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Young filmmakers from five continents, representing countries such as India, Afghanistan, Australia, and Kenya, will be presenting the Bay Area a rare glimpse into many of today’s most urgent human rights crises. Some have captured the real life of others on reel, as in the movie Growing Up in India. Others will be telling their own story, such as an Afghan boy who speaks of his multiborder crossing at only 14 to escape the Taliban who had killed his father.
The movies will be screened at the annual global film festival, Youth Producing Change, organized by Human Rights Watch and Adobe Youth Voices. In September 2009, a contest announcement was sent out via social media and human rights agencies throughout the world, including nonprofits, schools, and refugee camps run by U.N. and UNICEF partners, translated into native languages. About 250 media submissions were received from 45 countries, of which 40 were short listed by the film festival staff. Only films that were factually correct, had a compelling story, and adhered to the topic of human-rights violations were chosen. Then, based on the subject matter, these were sent across the globe for judging to experts in subjects such as LGBT issues, land and water rights, child labor, and ethnic persecution. The 11 films that made the final cut will be screened in San Francisco and will broadcast on Link TV in March. The series has won attention from The Wall Street Journal, CNN, World News with Diane Sawyer, and others.
Michelle Vanderzon, a 17-year-old Canadian, and part of the film crew for the nine-minute Growing Up in India, will be traveling to the festival.
She says, “My life has taken a 360-degree turn since filming this story in India. I came home with a whole new perspective and appreciation of my life, my rights and my freedom. I no longer take my education for granted. More importantly, there is not a day since coming home that Sangita does not cross my mind.”
The Sangita in question is a 15-year-old girl belonging to the Saphera (snake-charmer) tribe, one of the many marginalized communities in India that still struggle to live a decent life. Sangita earns money by dancing in the Rajasthani folk-style in Udaipur, where she lives with her aunt, also a dancer. They were forced to move to the city, where there is a paying audience, such as at the prestigious Lake Palace Hotel, a popular choice with foreign tourists.
Sangita’s initial attempt at getting an education by day and pursuing a living by night had to be abandoned—the competitive pressures of ever-increasing numbers of dancers migrating to Udaipur posed a threat, she needed to devote all her time to her livelihood. “I need to send money back home, I have young siblings,” she explains.
Vanderzon came in contact with Sangita via Free the Children. The organization has a program called Directors of Change, which promotes teams of high school students to travel to Kenya, India, or Mexico to volunteer and explore critical global issues. Guided by an experienced filmmaker, students are trained to film a series of short documentaries about their journey to share with their North American peers. Vanderzon’s team was comprised of 17 students from all over Canada who met twice before the trip to receive training.
Vanderzon and crew spent two weeks in India, spending time with Sangita; filming in the morning, and editing later in the day. An entire day was spent traveling to Sangita’s ancestral home in the Rajasthani desert, and learning about her family history.
“My expectations were to capture a real story, one that youth here could connect to, be inspired,” says Vanderzon. “I am confident that this film will illustrate and open people’s eyes to the human rights issues being faced by youth like Sangita.”
Another Asian movie at the festival is Kamran’s Story, an animated three-minute short. The voiceover, script, and animation were created by 16-year-old Kamran Safi at an animation workshop by Animate and Create, a U.K.-based organization that aims to help young refugees improve their English and life skills through media training.
The storytelling style in Kamran’s Story is staccato, using two-three word sentences with Kamran describing how his “life was good” before the Taliban killed his father for not paying them extortion money. His mother smuggled him out of Afghanistan in a bid to keep him alive. It is a high-impact, stark narrative in first person, which goes on to show his descent into “life is bad” and the countries he had to spend time in: Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, and then finally the U.K., where he sought asylum. It is said that the spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen; Kamran manages to capture his own spirit in this short film.
He shares his first reactions when Animate and Create visited his refugee camp: “They explained to us the sort of animation film we could make and told us that we could talk in our films. I stood up first, because I wanted my friends in the workshop to feel comfortable standing up, too.
“I thought it was important to tell our story, because if we didn’t, no one would know.”
Kamran’s life continues to be bound in a macabre twist, as this story was written, he was fighting a battle of paperwork with the U.K. government in order not to be deported. In the recent past, there has been an increase in deportations of young unaccompanied Afghan minors claiming asylum in the U.K. The majority of these boys are not given legal representation. Human Rights Watch is currently working to find support and legal representation for Kamran to support his case for asylum; but his future continues to be uncertain.
Kamran best said it on the contest submission form: “I hope that someone will see the film who knows my mother and where she is. Maybe they can help me. Young Afghan asylum seekers travel to the U.K. every day. They have problems with their traffickers and the authorities in the countries they travel through. We experience racism and the news often reports negative stories about us. My film is a way to open a conversation between young refugees and the people of the U.K. about the problems young unaccompanied asylum seekers have and how we are grateful to be here.”
Screening, Q&A, Reception: Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. $8 general; $6 YBCA member/student/senior/teacher.www.ybca.org. Box office: (415) 978-2787.
TV Broadcast: Tuesday, March 15, 8 p.m. Link TV. www.linktv.org/reception.