The Human Rights Film Festival – An Interview with Professor Isis Nusair

The International Studies Department in Denison University is hosting the 10th Human Rights Film Festival which showcases films and documentaries on pressing human rights issues around the world. I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Isis Nusair, the chair of the department, to chat about this exciting event.

Chau Nguyen: Could you tell us about the history behind the Human Rights Film Festival? When did this program start at Denison and what was the inspiration behind it?

Professor Nusair: This is the 10th festival at Denison, which means we have been offering the films for ten years. I used to work at Human Rights Watch, so I knew that the Film Festival existed. They actually host this big international film festival in June. So, what they do is that at the end, around August, they choose about 20 films, and they make them available for people all over the United States. It’s called the travelling film festival. So, let’s say, if you are in Indiana, and you want to organize a festival, you can request a number of films, you review them, you choose 4 or 5, and then you screen them, pay for the copyrights and become a part of the travelling festival. Everyone can host a festival and that’s how we can host it here [at Denison]. And the films we bring to campus change every year based on the films showed in the International Human Rights Watch film festival in New York City.

CN: So do you need to be affiliated with Human Rights Watch to be able to host the films?

PN: No, anyone can. You just need to pay for copyrights. And after we host the festival, we actually buy the films for our library. I did it for two years – before I came to Denison – at St. Mary’s College in Southern Indiana, and we had the festival there twice. So when I came here we started it at Denison, and this is our 10th festival so we are really proud at this stage – 10 festivals every February since 2005!

CN: Wow, so you are the initiator of this festival in Denison?

PN: It’s kind of like I brought it with me from St. Mary’s, and I love the idea. I love films, I use them a lot in my classes, and I like to engage students so usually we have readings and  films so they can make the connection. These films are all documentaries. Some of the films we screen are actually international, so it’s nice to see this small place in the middle of Ohio showing them. There was a film about Afghanistan, we screened films on Iraq, Palestine, Uganda,.. so we try to pick films from different regions of the world. But we also try to pick films that depicted both civil and political rights, and also socio-economic issues. So we deal with political violations of human rights, economic violations, environmental degradation, gender issues, and race. I love the connections that the films make and the opportunity they give the students to engage and make connections and relate. The faculty is usually very pleased with these films – they use them in classes, familiarize the students with them and the films become a point of reference. I can just come up to a faculty and say “Oh, you remember that film, it’s in that festival..”.

CN: How would you describe the process of choosing the themes for the festival?

PN: It depends on the films we get. We usually get between 10-20 films. It also depends on the quality of the films and the ways they deal with the situation. We also try to get a variety – we don’t want the same theme and country every year.

CN: It sounds like a lot of work – setting up, reviewing the films, and so on – so how do you manage to make the festival work?

PN: The International Studies Department receives lots of support and sponsors to help us cover the expenses: copyright fees, drinks, posters and publications. What we usually do is that we have a selection committee to help us make the decision. This year we actually have students as part of the committee as well. We put the films on reserve, and then we contact student groups, telling them that these films are available if you are interested. If their constituencies are interested, they can decide to host the films so they can influence the selection process. So you will see that every film is moderated by one or two student groups. They will bring their own group, have discussions among the group and promote the festival. It’s been wonderful! It’s also the chance for faculty to work together and be engaged in something we care about.

CN: So student-moderated screening actually just started this year?

PN: Before, we only had faculty in the organizing committee. The students did participate in discussions, but this year was the first time that they were involved in the selection process. Before it was informal, this year it is more formal. I think this is better and more empowering.

CN: Yeah, I see a lot of promotions around – I didn’t recall any interviews or blog posts about the festival last year.

PN: But you are a first-year!

CN: [Laugh] I know! I just mean that when I asked around, some students said this is the first time they knew about the festival, and it’s because they are involved in a student group like the Asian American Association or La Fuerza Latina.

PN: That’s beautiful! So you think the student-moderated events are making a difference?

CN: Absolutely!

PN: [laughs] Great! I’m really happy. Just this week we had our first film, and we had really good attendance. Although there were some technical problems, students were really interested and enthusiastic. It was a good film too.

CN: So in your ten years doing the festival, what have been some of the most memorable films?

PN: I love them all! [laugh]. But there’s this particular film that we frequently use,which is called “Mardi Gras Made in China.” It was in the first film festival. The filmmakers filmed the bead makers in China, and showed the video to the people who wore those beads at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Then they did the same, filming the consumers of the beads to show the workers in China. It’s really versatile and interesting. We also have “Winter in Baghdad” which is about the war in Iraq, and “Letters to Anna” which is about a Russian journalist who was killed after she wrote about human rights violations. The movie “Crude,” set in the Amazon in Ecuador, about the Chevron corporation was very interesting for students and faculty in Environmental Studies. And this year, I anticipate “Big Men” is going to be a big hit – it’s about big oil companies, their investments and the connection between them and political and economic elites in Ghana and Nigeria.

CN: Thank you so much for this interview, Professor Nusair!

After I had this interview with Professor Nusair, I feel stoked to attend some of the wonderful films they are going to screen, like “To Be Takei” about the actor-turned-activist George Takei. The documentary will be hosted by the Asian American Association this Thursday at Slayter Auditorium from 7pm to 9pm, including a discussion segment afterwards. Other films will be shown every Thursday in Slayter Auditorium at 7pm, so check out the poster below for more information. And, if you want to take a trip down memory lane, take a look at the banner compiling every film ever shown in the Human Rights Film Festival in Denison. Most of them are available in the library, so take this invaluable opportunity to learn more about the world around you! 

Human rights film festival poster 2015

Chau Nguyen