“We are passionate about human rights; we talk about them to everyone. Creatives, artists, poets, photographers, and filmmakers all come with their own passions, and when our passions meet something magical happens,” explained Dmitri Makarov, discussing the reason for the creative methods employed by Human Rights House Voronezh.
A frame from the comic strip “Documents” – huma.org
Young people often struggle to see how they can get involved in human rights and get behind good causes, according to Makarov, who describes the general mentality that human rights work is “about writing reports and appealing to the courts.”
“For us it all comes out of the question: what can you do to protect human rights, without becoming a lawyer or an expert? Now we are even saying that you can protect human rights without necessarily becoming a human rights defender. It doesn’t have to be your full-time job, but you can use your passions and your expertise, and do what you can to support.”
Building that base of support has become crucial for Human Rights House Voronezh. The members of the House have been experimenting with how to communicate with ordinary people, to increase their understanding of what human rights are, what human rights defenders do, and why their work is important.
We need to communicate better, but how?
Taking these questions further, International Youth Human Rights Movement, one of the members of Human Rights House Voronezh looked to engage the public directly, with a film, asking the question: “Could you be a human rights defender?” Yet they found themselves in a position many other organisations may recognise.
“We were saying okay, we need to communicate better, we need to spread our message better, but how do we do it? We’re not video producers,” continued Makarov.
They found their solution in the form of a professional team able to film the project with a limited budget. Together and in partnership with other human rights organisations from the post-Soviet space, they produced the interactive YouTube video “Could you be a Human Rights Defender?”
Makarov views this experimental collaboration between a film team and human rights defenders as a success, and says that it opened up the possibility of other creative projects and ideas. Today, participants of YHRM are developing a script for a film in which human rights activists will be the main protagonists. Excited about bringing the human rights conversation to the kinds of audiences that watch HBO’s Game of Thrones, YHRM is now collaborating with the professional film producers behind https://takiedela.ru/katia/ – a story about a person with HIV growing up, living, falling in love and starting a family.
Experimentation leads to innovation
Human Rights House Voronezh’s innovation is not limited to film. The members also identified illustration as a medium to communicate the human rights discourse. A joint comics initiative “Respect” aims to speak to young people through the medium of comics, in a language that they understand and which interest them. “Documents”, a comic about interaction with the police and was one of the most popular comics on the platform and can be read both in English and in Russian.
The work in illustration led to work in animation, and the Youth Human Rights Movement has also been involved in HUMRA, a platform that holds educational programmes for young people, animation workshops, and screenings of animation at international festivals.
At one of these animation workshops, held as part of the Letnyaya shkola “summer school,” students, artists, and human rights experts produced the prize-winning animation “Corrections Work” which explores a society where no one has heard of human rights. Some 13 students from different cities created the simple and colourful characters in five days. They were supported by artists Roman Sokolov and Nadya Mira, and human rights experts Andrey Yurov and Dmitri Makarov.
Makarov has even involved his family members: “In one animation, my son was speaking of his father and his mother as being superheroes… along with the children of some of our colleagues who spoke about human rights defenders being somewhat superheroes.”
“I don’t see myself as superhero, but the video has got two hundred thousand clicks on Facebook. Putting human rights issues into these kinds of formats is something that helps us to spread the message.”
Put human rights at the heart of the project
“City of RightsCity is Right” Festival
Human Rights House Voronezh is organising the annual Город Прав “City of RightsCity is Right (a play on words in Russian)” festival for 2018 in Voronezh. “We put the rights at the centre of it,” comments Makarov.
The festival is not only about human rights though; it also focuses on environmental initiatives, animal protection, and charity, and how the city can be more welcoming to ordinary people. It’s about alternative education, and how people can organise through grassroots initiatives.
“We as human rights defenders are there and we provide a kind of a platform for alternative discussion,” says Makarov. “I think it’s a good approach; this kind of cooperation can sometimes give way to creative ideas.”
“Not Passing Witness” photography contest
“Francis” by Sergey Stroitelev, winner of the grand prize. Francis, 48, Congo, lives in Russia for 4 years Francis was attacked 3 years ago in Podolsk.
Out of this cooperation came the idea of holding the “Not passing witness” photo contest. This was for photographers who, in their work, come across social issues.
Makarov views this as a good medium: “Behind each picture there is a story – the story of a person – and there’s a story of a human rights issue. We can frame it like that, and we can frame it as a larger problem of justice. As art, it’s something that people want to come and look at… it helps us to keep the dialogue going,”
Future plans for Human Rights House Voronezh include the establishment of a literary festival, coming from a common love of poetry at the House “A colleague of ours was quite a renowned poet who worked with us as a human rights defender, before going on to literary exploits. She said, ‘why don’t we organise a literary festival that covers some of the issues that we come across in our work’.”
Makarov sees it as having the potential to be a great alternative to the mainstream festivals that take place in Voronezh or in Moscow, and as a good way to once more look at human rights issues in a different light.
Human rights need people to defend them
Established human rights organisations are looking to innovation in reaching out on human rights, and this in itself is a success for Makarov: “Solidarity and the way these initiatives are building for me is inspiring … it’s a measure of success that we are starting to think about how to communicate better and how to spread our message better…
It’s also a success that others have become more involved: “Graduates of our human rights schools now discuss how they can do a campaign to support the families of imprisoned human rights defenders. They do it on their own… it’s something that they find important.”
Makarov warns that organisations need to better communicate the message, but without turning down their message: “We must not forget what drove us to these types of activities in the first place… Human rights have not won. They still need a lot of people to defend them, to understand what they are and to come to the support of human rights defenders.”
Following the success of previous fundraising efforts, a common space named 2nd Floor has been established at the House. In this space, people are able to conduct presentations, trainings, exhibitions, film screenings, photo shoots, birthdays or more general parties. With the deficit of public spaces in the city, it is a place where various civic initiatives meet, where seminars and meetings are held.
hragents.org – a website that presents a chronicle, whose main theme is people’s efforts aimed at making our society a little better.
Online human rights course
stepik.org/course/2945 – A course hosted by experienced human rights activists, activists, educators and animators answering the questions; When did human rights appear? How much of all human rights? How to distinguish a violation of a human right from a criminal offense and why? What values and legal standards are at the heart of the international human rights system? What is the role of human rights in the modern world?
City of Rights
Not Passing Witness
To see more photographs and to find out more about the contest, visit http://hrfoto.ru/ (Russian language) – If you would like to find out about hosting the exhibition in your city, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also see some of the winning photos with English captions here.
More information on the projects
The comics initiative “Respect” was started by International Youth Human Rights Movement, member organisation of the House along with Goethe Institute Moscow and the Moscow International Comics Festival “KomMissia” with the support of the European Union.
HUMRA is a platform that holds educational programmes for young people, multilevel system training for instructors in the field of human rights, animation workshops, talks, screening animation on international festivals, lectures, interactive seminars and mini-grants contests.
HUMRA has produced a booklet on how to use animation in human rights training.
Dmitri Makarov, is the Co-chairman of the Coordination Board of the International Youth Human Rights Movement, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and one of the initiators of the Joint Civic Monitoring Group and the International Observers Network. Dmitri regularly conducts seminars on human rights, citizen oversight, advocacy and international solidarity actions. He coordinates human rights and civil activities and implements educational programs for lawyers at the Human Rights House Voronezh.