ACT Human Rights Film Festival ends with powerful message

‘Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra’ shows the importance of cultural identity.

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Collegian | Gregory James

The logo for the 2022 ACT Human Rights Film Festival sits on a check-in table March 31. The ACT (Awaken, Connect and Transform) Human Rights Film Festival is an annual event held at Colorado State University to highlight documentary films that bring human rights violations to the forefront.

Maddy Erskine, Arts and Culture Editor

The seventh annual ACT Human Rights Film Festival was a reminder and example of the importance of conversation, learning and understanding the issues many face. The festival offered insight into the complexities of society’s history and present through 12 in-person film screenings, a short-film session and an ongoing virtual encore. 

For the past two years, the festival took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this didn’t stop the festival from being able to showcase powerful films, the in-person experience of this event allows for a much greater sense of community along with meaningful connections and conversations. 

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“It’s really an irreplaceable experience to sit in a theater and watch movies all together,” said Beth Seymour, ACT Human Rights Film Festival managing director. “And I think with two years of being prominently and predominantly online, most of us have forgotten that it’s really fun to watch a movie with other people around.” 

The festival showcased 19 films from 16 different countries, focusing on the importance of diversity and solidarity. In addition to showing films, the festival hosted activities focused on conversation, processing emotions and healing. 

“The films ACT selection screens pretty much require conversation after to talk about the issues and to share thoughts on the film,” Seymour said. “We are a program of communication studies, so part of our festival’s emphasis is on promoting conversation.”

The final film of the in-person section of the festival, “Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra,” was a powerful way to end the weekend. The film follows the story of three Aboriginal brothers and their roles in creating and shaping the Bangarra Dance Theatre. 

“It was made for the 30th anniversary of the dance company, and actually, some of the most prominent Australian directors and producers were involved in the project, which just goes to show how impressive and important this cultural institution is,” Seymour said.

Using both new and old footage of interviews, performances and home videos, the story is told through the lens of the three brothers — Stephen, Dave and Russell Page — and current and former members of the dance company. 

“The film definitely has some mental health, behavioral health and suicide themes,” Seymour said. “But I would say, overall, the film is more a story of sort of identity and racial justice, intergenerational trauma, but also using storytelling and dance and art to heal, to create community, to create identity and to forge forward.”

The film shows the struggles of intergenerational trauma and connecting to your culture while dealing with the effects of colonization and assimilation. Many Aboriginal Australians are affected by the Stolen Generations, which refers to Aboriginal children forcefully removed from their families from roughly 1910-70. They were forced to assimilate into white culture, forbidden from speaking their language and often given new names. 

The brothers found a way to reconnect to their culture through dance, embracing their traditions through contemporary dance performances. The Bangarra Dance Theatre, founded in 1989, is now one of the leading dance companies in Australia and still focuses on connecting Indigenous people to their cultures. 

As the Bangarra Dance Theatre rose to success, the Page family experienced multiple losses to suicide, which deeply impacted them and the community of dance. Following the film was a panel of local experts to discuss suicide prevention, intergenerational trauma, racial justice, dance and whatever else the audience felt they needed to talk about. 

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Panelists included Scott Smith, executive director for the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County; Lisa Morgan, instructor of dance at Colorado State University and Chloe Wright, senior staff psychologist for Colorado State University Health Network. 

The discussion, moderated by Shannon Quist, director for community connections for the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, focused on the complexity of intergenerational trauma and identity. When asked for advice on how to navigate the themes of the film, panelists talked about the importance of being aware of yourself and your connection to history or lack of history. They also discussed being authentic to who you are. 

The panel was followed by a closing reception in the lobby, where people were able to continue discussing the films they saw over the festival’s duration with a performance by CSU musicians and free dessert. 

The festival will be hosting a virtual encore April 4-10 for those who missed the in-person screenings or want to rewatch. 

Reach Maddy Erskine at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @maddyerskine_.