Director Trisha Ziff speaks to the film festival audience

Human Rights Film Festival celebrates creative vision from around the world

By Christian Beltz

October 6, 2016

Newhouse hosts opening film about Mexican photojournalist Enrique Metinides

The Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival recently celebrated its 14th year with the exploration of “Place” as a central theme, in connection with its partnership with Syracuse Symposium. During several days last weekend, viewers were exposed to a colorful array of stories from around the world. Newhouse associate professor and festival organizer Tula Goenka explains this year’s films focus on how characters interact with their physical environment.

“All the films are really connected to people in terms of a geographic location,” Goenka says. “Whether they’re refugees fleeing from home trying to find home, or Native Americans and their fight to protect their land, that’s very much the focus.”

Celebrating the diversity of experiences and contributions, the festival ran Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, screening five feature films from around the world on different screens across the Syracuse University campus.

The festival opened to a full house in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at the Newhouse School for a showing of “The Man Who Saw Too Much.” Winner of two Ariel Awards (Mexico’s Academy Awards), the documentary profiles Enrique Metinides, a Mexican photojournalist who spent the better part of his 50-year career documenting death in the nation’s capital.

In 90 minutes, the film captures the story of Metinides who started his work at age 9. After tinkering with one of the cameras from his father’s shop he began assisting a local crime reporter, photographing cadavers at the morgue as well as car accidents and brutal crime scenes. Half a century later, he has developed a cult-like following that transcends race, language and occupation.

Director Trisha Ziff, an English filmmaker who has spent the past decade living and working in Mexico City, explained the complexities of working with such sensitive content in a talkback after the screening.

Metinides “has no boundaries. I think he spends his life photographing people that never had the right to say ‘no you can’t take my photograph,’ he crossed that boundary consistently. I don’t think he even sees boundaries or ever thinks about the nature of his practice in those terms,” Ziff says. “For me that’s an issue, for me making the film was complex. It was difficult to be at the scenes of those murders with a camera participating, I chose whose side I was on. It challenged me and it changed me.”

There is no denying the graphic nature of Metinides’ work and the level of voyeurism that surrounds it, especially considering mainstream media’s portrayal of Mexico as a bloody war zone. Still, the film explores the deeper nature of humanity and forces viewers to confront the reality that is mortality. Even Metinides, who can come across as stoic and detached for much of the film is not immune to the horrors he captures.

“I think he has PTSD, I’m sure he must have,” Ziff says. “On one level he’s desensitized, clearly...he’s also not. The fact that he chose on occasion to put his camera down and help people, the fact he came up with a code that is still used today by Cruz Roja (Red Cross) in Mexico, I think he’s not totally desensitized.”

While the work of Metinides has been documented before by industry heavyweights like Vice Media, none have done so with the nuance and intimacy that Ziff was able to capture. Internationally renowned as both a filmmaker and curator, Ziff screened her last film “The Mexican Suitcase” at SUHRFF back in 2012. Currently, she is filming a documentary profiling Syracuse University professor and painter Jerome Witkin and his twin brother, photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, making her a natural selection for this year’s festival.

“Her work is just excellent. We’ve been following this for sometime and it somehow happened that the film started doing the festival circuit just when we were ready to start programming the film festival,” Goenka says. “Being that it is about photojournalism and human rights, how does a person who is a photographer, who takes these very violent images, how does it affect him and his humanity? These are questions that are so relevant to Newhouse students.”

Christian Medina Beltz is an arts journalism master’s student at the Newhouse School.