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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Arizona Dreams of Justice

Imagine taking a film class in which, during week one, you learn activist filmmaking strategies from Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís of Skylight, a human rights media organization based in Brooklyn. In week two, you discuss participatory documentary and community collaboration with Concordia University professor and filmmaker Liz Miller. A little later in the course, you encounter Brenda Manuelito and Carmella Rodriguez, cofounders of nDigiDreams, a woman-owned and indigenous-focused consulting and training company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

These are session descriptions of a graduate course titled “Advancing Human Rights Through Documentary Media,” developed and taught by Beverly Seckinger, a filmmaker and professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona. The course is one of several that make up the interdisciplinary Human Rights Practice program, a collaboration between Seckinger’s school and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, founded in 2018 by William Simmons, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, who has continued to serve as its director since. 

The fully online program is designed to provide students with the skills, concepts and theoretical framework—as well as the humility—to work with diverse communities around the world in response to myriad human rights abuses. The curriculum favors short classes—7.5 weeks each—and rolling admissions, so that students have greater flexibility in starting and completing the program, rather than waiting for a more traditional once-per-year admissions cycle. The program also boasts a lower tuition than one pays in traditional university programs.

Seckinger’s class introduces graduate students to an array of topics related to human rights—such as genocide, violence against migrants, incarceration and criminal justice reform—and the opportunities to use media to engage audiences through visual storytelling. Concepts include notions of witnessing, participatory documentary, gathering testimony and evidence through visual and audio recording, advocacy and activism, and much more. Seckinger’s students come from all over the world, boast an array of backgrounds and life experiences and are passionate about wanting to make change through media.

Seckinger explains that her goal in bringing so many guests is to expose students to diverse perspectives and to connect them directly with people already working in the media activist field, while ensuring that everything she is teaching is very current. However, students do not simply sit back and take in a lecture each week. Instead, they actively prepare for each visitor by viewing their work, reading supporting material and preparing questions. 

When Yates and de Onís kick things off, for example, they present a filmmaking master class using clips from their many film projects, which include 500 Years: Life in Resistance, about the trial against the Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt that debuted at Sundance in 2017; Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, about the history of the 1982 genocide in Guatemala; and The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, a three-year chronicle of the efforts of prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo to indict various warlords for genocide. With their 30-year history of media production and activism, the Skylight team offers extraordinary firsthand knowledge to the students in Seckinger’s class.

When Manuelito and Rodriguez visit, they talk about their work teaching digital storytelling workshops in indigenous communities, with a focus on health, education, policy and cultural preservation. “In a very spiritual and ceremonial way, they teach digital storytelling skills to different native groups—women, elders, youth, whoever engages them,” explains Seckinger, underscoring the differences among the diverse presenters invited to speak with her students. “For these women, it’s not about going to Sundance or changing policy, but about deep personal transformation.” 

Documentary filmmaker Lisa Molomot, whose projects include Missing in Brooks County, a documentary set in Texas 70 miles north of the U.S. border where thousands of migrants have died, taught a graduate-level documentary production course in the program for the first time last spring. The class focused on the elements of visual storytelling, as well as access and ethics. While many film instructors have balked at trying to teach production online, Molomot was pleasantly surprised by her experience. “These classes are small, so they feel very intimate. I got to know all of the students very well, and there’s something powerful about the rawness of it.”

Molomot says that one of the ongoing challenges in teaching film production centers on the diverse skills and backgrounds that students have because many participants are not film students. “I look at each student individually to see what skills they’re bringing and work with each to build from where they are.” She also encourages peer-to-peer learning and adds, “I feel that becoming a filmmaker and gaining the skills to make a really good film is something you learn over time. You’re not going to learn it all in seven-and-a-half weeks. However, I do work on ways to make something look professional, and beyond that, I focus on content and what the students have access to.”

The Human Rights Practice program has just announced a new graduate certificate in Human Rights and Documentary Media for filmmakers and those interested in visual storytelling, one of four new online offerings within Human Rights Practice. There is an entirely online bachelor’s degree, as well as two other graduate certificate programs: one that focuses on gender-based violence and another that centers on various emerging technologies—such as surveillance, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity—as they relate to human rights. Together, all of the programs are designed to offer students several vectors through which to grapple with—and counter—human rights abuses. 

According to Seckinger, there are two clear groups who might find either the Advancing Human Rights Through Documentary Media course or the certificate program appealing. “First, filmmakers who want to turn their skills toward human rights,” she says, noting that these people may already have some filmmaking skills but want to understand the broader context of human rights and get to know some of the major participants in this realm. “The second group will be aspiring or experienced human rights workers pursuing careers in law, refugee rights and resettlement, journalism or hands-on services like working with the homeless or survivors of sexual violence. These are people who want to learn to think about how media practices can serve their work. This may not necessarily mean making a movie but understanding a broader media ecosystem.”

Seckinger and Molomot have found teaching graduate film classes online engaging and exciting. They highlight the global reach of their program and the fact that students can participate from all over the world. They also point to the diverse backgrounds that participants bring to the work, helping class members understand not only radically different national contexts but also the perspectives that different life experiences and backgrounds can bring to storytelling and media production. This awareness and appreciation of difference and the development of an ethics related to how we interact with one another can, in turn, fuel a media-making sensibility. And, as we look around, whether nationally or globally, the need for activists responding to human rights abuses is sadly vital and urgent.

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