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Where politics fails, art can be a channel for change

“Art for Rights”, the South Asia Human Rights festival organised by Amnesty International South Asia, was held at the national film corporation, Colombo from 5-9 December.

The art and film festival opened up to a fantastic audience of multiple nationalities all there to experience South Asian culture through an underrepresented lens.

The festival was inclusive of an impressive line up of films, music, dance, and performance art pieces, all of which was representative of an interface that explores human rights in its many forms.

The event featured musicians, artists, and dramatists who have all used their craft to empower communities suffering from the worst human rights abuses, including a live mural, puppet show, and photography exhibition, all serving as visual reminders of the importance of standing up against injustice.

We spoke with the event organiser Yasasmin Kaviratne of Amnesty International, who spoke about the pressing need for such an event in today’s socio-political atmosphere. “You cannot separate art from human rights, they are one single being functioning side by side, and it is a very powerful tool to change the way society thinks,” she said, adding that it is great for Lankans to see that the issues we go through are not entirely unique to us; we are not alone and all of South Asia has its burdens but we can also see how they are working to overcome it.

Yasasmin said: “Art can be a form of protest; whole lives can be lived through film, and photography can take us to different worlds. Where politics fails, art can be a channel for change.”

Director Dhanushka Gunathilake of the Colombo Film and Television Academy, who was the curator of the remarkable line-up of films for the festival, spoke of his process when it came to selecting which films to feature at the festival. He said: “Many of the films we’ve featured are all well-travelled. However, they are also ones that you will not often get to see at regular human rights festivals like SAARC, be it because they are propaganda pieces, or simply too controversial for broad spectrums to consume.”

He further added that “most of South Asia is not afforded the opportunity to see many of these art pieces and by allowing them to experience it, they are given a great perspective and the impression that the international community has of us, looking in.”

“Art for Rights” brings together and celebrates, for the first time in Sri Lanka, the pluralistic literary traditions of South Asia – a region of activism, the arts, and big ideas.

The festival featured films from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Lankan film screened on the final day titled “Wind Through the Holes”, directed by Roshan Edward, was an especially insightful look into humanity and the civil war.

A multimedia producer for Amnesty International Ahmer Khan who was extremely camera shy, and was unwilling to pose for a picture with us, said: “I hope that this turns into an annual event, and it can really improve every year, educating communities for generations to come”, adding also that “there are many human rights festivals and events all over the world, so why not Sri Lanka? You guys have some of the best beaches in South Asia; there can be so many community events that are also enjoyable.”

We also spoke to the Deputy Director, Research, South Asia at Amnesty International Dinushika Dissanayake who said: “Politicians in our country make it seem as though human rights and the arts in general are an alien concept; that human rights are a western construct of sorts and here, people can experience for themselves that it is actually part of our culture; see it for themselves that it is in fact something that needs to be held dear and protected.”

By Dimithri Wijesinghe