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SD Human Rights Watch Films Feature Immigration Stories


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens this weekend at the Museum of Photographic Arts. We'll speak to the festival director and two San Diego filmmakers whose documentary is featured as part of the organization's Youth Producing Change series.

Event: Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

  • Museum of Photographic Arts , 1649 El Prado, San Diego
  • Saturday, September 18, 2010
  • 1 p.m.
  • Age Requirement: All ages
  • Cost: $8 - $10

Full Event Information

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Human Rights Watch is an organization that investigates claims of human rights violations and brings documented cases of abuse to public attention. Sometimes there's no better way to do that than to present the work of filmmakers who have documented the people and places where human rights abuses are happening. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival has come to San Diego for the first time this year. Documentaries from Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran and even here on the U.S.-Mexico border will be included in the selections screened at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Joining me with more on this unique film festival are my guests. Andrea Holley is deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Andrea, welcome.

ANDREA HOLLEY (Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch Film Festival): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Aaron Turner and Cody Marshall also join us. They’re young filmmakers here in San Diego. Good morning, Aaron and Cody. Hi.

AARON TURNER (Documentary Filmmaker): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: We’ll be speaking to them later. They produced the documentary film, “I Want My Parents Back.” It will be presented at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend. First, though, Andrea, tell us a little bit about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. How did it come to be?

HOLLEY: The festival originally started in 1988 as perhaps some people who listen to your show might know. 1948 is when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, so there was a 40th anniversary celebration in 1988 and there were several people involved with Human Rights Watch at the time who thought that film and the arts would be an excellent way to make people more aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch’s work more generally. So they had the first festival here in New York and since then we are now in our 21st year.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have an example of a film from the festival over the years that perhaps there are many that have made a difference or stopped human rights abuses?

HOLLEY: There have definitely been a few films over the years that people have gone on to use with broader campaigns, be it legislative campaigns or be it more broad public awareness campaigns. The one example that always comes to mind is actually an Israeli film that we showed a few years ago and it just sort of resonates now since we have films about conflict still ongoing today. It was a film called “Harmed Forces,” about Israeli soldiers who returned home with various diagnoses all sort of falling under the umbrella of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And the filmmaker and a group of soldiers effectively used the film to change legislation within Israel so that those who had these kind of diagnoses were actually eligible for a whole range of services, which up to that point in time they had no access to. So that was just one particular example that was a combination of both an outreach campaign and raising public awareness that then translated into an actual legislative change. And we’ve seen similar operations since then with films both within the U.S. and abroad.

CAVANAUGH: Andrea, tell us about some of the films that we can see here in San Diego during the Human Rights Watch Festival.

HOLLEY: Sure. Well, the first weekend, which is September 18 and 19, coming up, including the program that Aaron and Cody are involved with, the first weekend revolves a lot around issues of immigration and migration. We have two documentaries from the main festival, “Mountains and Clouds,” which focuses very much on U.S. immigration policy and sort of the inner workings of Congress, which for those who grew up in the U.S., perhaps like me, there are elements of how Congress really works that you don’t truly understand. Well, I can assure you that if you see this film, you’ll probably learn more about how Congress actually works than you ever did in school, so I definitely recommend “Mountains and Clouds,” and there’ll be faces people recognize as there are many senators and other figures in Congress who appear in the film. And then the other film I would just briefly mention that’s also this weekend is “Pushing the Elephant,” and it’s sort of an interesting complement to that because it’s the story of a woman, Rose Mapendo, who’s originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and actually received asylum in the U.S. So she was a refugee herself and then was able to come to the U.S. under the asylum system and now is an activist for refugees, started her own nongovernmental organization. So those two films are sort of an interesting pair that are showing this weekend along with Youth Producing Change.

CAVANAUGH: Right, now Cody and Aaron’s documentary is part of the Youth Producing Change project. Tell us a little bit about that concept.

HOLLEY: Youth Producing Change is a program that started with Human Rights Watch Film Festival about four years ago, and Adobe is the original founding sponsor of the program. People may or may not know that Adobe actually has a philanthropic arm which funds youth production and they have their own Adobe Youth Voices program. So in conjunction with that program, we started taking submissions of short films on human rights topics made by youth, which is defined as anyone under 19 years old. So what we have is a collection of short films. This year, for example, there are 10 short films in one program, and they show together and then we have a discussion with the various filmmakers so that you can hear a little bit about how the films were made, how they chose the topics, and sort of that sort of aspect of the actual production.

CAVANAUGH: Let me turn now to Cody Marshall and Aaron Turner. And both living here in San Diego. What is your film, “I Want My Parents Back,” Cody? What is it about?

CODY MARSHALL (Documentary Filmmaker): “I Want My Parents Back” is a documentary about how immigration policy has affected a local family in which an ICE raid leads the family to be split apart essentially.

CAVANAUGH: And, Aaron, what was your experience like making this movie?

TURNER: Well, before doing this documentary I was really neutral about my stance on immigration because I didn’t like to get in the middle of anything. But after seeing firsthand how our immigration policies are literally destroying people’s lives, it’s kind of hard not to take a stance against it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested. Were you making movies before you made this one? Or is this your first effort, Cody?

MARSHALL: I was making movies before I was involved with the Teen Producers project with…


MARSHALL: …which – through which we produced the movie, right. But prior to being with them, I hadn’t really made anything with a social consciousness, right. I only made like, you know, music videos or like little jokes and stuff like that. So I guess yes and no would be the answer to that, right.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you two, in reading about you, you both have really significant and interesting backstory about how you two met at the Toussaint Center. Aaron, what were – how did you come to be at the Toussaint Center, the Vincent de Paul Toussaint Center?

TURNER: How I got there was that originally I was living in Florida with my dad but the relationship was shaky at best, so I moved out here with my mom because my mom had moved out to California a year prior. And where she was staying at, she was staying at St. Vincent de Paul Village.


TURNER: And when you check into the long term program…


TURNER: …no matter who they are related to you, relatives can’t come in with you.


TURNER: So she’s like you can’t come in with me. I have nowhere for you to go but I know a place. You can fill out the paperwork now, get into the Toussaint Teen Center and then you’ll probably be in the next day. And like next day, where am I going to stay overnight? No, we’re going to have to try and get in today. And so I did, I got in today.

CAVANAUGH: That – that’s – And, Cody, you were living there as well.

MARSHALL: I had been living at – I’d moved with my family when we became homeless to the Father Joe’s Villages Family Program. We were privileged enough to be able to get our slot for our room, right. And their policy at the time was all the teenagers went to the Toussaint School because that was their school. And, yeah, by sheer I don’t know if it’s fate or luck or whatever you call it, a counselor there happens to also work at the San Diego Media Arts Center through which, I think, like she offered like free pizza or something to take this video editing class. And I was like, oh, sure, yeah. Pizza, yeah. So that’s…

CAVANAUGH: Now how blown away were you when your film “I Want My Parents Back” was actually selected by Human Rights Watch to be part of their film festival. What was your reaction, Cody?

MARSHALL: I was just really I don’t know if humbled was the word or like surprised but like I just got this really like this feeling like, wow, like something I made is like being recognized by like people who they’re not necessarily like my teachers or like parents but it’s like bigger than that, right. It’s going outside of my city, it’s going outside – like it went to London. Like it was just so – it just gave me like a weird feeling, like – like not a bad feeling but just a weird feeling.

CAVANAUGH: Just a weird feeling.


CAVANAUGH: Andrea, I – How many films do you screen to get into this film festival?

HOLLEY: In any given year we usually tell people—and this is consistently true—it’s somewhere between 400 and 500 films are submitted to us, and I can say specifically for the youth program there were over 300 submissions, just for that one selection. So, you know, it’s quite a few films but I think – I just want to pick up on something that was said, you know, about how many people—and this is certainly true for us and people who come to the festival—there are many issues that you might feel ambivalent or neutral on but so often the stories that are in the films or the stories behind the films, once you’ve seen certain things it is very difficult to be neutral, and I think that is absolutely one of the key elements of the films we show and the sort of work we’re privileged to have in that people cannot walk away feeling neutral.

CAVANAUGH: What is it about Aaron and Cody’s film that caught you, that you wanted to make it a part of this film festival?

HOLLEY: I think one of the key issues and certainly people who’ve studied film, you know, oftentimes we get filmmakers who attend our festival, is storytelling. And I think there’s many compelling stories that cross our path and then the filmmaking falls a little bit short so it was a combination of such a powerful story as well as their skills at telling that story using the medium of film. So it’s always a bit of a combination but there’s just something that hits you in the gut with certain films and it’s the combination of the story itself and the way it’s been told. And that was certainly the case with their film.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Andrea, if people have perhaps some misunderstanding. When you hear about Human Rights Watch Film Festival, do people think that they’re going to be seeing films that are filled with atrocities and very, very somber, terrible stories? And how do you counter that?

HOLLEY: Right. Certainly, over the years, things have shifted. It – Yes, absolutely, I certainly understand that people might think, oh, this is going to be depressing. But, in fact, I think what people are always surprised about is how inspiring many of the films are and, yes, I’ll be the first to say there are certain films that do include a certain amount of very difficult material. I mean, I’ll just say point blank for people who might be interested, “Enemies of the People” is a film about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It has extremely difficult material and interviews in it. However, the key story in the film “Enemies of the People” is actually a friendship between a journalist and a former member of the Khmer Rouge. And what’s remarkable about that film, and I would certainly apply this back to all the films, is people can actually relate to that story. People can relate to being friends with someone who maybe you know their past is a little bit sketchy. I mean, I’m putting this in very colloquial terms but, in fact, people relate to that story and relate to those characters in a way that’s remarkable. So I just always tell people, you’d be surprised how much more you relate to the things in the film or you think, yeah, that could be me, or I wouldn’t do that. Then you turn away or think, wow, I can’t even imagine. People are always surprised at how much they connect to that.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Aaron, in yours and Cody’s film, “I Want My Parents Back,” there is one moment that’s really sort of surprising where the person who’s actually videoing, the videographer, is being kind of taken in by these Border Patrol agents. Can you tell us what happened there?

TURNER: It wasn’t – And we get this question a lot.


MARSHALL: Yeah, we hear it a lot.

TURNER: Yeah, we get it a lot. We went to San Francisco, we got this question, too, where it looked like they said, yeah, like one of the filmmakers was being arrested. And the thing with it was, is that it just wasn’t us.



CAVANAUGH: You weren’t there so – you know what happened to him, though, right?

MARSHALL: Right. It’s actually like archival footage.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Oh, I see.

MARSHALL: That’s like made public, right. So I think it was just like a – an activist or maybe just like someone with a social conscience who wanted to like hold these people accountable.

CAVANAUGH: I got it. So it’s footage that you used.

MARSHALL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Tell me briefly what you’re doing now. Cody.

MARSHALL: What I’m doing now?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah. Besides talking to me.

MARSHALL: Oh, okay, I was just literally what I was doing. Right now, I’m going to school. I’m starting my third year at UCSD next week, on Thursday.


MARSHALL: I’m a double major, sociology and visual arts.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. And Aaron?

TURNER: Right now, I’m just working full time just trying to save up some money.

CAVANAUGH: Thinking of making another film?

TURNER: Yeah, thinking of making another film. We’re – it’s – I have to work in between that and my other obligations.

CAVANAUGH: Don’t we all. Hey, guys, thank you so much. I appreciate it. And, Andrea, thank you for speaking with us.

HOLLEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs this weekend, September 18th and 19th and next weekend, the 23rd through the 25th at the Museum of Photographic, excuse me, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. For details and ticket information, you can go to our website at You’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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