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On Police States & Courage

I’ve been struck by the recent spate of films that tell stories of police states and the courage of individuals that defy them. In the narratI’ve fiction realm there were two magnificent films nominated for Academy Awards: Pan’s Labyrinth and The LI’ves of Others (both won Oscars in different categories). In each case the story takes us deep into a police state when it is firmly entrenched, when the apparatus seems impregnable and resistance might seem futile…

but both lead us into inspiring, if bittersweet, tales of the courage of convictions and the illuminating spirit of individuals who band together to defy brutal oppression, one during the 1940s in Franco’s fascist Spain, the other during the 1970s and 80s in East Germany when the Stasi secret police ruled daily life. Pamela and I are currently at the Montreal Human Rights Film Festival, where we saw an eye-opening short film called Democracy 76: My State of Emergency, about the Egyptian police state and the relentless violence, intimidation and torture it used against dissidents during the run up to the 2005 “elections” called with 3 months notice — several Egyptian dissidents interviewed in the film mentioned how difficult it was to overcome the “fear factor,” as they called it, to protest this inherently flawed election, yet they kept going into the streets, knowing they would likely get beaten or arrested or even killed, as so many did.

Here is the film:

During the international outreach campaign we did after releasing State of Fear we crossed paths a couple of times with Tanya Lokshina, a Russian human rights activist who reminds us of those courageous individuals we see in the films.

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The first time we met Tanya was in Moscow at a State of Fear screening where our Q&A session was shut down when audience members started comparing President Putin’s expansion of power to President Fujimori’s power grab in Peru in the 90s. Tanya had been instrumental in getting State of Fear shown in Moscow, along with Yuri Dzhibladze (another dedicated human rights defender). After the startling shutdown of our Q&A we went to a restaurant where we learned just how precarious it is to be a human rights defender in Russia today: click here to listen to this recent NPR story where Tanya is interviewed, and you’ll get a sense of the courage it takes to continue speaking truth to power in Putin’s Russia.

The second time we crossed paths with Tanya (and Yuri) was at

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the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum at the Carter Center in Atlanta in May 2006. This is a remarkable annual gathering of human rights defenders from all over the world, hosted by President Jimmy Carter (and on this occasion co-hosted by Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and co-organized by Human Rights First. We were there to screen State of Fear, and spent 2 days listening to about 30 fellow human rights defenders from all over the globe tell tales of resistance to abuses of power – one of the most effectI’ve human rights tools is the documentation and airing of these abuses, which is what we do in our human rights work through film. We were inspired by the stories of our colleagues, and salute the Carter Center and Human Rights First for bringing us all together.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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