Shedding Light On Our World: Activism Through Film

Human Rights Watch Film Festival Toronto 2013

Photo courtesy

[F]or Ryerson University alumni, Jasmine Chaykowsky, joining Human Rights Watch didn’t just get her involved with activism- it changed her career.

Now a staff member at Ryerson’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services, 29-year-old Chaykowsky’s involvement with the non-profit organization continues this year as the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is held at the Toronto Bell Lightbox centre, Feb. 26 to March 7.

“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life when I switched my major to Diversity and Equity studies,” says Chaykowsky. “What really drew me to Human Rights Watch was the fact that they emphasize educating people about human rights abuses.”

The 10th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, co-presented with TIFF, showcases a programme of 10 documentaries that portray testimonies from different areas of the world- bringing political dialogue and capturing atrocities against human rights within modern society. But most of all, the goal of the festival is to educate.

For more than 30 years, Human Rights Watch has been one of the world’s leading independent organizations, focusing on advocacy and defending and protecting human rights internationally. Despite Toronto being only one of the 15 cities where the film festival is being held, Human Rights Watch has its members working in all continents- from Sierra Leone to Russia, Australia to Chile, all the way to Toronto, Canada, where people like Chaykowsky are bringing their passion for human rights to advocate to their communities.

But getting to where Chaykowsky is now started from something as minuscule as switching her major during her early years at Ryerson.

When Chaykowsky started school at Ryerson, she was enrolled in Arts and Culture studies. However, by second year, she made the choice of switching her program to Diversity and Equity studies. Chaykowsky’s involvement with the Human Rights Watch group on campus began after the recommendation that she join by her then mentor and Ryerson Student Life coordinator, Stephan Tang. After attending a meeting, Chaykowsky realized this that Human Rights Watch was right for her.

When the opportunity to get involved with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival arose, Chaykowsky joined in.
“That’s kind of where it started and then I realized I had a passion for human rights,” says Chaykowsky. “It opened up my eyes.”

After the previous Human Rights Watch leader on campus had graduated, Chaykowsky decided to take initiative and started a smaller committee to start doing student outreach on campus- partnering with other groups on campus and holding film screenings to raise awareness.

Graduating in 2011, she now holds the position of Intake and Administrative Assistant at Ryerson’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services.

In preparation for the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Chaykowsky and her team raised awareness on campus through events held during the day, class talks, social media campaigns, and film screenings.

“My involvement now is much different because I’ve taken on more of a leadership role, coordinating the student outreach committee,” says Chaykowsky of her current participation with Human Rights Watch at Ryerson.

At the TIFF Bell Lightbox Centre, Chaykowsky’s passion for the organization showed as she sat with her fellow volunteers at a table, flashing a smile and greeting people on their way in. What the film festival does is something that she is in strong belief of. “Film and media is such a great way to spread awareness about these issues,” says Chaykowsky.

This year, Human Rights Watch focused on issues of political oppression and human rights that are evident in Canada and in different parts of the world.

A film like Alanis Obomsawin’s The People of the Kattawapiskak River, could not have come at a better time than now. The documentary focuses on the poor living conditions of the First Nations people of Kattawapiskak in Northern Ontario. This in-depth look at the Kattawapiskak community is the description of Chief Theresa Spence’s declaration of a state of emergency, prior to her hunger strike that took place earlier this year.

The People of the Kattawapiskak River is the first Canadian-issue focused film featured in the festival. Obomsawin was there at the screening of her film for a Q and A session and spoke about her hope and optimism for change.

“It is really an issue that really affects us all as Canadians. Most of all, you could see the community that has been formed as a result of this crisis,” says Chaykowsky. “Again, it shows the will to survive.”

Recently, Human Rights Watch released an 89-page report on the failures to protect indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia. Researchers at Human Rights Watch put out 150 reports a year, some of which are brought to light when included in the film festival through a documentary.
Chair of the Human Rights Watch Canadian committee, Sarah Dinnick says the featured documentaries serve to put a human face to stories you would hear otherwise in print.

Other issues, however, takes a film to expose it.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone, directed by Mark Weiss, tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was raised in one of North Korea’s political prison camps, known as gwa-li-so, and eventually escaped. The documentary not only exposes the brutal torture and punishment that goes on in the camps, but the difficulties encountered in life by both Dong-hyuk and ex-officers, outside of the camp.

Dong-hyuk was in attendance at the screening. It was his first time watching it. “There are so many human rights issues across the world. My thoughts are that the change has to start with the people sitting in this audience,” said Dong-hyuk during the Q and A session after the film.

According to Jack Kim, a North Korea commentator and associate at Fragomen Global Immigration, the UN has called for a commission of inquiry to bring light to the camps in North Korea, which he believes to be the worst place in the world right now.

“We need to raise awareness. That’s the first step,” says Kim about how society, especially university students, should take action. “Information is always the way you bring down regimes like this. At the very least, the more people that know about these camps, the more ammunition that we have to face our decision makers and our politicians.”

Chaykowsky agrees. “Get involved with Human Rights Watch, get involved with local community organizations- get involved with anything! Start to learn more about the issue,” says Chaykowsky.

“I think that these global rights issues affect us all as global citizens, really. It’s important for people to be aware of what’s going on and I think it’s important for people to speak up and do their part to try and right the abuses.”