FDL-AP Archives

"The New Media and Human Rights"

by Michael M.J. Fischer, MIT


Film, video, and the new digital medium for compilation, dissemination, and interaction called the Internet are emerging as powerful tools also for the NGO and human rights community. It is often noted that the recent political upheavals in Iran, the former Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere have been facilitated by a change in consciousness carried by various small media -- international radio news broadcasts, audio cassettes made by phone line from Paris, wall announcements (elamiyeh) and poster art, and underground printed broadsheets and manifestos passed around hand-to-hand in the Iranian revolution; rock music and fax machines in the former Soviet Union; fax machines and television coverage at Tianamen Square, the role of the fifth generation film makers of China, as well as the role of television soap operas such as "Yellow River Elegy".

The new digital media for visual, sound, and textual communication promise to intensify, diversify, and perhaps democratize the possibilities for new forms of public spheres that can be utilized by NGOs supporting democracy and human rights.

Of initial importance is the powerful role simply of electronic mail in building alliances across the globe to disseminate information both about abuses to the outside world, and to pockets of users in situations where access to important information is otherwise hard to obtain. For instance, ecological and toxic waste information in Central Asia might be more easily achievable and sharable via servers in the U.S. or Europe for use by local groups in Central Asia than archiving and storing such information locally. In the longer run, access to information can create new political pressure groups, as has already been happening in the U.S. among breast cancer, Parkinson's disease victims, and others seeking changes in the medical research and care system of the U.S.

Beyond email and simple access to information, the Internet can also transform the way that visual and narrative technologies can be deployed for expanding general support for democracy and human rights. It is important to think back upon the recent history of film and video produced by independent film makers usually outside (but sometimes also inside) the institutions of studio-based, consumer-entertainment-driven Hollywood, Bollywood (Bombay), or Hong Kong film industries, or state run film production. Many of these films and video productions had powerful direct effects and long-term after-effects. Four examples may illustrate some interesting different kinds of effects and after-effects that, in combination, could be used to create a new form of public sphere:

(1) Local level appeal beyond the state or regional government:

The Kayapo Indians in the Brazilian Amazon were given video equipment and were able to stage and film dramatic protest demonstrations against the construction of huge hydroelectric damns that would drown their homes. They were able to address these ecology-based, as well as human rights based, video protests to international audiences and thereby to put the Brazilian state on the defensive. Among the subsequent publicity amplifiers was a rock concert in Brazil led by the singer Sting. Similar, if less politically visible, video and film efforts include the documentary film of the tribal and agricultural village protest movement against the Narmada Dam in India, "Narmada, A Valley Rises," by Ali Kazimi; and the documentary about the Cree effort to block a Quebec Hydroelectric project, "Power: One River, Two Nations" by Magnus Isaccson and Glen Salzman.

It might be important to question why the first has gained considerable international visibility, while the latter two seem destined to remain in restricted circuits of distribution. This leads to example two:

(2) Use of the Internet to disseminate, criticize, extend, enrich and engage visual, textual, journalistic, interview, and scholarly materials.

The documentary film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, made by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton and through video footage, much from the Chinese State Security Office, has dramatized for posterity the Tianamen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, in a way that elicits debate about both student and government strategies, including discussion about the limitations of a film that was entirely focused on Beijing (not acknowledging the protests in many other cities), and on the events in the Square (not including the many clashes in the intersections leading towards the Square where most of the killings occurred). This film is now in the process of taking on a more important after-life through the construction of a film archive on China, both on CD-ROM format, and through the Internet (http://www.nmis.org/Gate/). This experimental project has the potential for expanding information available not merely about an event or process (the political processes of 1989 here), but placing these in historical and comparative contexts (for instance with parallel protests earlier in the century, with materials on key actors such as the contrasting state funerals of the leaders of China), and multiplying points of view, analyzes and interpretations. What will be most interesting to watch is the degree to which this sort of new form of historical writing and archiving will be open to widening circles of voices, and will be able to draw attention to events and issues outside the usual focus on leaders, things that happen only in capital cities, or in the centers of cities.

It might be important to question the degree to which the Internet as a vehicle of archivization, dissemination, and interaction will remain a circuit of elite users, and the degree to which this technology will becomes available to wider and wider circles of people. Even if Asia will in the short run become a series of highly wired communication centers with hinterlands of sporadic access to the Internet, still the access in the wired centers of power will be subject to the availability of new kinds of information which can have effects on how human rights issues will be thought about. But the vision of an increasingly business-and-information driven wired society across the new Asian economies suggests that in fact schools, libraries, and community centers may in fact become nodes on the Internet in order to train large numbers of people in the skills demanded by the new economies. Two other exemplars may flesh out these thoughts.

(3) Transnational Leverage and Mass Filmic Learning

The blockbuster Indian popular films, Shekar Kapur's Bandit Queen (with support from the BBC's Channel Four program supporting new directors) and Mani Rathnam's Bombay, are two of a series of new mass audiences films in India which slowly are beginning to take on contemporary social questions in plot genres, shot strategies, and musical sound tracks that break with traditional forms of social message films. They are also part of a larger transformation of the media environment in India, including the breaking of the state monopoly on television by satellite broadcasting (with small dish receivers), and pressure on Doordarshan, the state television, to upgrade its programming. Talk shows briefly were effective in embarrassing inarticulate and unprepared government ministers.

The film industry itself is undergoing both a generational change and changes in funding structure. Crucial to these changes is a renewed discussion of how to "cross-over" between mass cinema and the various parallel cinemas. Bandit Queen and Bombay are opening gambits. Bandit Queen, based on a true story, of Phloolan Devi, an abused lower caste woman turned bandit-hero, and eventually member of parliament, was produced in association with the BBC's Channel Four -- indexing the resources and interest of a growing transnational and cosmopolitan diaspora as well as international audiences. While it draws on plenty of conventional narrative traditions of outlaws and bandits and wild-West-like violence and sexual crudity, it also amplifies a deepening Indian democratic debate about caste, gender, and violence in a context not constrained by the conventions of poor boy, rich girl love story. Similarly the film Bombay takes as a central issue for the first time in mass cinema the communal riots that have threatened to reach proportions not seen since Partition. It uses music and camera work to counter the propaganda symbolism of the communalists' appeals. Neither film is unproblematic, but a process has started, which perhaps has gone further in the smaller, embattled Iranian film industry:

(4) Internal Critique, External Appeal.

A series of narrative films in Iran by the film makers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami both critique the Islamic Revolution from the inside by the standards of the Revolution's own promises, and remind international viewers of the humanity and suffering of everyday life within Iran, countering international propaganda that too often demonizes and stereotypes Iran.

Makhmalbaf's Blessed Marriage, done during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, follows a war photographer after he is released from a hospital for battle shock. He photographs poverty and social problems in Tehran that the Revolution was dedicated to ameliorating. His film, The Peddler, incorporates the dilemmas of slum dwellers, the psychologically isolated, and the floating population of criminal infested war refugees. But while these topics may serve as criticisms of current regime, the films are limited by these subjects, but are also used to teach audiences how to think about filmic resources. Salaam Cinema, is a wonderful, upbeat homage to a century of film-making in Iran, warning the clerical regime that film is not something to be afraid of as an alien foreign technology carrying immoral ideological pollutants. It ends in a series of clips of endings from post-Revolutionary Iranian films that show Iranians from all walks of life embracing and helping one another.

Among the films Makhmalbaf celebrates are those of Kiarostami, who specializes in filming stories of everyday lives that take on, in almost an Eastern European aesthetic, parable-like dimensions. And Life Goes On documents the rebuilding of villages in northern Iran after an earthquake. It building upon an earlier film about a two young schoolboys, one of whom tries to help the other against the incomprehension of his parents. Close-Up is a film in about a man being tried in Islamic court (the cleric-judge tries mightily to get the parties to settle out of court) for fraudulently passing himself off as the director Makhmalbaf. As in Antonioni's "Blow Up", the film is a parable about knowledge and authority: there are some things that have standing in a court of law, but for other things that need to be said for there to be understanding among people, a second camera is placed in the court, a close up lens for the accused to speak to the director and the audience of the film. Film, in other words, can be a public sphere vehicle for discussion of social issues. In this film, the accused says he used to go to watch Makhmalbaf's films over and over and over, because Makhmalbaf put people like the accused on screen. He passed himself off as Makhmalbaf because once someone mistook him for the director, he felt that sense of self-esteem that had been lacking in his life, and although he was unable to manage the deceit successfully, that feeling of having people pay attention to him, doing his bidding, was like a narcotic that he could not stay away from trying again. This film too ends with a reconciliation scene: the real-life Makhmalbaf waits for the accused as he is released from prison, gives him a ride on his scooter, to meet the aggrieved party who had originally brought the court case. It is a film about dealing with ordinary people as ordinary people, about the ethics of human interaction.

These and other recent Iranian films constitute a political and moral discourse, a discourse in the sense that they are not isolated artistic productions that stand on their own, but are commentaries one upon another, a contemporary form of the classic epics. They constitute in a sense moral epics for our own day, not in epic form with kings and heroes and archenemies, but like epics in their performances: drawing attention to everyday morality. Traditional epic-reciters would tailor their narrations, and make references to people in their audiences, or references and analogies to local power structures. While these films have begun to circulate in the international film and cultural circuits from France, where Kiarostami's films have discussed in major film journals, to Brasilia and Boston and Los Angeles; I have no way of knowing the reach of these films among the various social segments of Iranian society. They do, however, suggest a style of non-superficial commentary about human rights and other political citizenship issues in a public sphere, that draws upon layers of past Iranian cultural and political resources, religious, moral, narrative, symbolic, and otherwise, many of which have long been used to counter the misuse of state, religious and other institutional powers and authorities.

These four examples are indexes for four dimensions of use in the new digital global cyberspace.

(1) Multiple Channels
Cyberspace allows information dissemination around traditional gatekeeping institutions, be this appeals against oppressions by the state, or be it access to new pedagogies to circumvent decayed schools in which rote learning destroys rather than stimulates young minds.

(2) Critical Resources
Internet archives can be built in ways that layer deepening access to resources, points of view, analyses, visual materials, scholarship, and popular culture. These can be used to train critical responses to disinformation, restrictions on right to know, or simply to not take a given report at face value.

(3) Alliance Building
Demographic shifts of populations at all socio-economic levels means that cultural and intellectual resources are diasporically extended in ways that are of a different scale than ever before, and intellectual commitments to democracy and human rights across the globe can be based on an intimacy of experience and knowledge that in previous eras was more often purely intellectual and theoretical.

(4) Cultural Forms
Protest, critique, strategies, and constructive engagements can be built around cultural forms that are subtle, micro-political, resonant with deep layers of local cultural knowledges, rather than relying on abstract, stereotyping, essentializing, and general forms of mobilization. The discourse of human rights and democracy itself can be made to infuse the texture of local cultures, and be grounded in the humanity of engagement with the everyday existence of quotidian life.

This constitutes a new project of emancipation, one that requires the engagement of translation back and forth between local cultures and people of many differently embedded histories, worries, and anxieties. It is not something that simply will come along with the laying of new technological infrastructures, with the laying of new fiber optic cables from Oslo via Malaysia to Japan, or across a new "silk route" of glass and packets of light. The costs of technological infrastructures could as easily lead to new forms of concentration of wealth, and stratification of access to just-in-time information. Democracy and human rights activists will need to lobby for open access, universal service. But activists and others will also through micropractices of daily usage of these new technologies work to expand access and utilities in ways that are not foreseen by planners, much as the Indian or Iranian states have been unable to prevent even impoverished tenement and slum dwellers from obtaining satellite dishes, or stealing electricity to hook up VCRs and televisions.

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