for people booking multiple screenings. For more info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
According to the Screening Rights Film Festival website, ‘The need for heartfelt films about the depths of human adversity around the world has grown enormously in recent decades’ – as the festival organisers seek to inspire and develop debate by shining a light on filmmakers responding to major contemporary concerns. At the heart of the project is the question of the potential for film, both drama and documentary, ‘to affect, or even effect, personal, social and political change’, whether by informing, provoking, moving, inciting action, connecting people or simply bearing witness to events.
Emerging out of research conducted by former University of Birmingham film lecturer Dr Michele Aaron, Screening Rights Film Festival has spent the last couple of years steadily establishing a place in the city’s cultural calendar. With Aaron having recently taken up a post at Warwick, this year the festival has been helped by the joint support of both universities, as well as a base at mac Birmingham.
Building on her long-held interest in the ethics of film and spectatorship, the project was originally kicked off by a symposium on ‘Screening Vulnerability’, beginning as an event series co-organised by Aaron and PhD student, John Horne. In 2016, it expanded to encompass twelve films screened in five different venues. This year, however, the focus has narrowed again, with just nine films being shown at mac. It’s a little smaller then, but the greater simplicity afforded by a single, centralised location might well work in the festival’s favour in terms of attracting audiences.
Unsurprisingly, the films being shown at the Screening Rights Film Festival reflect the organisers’ specific areas of expertise and investigation, as well as being influenced by hot topics on the global sociopolitical stage. Dr Aaron has described how, in recent years, her focus has shifted from writing about “power and ethics of representation and spectatorship in relationship to, principally, mainstream English cinema,” and towards a more outward-looking approach with an interest in film practice, often collaborating with filmmakers and community groups.
Among the manifestations of this change has been an intensive smartphone filmmaking course delivered to university students from the West Bank with the help of Palestinian youth advocacy agency, Sharek. The best short film to come out of that ‘Tammayaz’ scheme was screened at last year’s Screening Rights Film Festival, alongside Mohamed Jabaly’s and Abu Marzouq’s Ambulance. Meanwhile, John Horne’s PhD thesis concerns the ‘western’ spectator and the ‘Arab Spring’. Accordingly, films from and/or about the Middle East feature prominently on this year’s programme, making up a total of six out of the nine films being shown.
2017’s line-up includes the documentary Ghost Hunting, in which Palestinian director Raed Andoni confronts his demons head-on by recruiting a team to help him build a replica of the Israeli interrogation centre where he was held at the age of 18.
Drama Tramontane follows the struggle of a young Lebanese man to uncover the truth about his origins and identity after discovering that his ID card is a forgery; while Raving Iran sees two DJs forced to make a choice between home and family or moving abroad to pursue their passion for forbidden ‘Western’ music.
In The Other Side of Home, a Turkish woman raises questions about identity in a moving, personal tribute to the still-denied Armenian genocide of 1915; in Mr Gay Syria, the crowdfunded debut feature of Ayşe Toprak, a group of LGBT Syrian refugees kick back against intolerance in Turkey.
There’s also Notes to Eternity, a more ‘impressionistic meditation’ on the Israel-Palestine conflict, centred on the lives and ideas of prominent thinkers and Israeli policy critics Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Sara Roy and Robert Fisk.
Another area of interest for the festival’s creators has been depictions of illness, madness and even death on screen. Among Aaron’s more recent projects, for example, has been the Life: Moving exhibition, comprising a series of films created with residents of Erdington’s John Taylor Hospice, lately displayed at Birmingham REP as part of a wider UK and international tour.
This year, Screening Rights Film Festival has joined forces with Flatpack Assemble to present a screening of Jennifer Brea’s Unrest, which charts the director’s own experience of living with ME, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Despite the fact that thousands of people worldwide independently attest to similar symptoms, medical science has so far failed to offer any explanation for the condition, leading many to conclude that it is purely psychosomatic. In an attempt to conduct some investigations of her own and potentially change attitudes towards the illness, Brea connected with fellow sufferers, piecing together her film from recorded Skype interviews, iPhone footage and professionally shot vérité.
Coinciding with mac Birmingham’s ongoing Women and Protest season (13 September – 26 November), Jaha Dukureh also uses personal experience as a springboard for her film Jaha’s Promise. Now based in the US, the activist began her life in Gambia where a significant number of girls are subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) during infancy. Having been cut at just a week old, Jaha herself did not discover the truth or what it would mean for her until she was married to an older man at the age of 15. After having a daughter of her own, however, she vowed to return to her home country to confront its deeply embedded culture of FGM, whatever the cost.
Finally, Nick de Pencier’s Black Code uses The Citizen Lab’s 2009 exposure of global internet spy ring ‘Ghostnet’ as a starting point for a chilling exploration of 21st Century surveillance culture. In an unnerving trailer that combines archive footage with satellite imagery and CCTV-style shots, Citizen Lab director Dr Ronald Deibert describes the highly detailed and growing “digital exhaust” produced by Internet users and how three developments – mobile devices, social media and cloud computing – have resulted in “the most profound change in communication technology in the whole of human history”.
But this isn’t just a case of emails being intercepted: there are hints of cameras and audio devices being hacked and switched on unbeknownst to owners, and documents being extracted from hard-drive storage. “This is where Big Data meets Big Brother,” the trailer concludes. Prepare to leave feeling a little paranoid…
Unrest – @ mac 27.10.17 / Screening Rights Film Festival
Screening Rights International Film Festival is at mac Birmingham from Thursday 26 October until Wednesday 1 November – ticket deals are available for people booking multiple screenings. For more info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.
For more on Screening Rights Film Festival, visit www.screeningrights.org