Enabling Storytelling: Video for Human Rights Advocacy

Egbert Wits, Project Manager Video for Change Impact Cookbook at EngageMedia

Today, video has quite possibly become the strongest conveyor of stories. Considering the power of storytelling, its potential to leave you hanging by the edge of your seat, change minds and force audiences to see things differently, it is no wonder video is so popular within human rights work. Nonetheless many organizations have a rather simplistic view, or approach, on using of video. It’s often something like: go to a site of injustice and record the activities and people there. Let people tell their stories, illustrating the injustice taking place. Take the recorded footage home, edit it and post the results online. The video(s) then become part of an already existing, or perhaps newly created advocacy campaign hoping to influence both public and policy makers. Sound familiar? Parts of it perhaps?

Through a real-life story I would like to illustrate a different way in which video and the power of storytelling can be used. In 2011 Asrida Elisabeth, a young Indonesian woman originally from Flores, an island in the eastern parts of Indonesia, joined an activist pastor in Papua, a huge island at the most eastern end of Indonesia. For decades the Papuan people live in oppression. As a primitive society living on a land incredibly rich in natural resources they have become an easy target for big mining companies, whom facilitated by the Indonesian government simply take, take and take. Everyone profits from Papua except for Papuans, as a Guardian journalist put it.

In her activist work, trying to educate and empower the Papuan people, Asrida noticed that using video was very effective. People would gather easily to watch and audio-visual media resonated strongly, provoking discussions on issues addressed in the videos. As most of the videos used are produced outside of Papua, often even outside Indonesia, Asrida wondered: Wouldn’t it be great if we could make our own videos and show them here?

EngageMedia, a non-profit working with video in South-East Asia, was active in the region through a project called Papuan Voices. Besides producing videos Papuan Voices has a strong empowerment aspect. Asrida got involved and learned a thing or two about filming through workshops and engaging with the local Papuan Voices team. Later on she joined with filming and also managed to produce two of her own videos independently.

When an opportunity presented itself through Project Change to get funding for a video on women living in marginal communities, Asrida grabbed it. By now she knew how to film plus she had a network and access to a region in Papua where she had been actively working for quite some time. The idea for the documentary was simple: follow one mother (Mama) in her struggle to survive in her own land (Tanah). The resulting documentary film, Tanah Mama (2015), was a big success. It opened many Indonesian viewers’ eyes about the oppression of the Papuan people. It is still screened in an effort to empower Papuan communities, providing exactly the type of locally produced videos Asrida had wished for back in 2011. On top of it all, Tanah Mama won the prestigious best documentary film award at the December 2015 Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival.    

It’s not so much the winning of this award that illustrates my point, although I hope it opens up new opportunities for Asrida. It is the way video was used within Papuan Voices that’s most interesting. While it produced some amazing videos, Papuan Voices’ greatest impact is achieved during the process and in the way the project was set up. From the onset the goal was to provide Papuans with the means to tell their stories.  

Human rights activists or organizations will achieve greater impact if they can go beyond letting people tell their own stories and move towards actually enabling people to tell their own stories. A much more long-term and process orientated approach, acknowledging not all outputs can be predicted from the start. Video projects then are initiated by listening and engaging and aim to let go as much and as soon as capacities and circumstances allow. Thereby opening up a space where video making becomes a collective creation and learning process, filled with creativity. Only then will more Asrida’s be given the opportunity to surface and address the world in more meaningful and impactful ways than any human rights organization can. Their job is “simply” to enable the impact to happen and capture it in order to inspire.  

Please join New Tactics in Human Rights and EngageMedia for a conversation on Video for Change & Impact from February 22-26, 2016.