Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America

Originally published here

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Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America

Directed by Tom Shepard

Tom Shepard’s internationally award-winning documentary Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America opens with screaming and yelling and it quickly becomes apparent that a crowd are turning violent towards a young gay African male. The sentiment that ‘love is love’ does not ring true in the 70 odd countries where it is illegal to be lesbian, gay or transgendered. In fact, in four of these countries, if you are anything but heteronormative it is likely to be a death sentence.

The documentary follows the story of four LGBTQ asylum seekers fleeing persecution and mortal danger to San Francisco and attempting to start their own lives in the shadow of what they needed to leave behind – including family members who are violent and see nothing wrong with persecuting their children often under the guise of religion and culture.

Subhi Nahas left Syria when, in 2012, Al Qaeda affiliated groups targeted and killed young gay men, causing him to flee to Lebanon and then later Turkey where even former friends turned ISIS members threatened to kill him. Partners from Angola, Cheyenne Adriano and Mari N’Timansieme, had to leave after a family member tried to poison their food fleeing to the US first on student visas and having to apply for asylum from within the US which has its own complexity. Junior Mayema’s mother preaches against homosexuality in the Democratic Republic of Congo where violence is often used against gay members of society, and when harassed by the police UN decided to expedite his application for asylum.

Shot over four years it is clear that they are not alone in their journey to settle in the US, yet it is very difficult. Refugee and asylum advocates assist them in trying to not only find their place in their new home but to also navigate the inevitable bureaucratic process of seeking asylum – including the transition from Obama to the Trump administration. Since 2016 only an estimated 30% of asylum applications are successful so for Cheyenne and Mari it is a particularly harrowing time. As Junior experiences, even with an asylum visa it’s still not easy navigating life in a new country especially faced with the possibility of homelessness.

Unsettled: Seeking refuge in America is a tale of constant struggle and survival, but it is also a tale of hope that is offered in a new land that – for now – allows them to stay true to themselves.

For They Know Not What They Do: a review

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film still, courtesy of QueerScreen

For they Know Not What They Do

Directed by Daniel G. Karslake

Following the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality in 2015 there has been a concerted campaign to curtail LGBTQI+ rights, notably under the guise of religious freedom. Daniel Karslake’s film For They Know Not What They Do is an insight into the way in which religion, such as the values of the Evangelical Christian American, deeply impact the culture and politics of the US around LGBTQI+ identity and sexuality.

Taking the title from ‘The Gospel According to Luke 23:34’, which is often referred to as the ‘Words of Forgiveness’ the documentary focuses on the story of individuals who have come out to families who are deeply religious and who share their stories of trying to navigate not only familial expectations but community expectations as to their own identity. Some, such as Ryan Robertson seek solace in controversial conversion therapy that proclaim to ‘cure’ through scripture any non-heteronormative identities. Others, such as Sarah McBride who became the first transgendered women elected to public office in Delaware, become strong transgender advocates and raise awareness around LGBTQI+ rights in what can be argued to be a very politically conservative country.

The impact of religious attitudes towards LGBTQI+ rights are evident where there exists the ‘No Promo Homo Laws’ in some states such as Arizona and Texas which prevents teachers from discussing anything to do with identity and sexuality that is not heteronormative. Other states aggressively passed legislation under the guise of protecting religious freedom as a constitutional right which conversely limits LGBTQI+ rights in allowing for discrimination, examples included bills debated such as the ‘bathroom bills’ in North Carolina allowing for ID checks before entering into a bathroom designated as either ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Using fear and discrimination to propel community discussion around transgender identities saw political advertisements freely played on television stations across the nation and it’s apparent that the fearmongering creates a palpable level of concern amongst communities as to their own safety. Indeed, the danger surrounding the LGBTQI+ community in the US is also explored with Vico Baez Febo’s experience of a hate crime in Florida as well as Elliot Porcher inflicting self-harm on himself.

For They Know Not What They Do also interviews family members who themselves were grappling with their children’s sense of identity and explores how it might challenge their own deeply held belief system. Interspersed with interviews from other human rights advocates – including religious figures seeking to denounce religious extremism cloaked as piousness – the film examines the increase in hate speech and discrimination since the controversial 2015 ruling.

For They Know Not What They Do is compelling watching, not just for the individual stories who offer forgiveness and hope and understanding but in order to understand the massive issues that they face in contemporary US society – where religion is used actively to discriminate and to create fear and mistrust.

Originally published here.

Transitions Film Festival: Right Now’s Top Picks

The Whale & The Raven

Directed by Mirjam Leuze

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

Hermann Meuter and Janie Wray have interesting jobs. Based in a remote First Nations village in British Columbia Canada, it is their job as whale researchers, to study them in their pristine environment – an environment it appears that is increasingly under threat from a burgeoning Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry and the massive tankers that now weave their way through the very path of the gentle giants.

Mirjam Leuze’s film The Whale & the Raven is set in Tsimshian Territory with the Gitga’at peoples who have lived in and around the coastline for over ten thousand years. Facing pipelines, tankers and possible environmental disasters due to an increasing interest in LNG, the film highlights the precarious position of First Nations people and researchers as they come together to try to protect against the loss of biodiversity and to safeguard the remote untouched environment.

The film centres around the study of possible impacts on the whale habitat from the LNG companies, yet it’s immediately clear it is not just the whales who will possibly be impacted. The decolonisation of the food system has impacted adversely on First Nations. Interspersed with First Nations knowledge and storytelling about their lands, it is also a tale of ensuring cultural heritage, environmental management and customs and way of life can be passed down to successive generations.

Beautifully shot, with an equally impressive soundtrack provided by different whale species, an abundance of other wildlife and the environment itself, The Whale & the Raven illustrates the threat facing both the First Nations and scientists trying to ensure survival of these magnificent creatures. It also tells the story of First Nations people struggling still against colonisation and its impacts.

Convoy

Directed by Matthew Newton

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

The Carmichael coal mine (Adani mine), based in Central Queensland near the important Galilee Basin is highly controversial. The Adani mine, run by billionaire Gautam Adani passed its final environmental approval hurdle in June 2019 despite multiple legal challenges from not only environmental groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation but also traditional owners of the land, the Wangan and Jagalingou people whose sacred lands will be devastated and whose cultural heritage will be wiped forever.

Matthew Newton’s 2019 Convoy follows the Bob Brown Foundation when in April 2019 they lead a convoy of activists and concerned citizens from Tasmania to Queensland in protest. Featuring interviews and footage shot as part of the protest the film opens with a strong statement from Bob Brown: “I’ve been around politics long enough to know that in the run to an election the environment gets taken off every time and out come the bribes”. The priority for the protest, and for the foundation is to flip the narrative so that the environment and voters place within it is something that is thought of as they go into the ballot box”.

Brown has experience in running environmentally focused campaigns, the Franklin River Dam blockade in the 1978-81 protest being successful and resulting in the protection of pristine Tasmanian forest that we enjoy today. What might be surprising for some is that the documentary shows that support for the convoy ripples through all levels of society, from school teachers to farmers to children who are all concerned with the impact of the mine on not just Queensland but tying it into climate change issues which affect all. Indeed, a common theme was the sense of urgency in stopping the mine for the sake of the next generations and to prevent environmental catastrophe – something most Australian’s have experienced first-hand over summer. Convoy is also a story of hope and community, showing individuals that they are empowered and can be part of a force for change – given the current political environment this will be a space to watch.

Push

Directed by Fredrik Gertten

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

Fredrik Gertten’s film Push is timely, not just within Australian urban areas but seemingly throughout the world. The film tries to understand why it is becoming increasingly difficult to live within our cities, why lower socio-economic people can no longer be a part of an urban community due to extremely high rents and gentrification and what it means for cities if the middle class is also unable to meet the increasing monetary demand.

Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing travels globally investigating housing issues in regard to the concept of the right to adequate housing.  Her interviews and reconnaissance missions with vulnerable people who live with housing issues such as rodents and leaks, paints a bleak picture of intimidation and bullying tactics by powerful landlords or organisations who put profit over people. It’s not just a city issue either, the buying of rural land then forces urbanisation, a vicious cycle that pushes people further into poverty – something that a human rights framework tries to rectify. The film reveals some shocking statistics that provide some reason as to why this is becoming such a massive global issue. For example over the past 30 years, Toronto housing prices have increased 425% despite family income only increasing by 133% which is pushing tenants to the margins of affordability and indeed liveability. Multi-million-dollar properties owned by foreign corporations in inner-city London and surrounds is jaw dropping, their empty shells lending shelter to homeless people and squatters.

Push is insightful viewing into how international human rights conceptions of the right to housing is not being met by States and how this impact upon not only the most vulnerable people within society but how it ultimately has a ripple effect through community thereby affecting us all.

On Violence: a review

Originally published here

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Image by Devanath from Pixabay
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Melbourne University Publishing

On Violence by Natasha Stott Despoja

The On Series by Melbourne University Publishing are touted as “little books on big ideas” and feature well known writers and identities covering topics such as Germaine Greer writing about rape, Leigh Sales on doubt and Stan Grant on identity. Natasha Stott Despoja’s contribution to the series, On Violence, focuses on violence against women as a national emergency, requiring community and political action to prevent it.

With extreme levels of violence, sometimes resulting in death, against women in Australian society, Despoja argues that there is a need, “…to change the story that ends in violence against women, we must begin with gender equality and respect for all women”.

Working through alarming statistics where on average women die weekly at the hands of someone they know, to noting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are subject to violence more than thirty-times the rate for non-Indigenous women Despoja is unapologetic in calling for changes in how society has, for the most part, turned a blind eye to these issues.

That’s not to say that there are not organisations or individuals currently working to create better frameworks with which to deal with, and hopefully stem, this national emergency. Despoja refers to Rosie Batty’s tireless campaigning for recognition of family violence and changing the ways in which it is dealt with as part of policy reform. The book talks about the issue of promoting gendered behaviours, the lack of diversity in being able to illustrate to children their worth as members of humanity, rather than an identity structured around gender and the importance in actively changing the narrative around violence through primary prevention strategies.

Written more as a conversation between the author and the reader than a formal essay On Violence is easily accessible which is important when considering the topic of discussion and the barriers that are often placed around them that need to be broken down. In the chapter “Respect”, for example, Despoja points towards the need to ensure education around respectful relationships occur at an early age so that younger generations have a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable in a relationship.

Education around respectful relationships is one such way to challenge the status quo on approaching and quashing violence, but it requires the full support of government to ensure wide and even reach. Despoja conversely notes that such discussions precipitated Prime Minister Scott Morrison as being very vocal about enrolling his own children in a school that didn’t impose “the values of others” on his children.

On Violence makes it clear that there is much work to do in this space, from victim blaming to reluctance to educate Australia’s youth about meaningful and respectful relationships to acknowledgment of violence against women as being at epidemic proportions and having consistent constructive frameworks in place to deal with it. It also makes it clear that we, as individual members of society, can be proactive in creating an Australia where all women are respected and not subject to violence, where our grandmothers and mothers, our sisters, our cousins, our friends and ourselves are as safe in our private lives as we should expect to be in our public lives. It’s a small book with an incredibly important message, one that everyone should hear.

Stories from the Defenders: a review of Seeking Justice in Cambodia

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Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

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Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out

Sue Coffey

Melbourne University Publishing

Cambodia is a country that has experienced immense suffering due to the Khmer Rouge genocide under the leadership of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, Vietnamese invasion and ongoing socio-political and economic suppression. Modern Cambodia continues to struggle with the effects of autocratic rule and justice and human rights are continually challenged.

It is with this backdrop that Sue Coffey’s book Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out sought out individuals within civil society organisations who actively fight for human rights and democracy in Cambodia. Coffey was a communications advisor attached to the NGO Forum on Cambodia during 2012-2013 and witnessed first-hand the impact that governmental corruption and lack of transparency in decision making can do to vulnerable communities.

Despite having human rights organisations in Cambodia since the early 1990s, the volatile political environment and lack of awareness amongst domestic and international scholars of human rights has meant that oppositional voices to the ruling government and its policies are hidden, or at the very least suppressed for fear of retribution.

Coffey has been able to document the stories of just some of these courageous individuals, firstly in order to preserve the authenticity of their experiences and secondly, to ensure wider dissemination of these stories as they make up the fabric of Cambodia’s human rights and democracy struggle. Featuring the stories of fifteen individuals, taken at various times, from founders of human rights leagues to president of a national party that recently ended up being arrested for treason to a land activist imprisoned for speaking out about corruption in land development between private developers and the ruling government, the book provides readers with a glimpse into the difficulties, and achievements of human rights defenders in a tightly controlled environment.

Some of the interviewees are in exile, such as Thun Saray the founder and President of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association who speaks frankly about the dangers of setting up such an organisation that promoted human rights and democracy. Other interviewees point to deep issues between religion, government and society with Coffey including the Venerable Loun Sovath, a Buddhist monk who has been banned by the Cambodian Buddhist hierarchy from seeking refuge in temples due to his vocal commitment to human rights and his questioning of forced evictions of people from areas of commercial interest as a person whose story needs to be shared.

Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out is a collection of personal stories that provide real insight into the complexities of the human rights landscape in Cambodia, and stories which deserve to be disseminated and read widely. Coffey’s desire to memorialise the efforts of these individuals can only provide inspiration for others in following their path to being human rights defenders.

Originally published at Right Now.

Radical Heart, the inside story of the Uluru Statement of the Heart

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Image by faszynelka from Pixabay

Radical Heart

Shireen Morris

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Melbourne University Publishing

Dr Shireen Morris is a constitutional lawyer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne where she focuses on indigenous constitutional recognition. Hailing from Fijian-Indian immigrant parents who made their home in Melbourne, Morris worked for seven years on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a statement that is controversial in terms of recognition of First Peoples with the Australian Constitution. Her book, Radical Heart is an exploration of her involvement in the campaign for constitutional recognition.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart came from a constitutional convention supported by the Referendum Council, a bipartisan council jointly appointed by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten. Though there was a focus on the calls to alter the Constitution in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the statement also called for reform around legislative change with the creation of a Makarrata Commission which would supervise agreements between the government and indigenous groups as well as the promotion of truth-telling in regard to indigenous culture, law, customs and, of course, the effects of colonialism.

Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “coming together after a struggle”, the name is suitable considering the injustices of the past.

Early on in Radical Heart, Morris announces that the lack of First People’s inclusion and participation in politics and the lack of Constitutional recognition is due in equal parts to politics as well as a “lack of morally courageous leadership”. Morris argues for the need for consistent and strong advocacy for indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution, which would also require the formation of a constitutionally guaranteed indigenous advisory body, the Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is a Yolngu word meaning “coming together after a struggle”, the name is suitable considering the injustices of the past. Moving through the book it is not hard to see why Morris positions this statement front and centre given the complexities of the topic, and the voices involved – seemingly at times competing with each other.

Radical Heart is an important contribution to understanding the limits of constitutional reform in Australia as well as providing clear insights into exactly why this is required.

Morris’ strength lies in her ability to take readers on an intimate journey into the campaign around the Uluru Statement from the Heart, from personal stories about working with Noel Pearson, member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians in 2011, who would admonish her work in front of policymakers in a bid to make her consider it more fully; to the delicate and often political tête-à-tête with constitutional defenders, left- and right-leaning politicians and key indigenous experts such as Marcia Langton.

Deeply telling, the lead up to the final chapter in which the Uluru Statement from the Heart is formally rejected sets out the ways in which government opposition and public uncertainty impacted upon recognition of not only the importance of the Statement but also its aims and future impacts on Australian legal, socio-cultural, political and educational frameworks. Radical Heart is an important contribution to understanding the limits of constitutional reform in Australia as well as providing clear insights into exactly why this is required.

Morris succinctly points out six key lies that need to be corrected when analysing governmental rejection of the Statement as being “neither desirable nor capable of winning acceptance at referendum” – collectively they showcase the fundamental misunderstanding of the role that indigenous Australians have within contemporary Australian society. They are at the heart of Australia and without giving the First Peoples a voice firmly enshrined in the Constitution, all Australians cannot move forward as a nation.

HRAFF 2019: The Panama Papers Review

The Panama Papers

Image courtesy of HRAFF

The Panama Papers 

Directed by Alex Winter

We live in a world of collected information. Data is created, collected and maintained in almost all aspects of our daily lives. This data collection continues with government, multinational organisations and other business relying more and more on the ability to transact across global networks, sharing data with each other, and of course, shifting data between each other in a way that has never before been possible.

Over the course of a decade we have witnessed, under the organisation Wikileaks, the release of thousands of documentation related to topics such as the War on Terror and potential war crimes, cables about political interference in trade, emails concerning presidential races and collusion and most recently the private letters of Pope Francis in regards to a power struggle within the Catholic Church and the Knights of Malta. Wikileaks had been aided by former US Army soldier Chelsea Manning in the release of classified or sensitive documentation around what was termed ‘Iraq War Logs’ and ‘Afghan War Diary’ with media organisation Der Spiegel arguing that they were the greatest leaks in military history as they brought to light crucial and hidden information about US involvement in civilian deaths.

In 2013 Edward Snowden, former Central Intelligence Agency and sub-contractor to the National Security Agency gave information to various news organisations about widespread surveillance by the Five Eyes alliance made up of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom on citizens through mobile phones, internet usage, emails and instant messaging.

It is argued that both Wikileaks and Snowden released information to increase awareness about the dark areas of government, the areas where there is very little transparency in regards to decision making and even less in regards to accountability. The amount of data that both Wikileaks and Snowden released however pales in comparison in regards to the biggest release of data and documentation under what is termed as The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers comprise of over 2.6 terabytes of data and include approximately 11.5 million documents in the form of emails, photos, Pdf files and internal database information.  It is the single biggest leak in history so far, but what is it and what does it all mean?

Alex Winter’s documentary of the same name The Panama Papers rips open the biggest global corruption scandal in history. It starts with a simple message of “Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in Data?” and sends journalists down a path which leads to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chinese Politburo members and former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to name a few of the high-profile leaders, politicians and celebrities hiding away billions and billions of dollars in a bid to avoid paying tax.

Winter’s fascinating documentary focuses on the painstaking collaboration that occurred between Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Germany and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), where journalists – often at great risk to their own lives – started to untangle the web of deceit around tax avoidance and the shift of billions of dollars of money through offshore and shell accounts lead by multi-national Panamanian firm Mossack Fonesca. Mossack Fonesca, powerfully aligned with offices around the world often had criminal clients with strong connections to organised crime and arguably lauded over the biggest international conspiracy in modern times.

Over 370 journalists spanning some 70 countries were involved in the data interpretation and Winter’s The Panama Papers expertly tells the story of some of those whom were intimately involved, illustrating the lengths required to safeguard not only the journalists but the whole effort itself, for the long arm of corruption was never far away. In presenting The Panama Papers Winter contributes towards shining a light over the dark areas of government and business following on from the work of Wikileaks and Snowden in illuminating corruption and greed.

Since the release of The Panama Papers, it is estimated that almost $1.2 billion dollars has been recovered in back-taxes and penalties. Winters riveting documentary of the same name can only assist in helping people understanding the lengths to which the wealthy will go to in order to sequester money and to avoid tax. It’s scary and confronting but something that definitely needs to be dealt with – power, government and money do not make for good bedfellows.

We can only wonder what the next big release of data will be about and brace ourselves.

Originally published here.