Since Amnesty Intl. was founded in 1961 there has been, sadly, no shortage of filmmakers who have been killed or persecuted because of their work. Sixty years on, that danger remains.
In 1975 poet-turned-director Pierpaolo Pasolini was murdered in Italy, possibly by the country’s secret services. More recently, in 2012, filmmaker and activist Bassel Shehadeh was gunned down in Syria by the military, which then prevented his friends from attending the funeral. Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, for whom Amnesty mounted a strong protest campaign, was put behind bars in China due to his 2008 documentary “Leaving Fear Behind.” He was released in 2014 after serving a six-year sentence.
There are, of course, many more cases.
Recently the Italian branch of Amnesty supported distribution in Italy of “Nasrin,” the clandestinely filmed documentary about Iranian human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is serving a 38-year sentence for alleged offenses including “propaganda against the state.” She was “promoting causes of political prisoners, fighting the death penalty and the obligation to wear a veil in public spaces,” says Amnesty Intl. Italy spokesman Riccardo Noury who notes that the “Nasrin” footage in the doc was shot at great risk. “Nasrin” was distributed in Italy by OpenDDB.
“Yes, of course filmmakers risk their lives to make movies,” says Syrian multihyphenate Orwa Nyrabia, chair of the Berlin-based Intl. Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR). He is also artistic director of the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
“They don’t to it willingly. It’s a choice, a commitment to their worldview, to their politics and their filmmaking.
“The problem is that military regimes and different despotic systems consider a filmmaker to be an enemy because filmmakers have an opinion, and like other artists they are by nature critical. They are non-conformists. This means they become good targets for a military regime to show their own population that criticism is not welcome.”
In June, ICFR launched an urgent appeal for Myanmar authorities to release local filmmaker Ma Aeint, a producer and co-writer on comedy “Money Has Four Legs,” which pays homage to the country’s cinematic history and its struggle with censorship. She disappeared without a trace on June 5 after being arrested by authorities in Yangon.
“We know the appeal was heard,” says Nyrabia. While not much else is happening so far, it’s crucial that Myanmar authorities know “they cannot do whatever they want without anybody noticing.”
Sometimes even when pressure does not seem to be working, it does.
Nyrabia cites Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested and jailed in Russia on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014 and freed in 2019 after going on a protracted hunger strike amid mounting protests by Amnesty Intl. and members of the entertainment industry. That campaign made sure the Russian government understood “that he could not die under their watch.”
The global film community and human rights’ orgs are now also calling for the release of Egyptian producer Moataz Abdelwahab. On May 5, 2020, he disappeared from his office in Cairo and has since been accused of “partnering with a terrorist organization” and “spreading false news” most probably because he made several cultural documentaries purchased by and aired on Qatar-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera, which is considered Egypt’s national enemy for its sympathy toward Islamists, especially the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
In Egypt young director Shady Habash, who was considered an emerging talent, died in jail in May 2020 after being imprisoned without trial for more than two years for making a music video that mocked Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Egypt’s government, which has been under mounting pressure from human-rights groups, recently provided concrete proof of the power that the global film community, in particular Hollywood stars, can wield.
In early December three detained activists belonging to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) were released from jail just one day after Scarlett Johansson called for them to be freed in a short video that rapidly began trending on social media in Egypt and is widely believed to have been the clincher.
Nyrabia, who besides being a festival director and human-rights defender is an actor, filmmaker and producer, recalls that when he was arrested at Damascus Intl. Airport in 2012 and jailed by Syrian authorities “Robert De Niro made a six-second video demanding my freedom; I was released one week after that.” A rare example of successful pressure on the Syrian government.
Big stars “have this power that they can use in a most meaningful way,” says Nyrabia. He firmly believes that “it’s very important they realize this power that they have; and that it’s not just about being political. It’s about being human and being part of this film community that is supporting each other.”