A Look at Documentaries with Aviva Slesin

Monday, Apr 16, 2012

Tisch Special Programs recently chatted with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Aviva Slesin. She will be teaching the Tisch Open Arts course Through the Documentary Lens: Human Rights this summer. What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker? I became fascinated with documentary filmmaking while I was an apprentice editor for documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey. I saw how you could construct a drama out of real situations and show something important about people s lives and I wanted to do that. I ve always loved stories about real people and real events and I would argue that these are best conveyed through documentaries. Also, I have always been curious about how people in other parts of the world live so, being a visual person, I like to see for myself how people move and speak and I would always rather get first-person accounts of their lives. What has changed with documentaries over the years? Documentaries have become better with less pretense of being THE TRUTH. There are less films with the "voice of God" narration; so the responses and thoughts on the subjects are left up to us. Documentary films have become more engaging and entertaining too. I find that they are a great way to educate oneself and students about what s happening in the world. Since the world has become a much smaller place after 9/11 and with the use of the internet, documentaries are a wonderful way to teach the humanities as they show the whole spectrum of human life. One can learn really important things but through good storytelling. What are some of the documentaries you feel have really made an impact on Human Rights? I m not sure if they have made a direct impact but they raise awareness, consciousness, and empathy. The films are a first step for a call to action. The Reporter is about The New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof on a journey to carefully find a subject to write about so that people will care. The film Shame is about Mukhtar Mai, an illiterate woman in Pakistan who was gang raped by men in a neighboring tribe to avenge something her brother allegedly did. Instead of killing herself, which is the norm, she took the case to court and, even more importantly, went to the press with her story and with the money she received as the outcome of the trial, she built a school for girls in her village and became a Human Rights activist. At the end of the film it said that she is now in grade 5 in the very school she built for the young girls in her village. There is another film called The Price of Sugar that shows the real cost of human labor and degradation in bringing much of the sugar we use to our tables. And the list goes on and on: there are many wonderful documentaries about Human Rights. What advice do you have for students interested in making a difference in Human Rights through documentary films? I'm not sure I can advise them on how to make a difference, but we watch a documentary in each class and discuss the work and connect to it in many ways. I think it's important for students to become familiar with the progress being made in Human Rights and to start to understand that they can be a part of that progress and there are many ways to become involved. One thing I strongly believe, is that if you re not part of the solution then you re part of the problem. I believe this about every one of us, not just the students. I know that students want to get involved in shaping their world and want to work towards making it a better place and I would argue that the first step is to understand what is going on in the world and becoming a conscious person. Seeing Human Rights documentaries certainly opens the students eyes to the struggle that most of the world is engaged in just to live a dignified life.