Stories that Matter: SU Human Rights Film Festival opens Sept. 18

By Ipsitaa Panigrahi

September 12, 2014

Who owns your memories? That was one of the easier questions facing Rithy Panh, a film maker who wanted to tell a true family’s story. The problem was, Panh grew up in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge did not allow any film or photography that didn’t glorify the totalitarian regime. As a result, there was only one offical story about Campodia from 1975 to 1979.

Panh’s quest was to  and take back his memories, and to counteract the Khmer Rouge propaganda that threatened the fundamental human right to childhood memories. His film, "The Missing Picture," is the record of his quest for the images of his life, and one of the films being celebrated in this year’s Human Rights Film Festival at Syracuse University.

For 12 years, Newhouse professor Tula Goenka has been curating one of the most memorable and captivating film festivals in Syracuse. She began the festival in 2003 in response to the events of September 11th, 2001. Over the last 12 years, the festival has grown to become a major part Syracuse Symposium, the University’s semester-long exploration of the public humanities.

This year, the 2014 Symposium is organized around the theme of Perspective, and the various activities, including the Human Rights Film Festival, are presented by The SU Humanities Center in The College of Arts and Sciences.

“The Syracuse Human Rights Film Festival aims to start conversations about what are our rights as human beings on this earth, and who gets to decide how we live our lives and how our stories are told. With each year of SUHRFF, our audience has grown and it has now become an anticipated annual event that faculty members use in their classes,” says Goenka

Many of these events illustrate both the challenge and the fundamental need to give and receive stories. That need to have a stories has driven much of Professor Goenka’s academic and professional work. Born and raised in India she started her filmmaking career as an editor for Spike Lee and Mira Nair, among others.

She now produces her own award-winning films, including Dancing On Mother Earth, about singer/songwriter Joanne Shenandoah and El Charango, about the musical instrument from Bolivia.

The Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival is free and open to the public. The 2014 schedule is:


Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People by Thomas Allen Harris
7 p.m. The Hergenhan Auditorium, Newhouse 3
The evening begins with an introduction and Q&A with director Thomas Allen Harris
This poetic and deeply personal documentary examines how black photographers—professional and  amateur—have used the camera as a tool for social change from photography’s invention to the present. Highlighting the significance of the family album to black visual culture, Harris confronts the way images of blackness have affected his own family and sense of self-worth as an African American.


Lakshmi by Nagesh Kukunoor
7 p.m. in Shemin Auditorium, Shaffer Art Building
The evening begins with an introduction and Q&A with director Nagesh Kukunoor.

Inspired by a true story, this film follows 13-year-old Lakshmi, who is abducted along with several other girls in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. Taken to a brothel, she learns how to survive, but Lakshmi will not give in and accept her fate. Even her many failed attempts to escape cannot break her will, and one day the appearance of a social worker offers a ray of hope. As she resists bribes, threats, and coercion, Lakshmi exudes rare courage and determination to stand up in court in what becomes a landmark case. This film contains scenes of sexual violence


1 p.m. in Shemin Auditorium, Shaffer Art Building
American Vagabond by Susanna Helke
Susanna Helke’s lyrical and evocative documentary follows runaway queer youth living in the shadows of the promised city. James ran away from his parents’ home with his boyfriend, Tyler because they didn’t accept that he is gay. Seeking refuge in San Francisco, they end up sleeping in a park and panhandling in the gentrified Castro neighborhood. Ultimately, James has to face his past and the place he has left behind in rural California. American Vagabond presents a searing portrait of how class, sexuality and the criminal justice system intersect in the oppression of queer youth

4 p.m. in Shemin Auditorium, Shaffer Art Building
Return To Homs by Talal Dereki
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Return to Homs is a visceral and urgent account of the Syrian revolution told through the story of 2 friends. Basset is a 19-year-old goalkeeper for the national soccer team who’s plaintive protest songs make him a powerful voice of the opposition. Ossama is a 24-year old pacifist and media activist who uses his camera to document the chaos unfolding around him. As the Assad regime brutally cracks down on the protests, the young men eventually take up arms and join the rebels in defending Homs.

7 p.m. in Shemin Auditorium, Shaffer Art Building
The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh
Academy Award nominated for best foreign film, The Missing Picture is Rithy Panh’s personal quest to reimagine his childhood memories. From the time when the Khmer Rouge ruled over Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, the only recorded artifacts that remain are propaganda footage. Panh uses detailed clay figurines and elaborate dioramas to recreate the missing images from his memory. His recollections of family and friends before and after the regime’s rule are told through a narrator’s poetic voice and capture a personal story that would never be told if not for the sheer creativity of Panh and his innovative method.

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