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The magic of storytelling can combat injustices and human rights violations, say panellists at Berlin’s Human Rights Film Festival

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The speakers explored how powerful storytelling can help activists in their struggles, and how this can become a catalyst for social change

The magic of storytelling can combat injustices and human rights violations, say panellists at Berlin’s Human Rights Film Festival
A moment during the panel discussion

On 23 September, the Human Rights Film Festival hosted a panel entitled “Storytelling and Activism”. The gathering, which ran in Berlin from 16-25 September, aims to inspire and educate its attendees, opening their eyes to several humanitarian issues, as seen from new perspectives.

The panellists at this session explored how storytelling can help activists in their fights against injustice and human rights violations, and how this can become a catalyst for social change. The talk saw the participation of actress-director Katja Riermann (whose film ...and here we are! was part of this year’s festival programme), Amnesty International Germany secretary general Markus Beeko, Save the Children communication director Martina Dase, co-host of feminist podcast Mothers of Invention Thimali Kodikara, campaigner Uma Mishra and Nigerian-American director Adesua Okosun. The conversation was moderated by Anna Ramsklogler-Witt.

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Riermann spoke about her approach to storytelling, saying that she always tries to find the story “behind the news, behind what we know from the humanitarian organisations. [...] I try to close the gap between what we know generally – and in many cases, such information is false – and the very specific, exclusive information provided by the people who are within this bubble. My approach is to tell the story to people who are not part of this bubble, who have never heard about it,” she explained.

Okosun said, “Luckily, a lot of directors and creators have the freedom to express themselves through storytelling and to not be afraid to seek questionable stories.” They don’t fear telling the stories of communities that everyone is ignoring or the experiences in Africa that many try to sugar-coat.

Dase noted a lack of meaningful stories: “I think storytelling is the art of telling something that gets under your skin. We still need to be more courageous, and we need to stop telling similar stories over and over again. People are tired of this.” She then mentioned that the most successful piece of storytelling ever produced by Save the Children was a viral video (watch it here) made in collaboration with an advertising agency. It was not a case study, but it basically transposed the Syrian War to London, showing a nine-year-old girl celebrating her birthday when, all of a sudden, a civil war breaks out in the UK. “We need to work more with suspense, surprise, shock and mystery – all of those skills that advertising agencies and blockbuster directors possess,” she added.

Speaking about how humour can be a powerful storytelling tool for just causes, Kodikara said that it allows us “to bring new audiences towards subjects that they are usually terrified of or know nothing about”.

Mishra discussed how emotions can have an impact on her campaigning work: “Working with human rights defenders is always incredibly tricky because of how you are portraying their stories.” She said that it is important to remember that the voices of these people – women, minorities, political prisoners and so on – have been silenced, so activists and campaigners need to make sure not to co-opt their voices and handle their portrayals, as far as possible, with the utmost care.

Beeko highlighted the shift from “telling stories about human rights violations and those affected by them” to a focus on the “activists and the changes that are possible”, which gives hope but is also stimulating more active modes of participation on the part of the audience.

In the last section of the panel, the speakers fielded some questions raised by the audience attending on site.

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