"The Unreturned," about Iraqi refugees, airs as part of UCLA's Human Rights Film Series on Feb. 13.

Film series builds human rights community at UCLA

Los Angeles is a movie town, so it’s no surprise that it’s filled with film festivals and documentary screenings, but even amidst all the variety the only L.A. film series you’ll find focused on human rights is at UCLA.

By Alison Hewitt

For five years, UCLA’s Human Rights Film Series has featured international films like the “The Unreturned,” which screens Feb. 13 on campus and tells the story of five of the 4.7 million Iraqi refugees who fled their country since the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The series’ main goal is to raise awareness, said professor Gail Kligman, founder of the series and a sociologist specializing in Eastern Europe and human trafficking, among other topics.

“Human rights are fundamental, global concerns,” Kligman said. “UCLA, as a public institution, is ideally situated to draw attention to these issues.”

UCLA’s International Institute runs the series throughout the academic year, screening a different film roughly each month. As the director of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies at the International Institute, Kligman was in a good position to draw on UCLA’s human-rights expertise. Every film is followed by a discussion among UCLA experts, people involved in making the film or those who have experienced what’s explored on screen.

“These films are very powerful, and we want to put them in context,” Kligman said.

When the series began, several International Institute centers collaborated to select the films, choosing movies and documentaries that reflected the centers’ different specializations. The Center for European and Eurasian Studies took the lead, joined by the African Studies Center, the Latin American Institute, the Asia Institute, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Center for Near Eastern Studies. Soon, the series expanded, including not only more centers but also bringing in professors from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, the law school and the Department of History, to name a few. 

The series helped raise awareness outside of UCLA, but also introduced human-rights researchers at UCLA to each other, said human-rights history professor Geoffrey Robinson. “This is a real breaking-down of the boundaries that for too long have existed between disciplines. The series has created a community of human-rights scholars and students.”

Robinson specializes in the history of political violence and human rights in Southeast Asia, where he has conducted research for more than 20 years. He was Amnesty International’s head of research for Southeast Asia, and went to East Timor in 1999 as a political affairs officer with the United Nations to oversee the nation’s vote for independence from Indonesia. He witnessed the violence after the vote, and what he describes as the “miraculous” intervention by the international community to cut short what many feared would become another genocide.

A still image from

The film, "Alias Ruby Blade," airs June 3 as part of UCLA's Human Rights Film Series.

The film, "Alias Ruby Blade," airs June 3 as part of UCLA's Human Rights Film Series.

He helped select the documentary “Alias Ruby Blade,” sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, about East Timor’s former first lady, an Australian activist with a prominent role in the country’s fight for independence. Robinson is interviewed in the film. He also hopes to include a new film about Indonesia.

“In past years I would have simply said, ‘That’s a film I’d like to see.’ Now I can … suggest screening it, and we can try to get the director for the discussion and create a larger educational impact at UCLA,” Robinson said.

The networks and expertise that people like Robinson offer are part of the success of the film series, said Liana Grancea, executive director of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies.

“By bringing in scholars and filmmakers, we make the discussion of the issue a highlight, and that contextualizes everything so we have a very informed public at the end of the film,” she said. “The audience may come to the first film because they’re interested in the region of the world it focuses on. Then they come back to the next one because they’re now interested in human rights.”

Raising awareness about human rights in other countries also encourages people to reflect on what’s happening in the U.S., Robinson noted.
“Think about what our own jails and prisons are like – how rife they are with sexual abuse, how overcrowded they are, and the use of the death penalty,” he said. “Looking at these problems through a broader international perspective can highlight how we’ve got it wrong and perhaps show us a path to fixing it.”
For law professor Asli Ü. Bâli, who helped select this month’s documentary and will discuss the film after the screening, shining a light on U.S. policies is directly linked to the struggles of Iraqi refugees. The film is sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies, where Bâli is affiliated, by the UCLA Program on International Migration, and by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a national effort that includes UCLA School of Law students who volunteer and provide legal representation to Iraqi refugees trying to resettle in the United States. The film, “The Unreturned,” draws attention to the plight of the very people the students are helping, Bâli explained.
While immigration, reproductive and gender rights, freedom of speech and religious repression may not be what people normally think of when they envision the L.A. movie scene, UCLA’s breadth of expertise makes these complex issues accessible.
“We are a global public university in a global city,” Kligman said. “We’re ideally equipped to raise awareness and host a dialogue about human rights across the globe.”

Published: Thursday, February 07, 2013