Human rights film fest explores museums

Curators discuss challenges in putting together this year’s International Human Rights Film Festival due to its unorthodox theme

  • By Han Cheung / Staff Reporter

Kuo Min-jung (郭敏容) was stumped when she learned about this year’s International Human Rights Film Festival (國際人權影展) theme: “The Power of Museums.” The previous themes were simple enough – climate change, transnational migration, medical rights and so on, but what do museums have to do with human rights?

“The room went silent and we looked at each other blankly,” Kuo recalls. “We considered giving up and doing something different, but suddenly we felt this determination to take on the challenge…especially since the festival is sponsored by [the National Human Rights Museum].”

After a long search, Kuo and the three other curators came up with five feature films and one animated short for Whose Museum Is This?. Part of the festival taking place today through Sunday at Spot Huashan Cinema in Taipei. The annual Human Rights Lens section looks at issues that are relevant today, while also continuing some of the themes from the previous year.

Photo courtesy of the International Human Rights Film Festival

For the first time since the festival’s inception in 2017, there will be a feature film – and a horror film, no less. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Good Madam is an eerie psychological tale that deals with issues of race and class.

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For those who can’t make it this weekend, the festival goes online on the documentary streaming platform Giloo from September 26th to October 10th. Afterwards there will also be joint demonstrations at different locations.


Photo courtesy of the International Human Rights Film Festival

Kuo says curators should always prioritize the quality of the films and let them speak for the subject, rather than letting the subject dictate selection.

But this time, the team started by getting their hands on every museum film they could find, and they were the first to notice that museums are popular settings for commercial action, spy, and romance films. There have also been some films that explored the history of specific museums, their beginnings, the origins of their objects, and other important and interesting events.

They then found films with museums dealing with relevant issues like climate change, but it still wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Eventually they came across the Dutch production The Treasures of Crimea. In 2014, a museum in the Netherlands loaned a collection of Crimean artifacts for a special exhibition. Just months later, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, leading to an international legal battle over whether the museum should return the artifacts to Crimea or Ukraine.

“There’s a museum, it’s related to current events, the plot is exciting, the director is well-known, and it’s relatively new,” says Kuo.

She noted that while international opinion is overwhelmingly condemning Russia, especially given the ongoing war, this film avoids taking sides, instead exploring the conflict through identity and cultural ties to the artifacts.

“For a person in Crimea, they may have voted to join Russia, but that doesn’t cut their emotional connection to their cultural treasures,” says Kuo. “We finally found a possible direction and started to explore other films that followed this theme.”

The Colonial Institute is a multi-layered exploration of scientific research and artifact collection during Germany’s brutal colonization of Africa, with the German narrator constantly questioning and reflecting on the subject.

“You might have to watch it a few times,” says Kuo. “It makes us think about how many museums have a more or less dark, violent history.”

Restitution: Africa’s Struggle for its Art is an information-packed introduction to the same subject, examining the political, linguistic sensitivities and other concerns behind Western museums returning artifacts to their original owners.

On the contrary, in Hu Tai-li (胡台麗) Returning Soul (讓靈魂回家) by anthropologist Hu Tai-li (胡台麗), the Yanks of Tafalong don’t necessarily want their historical column back from Academia Sinica—it’s more important, their soul to be able to lead back to the village.

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Finally, the Girls’ Museum and the Muteum challenge established structures in modern museums. In this way, the films attempt to bring in more diverse perspectives, whether gender, race, or class.

“If you complete the entire section, you can probably get into a graduate program in museum studies,” jokes co-curator Chen Chun-jung (陳俊蓉).

Chen says the Human Rights Lens section is comparatively less academic, with selections mostly addressing climate change, transitional justice and state violence.


International Human Rights Film Festival (國際人權影展)
When: Online today through Sunday, Sept. 26 through Oct. 10
Where: Spot Huashan Cinema (光點華山電影館), 1, Bade Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市八德路一段1號)
Entry: Free of charge, tickets are available at the counter at least one hour before the film starts
In the web: (Chinese only)

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