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Human Rights on Film

This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

Samuel Goldwyn, one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, is reported to have said: “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Little did he know that the ensuing century of filmmakers would frequently use movies to impart significant social or political messages"even if audiences weren't ready for them. For instance, when Spike Lee’s 1989 comedy-drama Do the Right Thing premiered, controversy erupted over the film’s message about race relations in America and whether it would “incite riots.” Others felt it was an accurate, necessary, and insightfully comical take on the issue.

This course will expose students to the intersection between human rights and film. Students will encounter films that represent various forms of social injustice, while considering if and how this medium is an effective vehicle for social engagement. Along the way, we will ask how one of the most important political formations of the modern era -- "human rights" -- has been taken up and reworked by filmmakers.

From the civil war in Syria to drone strikes in Pakistan to state-sponsored censorship, our attention to human rights has never seemed so crucial. This course considers how various films have handled a range of human rights issues, such as racism, censorship, gender inequality, and genocide. We will discuss films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Battle of Algiers, God Grew Tired of Us, and Persepolis for the issues they raise and the ways in which they raise them. Some questions that may come up include: What cinematic conventions are used to portray various human rights topics? How do filmmakers balance these serious representations with the need to stylize for the silver screen and entertain? How does film offer perspectives that differ from those of journalists, aid workers, economists, and others who are broadly concerned with the same issues? Is film still a relevant vehicle in the wake of other social media forms?

Students should have a basic knowledge of and curiosity for current affairs, as well as a basic familiarity with the concepts of metaphor, symbolism, and interpretation. By the end of the course, students will have developed their critical viewing, reading, and writing skills to prepare them for further work in the humanities at the undergraduate level. They will also have the opportunity to complete a creative project aimed at exploring representations of a particular issue.