ACT Human Rights Film Festival hosts panel on documenting through a compassionate lens

Julia Trowbridge

Diffrient and film festival producers and film subjects sit in chairs to be interviewed
Professor of Film and Media Studies Scott Diffrient interviews producers and film subjects from the documentary films “Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas,” “Freedom For The Wolf,” and “Minding the Gap.” (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

Documenting real lives through a film is an important yet difficult thing to do. This is especially the case for films concerning the need for social justice. 

The third annual ACT Human Rights Film Festival, a film festival specifically for creating a dialogue about any and all social issues, hosted a panel for discussing just that. The panel, made up of producers and the films’ subjects, talked about their experiences working on the documentaries and the significance of documentaries surrounding social issues.


According to the ACT Human Rights Film Festival website, not many human rights film festivals exist in the United States and none existed in Colorado, before this one. 

“Living in Fort Collins in Colorado, we have such few opportunities to engage in such dialogue,” said Scott Diffrient, a director of ACT’s programming.

Unfortunately, for aspiring filmmakers, it’s becoming tougher for them to create films that cooperations will buy, “Freedom For The Wolf” producer, Patrick Hamm, said.

“It’s a very tough space right now,” Hamm said. “In past years, pretty much all the films that screened we’re sold immediately, but this year, none did. So you have all these brilliant projects in this ever crowding market, and they’re not selling.”

The thing about documentaries is that it’s real life, and it continues. It’s not like it ends after the documentary ends.” – Diane Quon, producer of “Minding The Gap”

At the same time, film festivals, whether or not they are as big as Sundance, are important for getting up-and-coming artists to share their message. According to Diane Quon, producer of “Minding The Gap,” small film festivals can be important for documentaries too.

“(A small film festival) goal is to broadcast these films, even if it’s a small broadcast,” Quon said. “Not all documentaries are meant to be these big blockbusters that you’ll see on Netflix of TV, but other places like online. You won’t make as much money as if it was on Netflix, but those documentaries are important too.”

Orienting his advice towards the future film producers in the audience, Hamm spoke about some of his documentary financings and mentioned starting out with technology like iPhones to create trailers.

“A lot of the time, you don’t need that much money; a lot of the time, you can just go out and start filming, create a proof of concept,” Hamm said. “Convince people that your idea is good, (and) then it’s easy to get money.”

Because of the nature of documentaries following real lives, especially with issues regarding social justice, it’s important to ensure that the subjects in the films are comfortable with how they are being presented. According to Quon, the policy of the producing company she works for is the less power the people have, the more right they have to see the film before it’s released.

“For ‘Minding The Gap,’ it’s a very personal film,” Quon said. “The thing about documentaries is that its real life, and it continues. It’s not like it ends after the documentary ends.”


Panelists share which films inspire them most: 

Diane Quon: “Won’t you be my Neighbor”

Patrick Hamm: “When Two Worlds Collide”

Argaus Ashine: “The White Helmets”

For these films to capture the social injustices that they do, sometimes going around media-restrictive laws is required, like filming in authoritative or totalitarian governments. This is currently the case for Louai Haffar, producer for “A Memory in Khaki,” and his most recent project that is being filmed in Istanbul. 

“Just five hours ago, my director called me,” Haffar said. “He’s making a film about street children in Istanbul, and he was telling me that the police came to arrest the children. He doesn’t have the permissions to shoot the children, just the streets (of Istanbul). We got a general permission. We’re not telling a lie, but we’re not telling 100 percent of the truth. You have to find a way around the system.”

Although breaking the law, Argaus Ashine, an environmental journalist featured in “Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas,” sees the importance in doing so to cover the issues that aren’t necessarily covered by the international news, like the land grabbing crisis in Ethiopia. 

“The prime objective (of the documentary) is to help those people excluded from mainstream politics and give a voice for the voiceless,” Ashine said.

Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at or on twitter @chapin_jules.