Creators of CSU’s ACT Human Rights Film Festival reflect on its impact

Ryan Greene

While the ACT Human Rights Film Festival saw its final night on April 21, the people who helped create the week long screening of local and international cinema are still considering its themes and its future.

Dr. Scott Diffrient is an assistant professor of film and media in the Department of Communication Studies. He conceptualized the ACT Festival last year with the goal of establishing Colorado State University as a leader in humanitarian outreach. His vision is to showcase locally-made movies alongside international films and to defy typical film tropes.

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“The films we chose this year mostly had female directors and they focused on stories that are usually told from a one-sided point of view,” Diffrient said. “In selecting films from Iran and the Middle East, for example, we wanted to show a perspective that American audiences don’t often see.”

Usama Alshaibi, a filmmaker and visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, had a unique perspective of his own. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he saw the ACT Film Festival as a way to connect the real Middle East with American audiences.

“When I make a documentary about my cousin and his neighbors who get shot at by American soldiers because they turned a wrong corner, there is a connection when I sit here talking to you,” Alshaibi said. “Stories you hear about Iraq in America, they come through the view of a tank. They aren’t told by Iraqis. When audiences see something like ‘American Sniper,’ that makes it easier to bomb the next village.”

The festival’s official themes covered immigration and women’s rights, among others, but the connective tissue holding all the movies together was a message of peace and empathy through understanding.

Shown during the festival, the film “Starless Dreams” told the story of an Iranian girls’ prison.

“This was all about letting the subjects speak for themselves,” Diffrient said. “The way we see Iran and Middle Eastern stories gets framed in a problematic way. In narratives like this, though, you get to see the subjects gradually open up. You realize they’re not so different from a group of American girls.”

Giving voice to those who are invisible in armed conflicts is the best form of international diplomacy, Alshaibi said.

“What do families in the Middle East want?” Diffrient said. “The same as what we want in this country. To live their lives. Imagine if, in the Vietnam War, we had given kids cameras and said ‘show us what you see.’ Suddenly, we can’t sit at home and view war as a video game anymore.”

This style of on-the-ground filmmaking also holds power to fight hate. Fort Collins recently saw its Islamic Center vandalized. Our reaction to that event defines who we will be as a community, Alshaibi said.

“That act of hatred was an American moment,” Diffrient said. “But so was what happened after, when thousands came together in support of Muslims and to oppose racism.”

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Dr. Greg Dickinson, chair of the Department of Communication Studies and the ACT’s producer, said this sense of solidarity is one reason why seeing the films in person has been important to him.

“In the theater, you feel it when the audience is next to you crying,” Dickinson said. “And you feel for those on screen. I’ve never lived in a war camp. I didn’t grow up as a refugee in tents that don’t keep out the rain where children talk about killing Assad. I played war games as a kid, but not because I’d seen my neighbors die. I can only try to empathize with what that means and this is why we’re not trying to do something popular. We’re in the business of asking what it means to be human.”

This year’s festival brought stories that went beyond self reflection, according to Alshaibi.

“The civil rights leader James Baldwin once said ‘not everything that is faced can be changed,’ Alshaibi said. “It is equally true that if we don’t face something, we cannot change it. The ACT Human Rights Film Festival asked audiences not only to face the screen, but to face each other.”

Collegian reporter Ryan Greene can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com.