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SIGNIS-WACC Award 2007 to a Film on Human Rights

On the occasion of the SIGNIS Board meeting in Bucharest, November 2007, Peter Malone of the SIGNIS Cinema desk announced the winner of the SIGNIS-WACC award for a film on human rights. This award is made jointly by the two Christian media associations at the time of each organisations assembly. Philip Lee made the announcement on behalf of WACC (The World Association for Christian Communication) from its headquarters in Toronto.

The 2007 award goes to Nick Higgins (Scotland) for his documentary, A Massacre Foretold . The film was screened during the July SIGNIS/ WACC/ Interfilm conference in Edinburgh on "Peacemaking in the World of Film".

This also seemed appropriate as SIGNIS has been focussing in recent years on Media for a Culture of Peace. The theme for the 2008 WACC assembly is "Communication is Peace: Building Viable Communities".

The director, Nick Higgins, described the making of his film and its reception when it was screened for the first time in Mexico at the Morelia International Festival:

"This is why I make documentaries....

This October, after five years work on a documentary about a massacre in southern Mexico, I was invited to hold the Latin American premier of the finished film at the 5th Morelia International Festival of Cinema. It was an invitation that both delighted and troubled me, it was after-all, the first time the film would be seen in Mexico.

It all began nearly ten years ago when a horrific event happened when I was conducting fieldwork in Mexico that deeply disturbed me. Forty five unarmed Mayan Indians, mainly women and children, were murdered over the space of a couple of hours in the village of Acteal, Chiapas. Even though the police and military were nearby they did not intervene. Not long after I finished my academic studies I resolved to make a documentary film about this massacre.

Back in 1997, pretty much immediately after the massacre happened, what has become known as ‘the official version’ of events first appeared. It was claimed, and continues to be reported, that the massacre was the result of a local dispute that had escalated into tragic violence. My film, A Massacre Foretold , is effectively a 58 minute riposte to this official version of events. The truth, as the film hopefully demonstrates, is that the ex-president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, was the man ultimately responsible for the massacre, and that the attack on the innocent community of Acteal was part of a wider counter-insurgency strategy against the indigenous Zapatista rebels of southern Mexico. Appropriately perhaps, the festival kicked-off with a controversy. The current Mexican president, himself born in Morelia, decided that he would like to be present at the opening ceremony. These days however, as a result of an electoral victory mired in accusations of fraud, anywhere the President goes becomes a focus for passionate protest. As the controversy hit the front covers of the national press, it was an instant reminder that this was a festival that would not be relegated to the culture or showbiz pages and that cinema in Mexico is also politics.

So when I walked out to face the audience after the first screening I wasn’t too sure what the reception might be but very quickly I realised that the film had provoked a very powerful response of indignation, anger and sadness. For many in the cinema, particularly the many young people that attended the screening, this was a shocking account of a recent history they knew nothing about. For others it was a reminder of an event that had been consciously swept under the carpet and it had taken a ‘Scottish foreigner’ to return and remind them that this was one human rights crime that should not be forgotten. Quite quickly the press woke up to the story and after the second screening I was amazed to find my photograph on the front cover of the national paper, La Jornada, with the headline, ‘The Victims of Acteal want Justice not Revenge’.

Director Nick Higgins (left) with Acteal massacre survivors Javier and Alfredo at the Morelia Film FestivalFor the final screening I had managed to arrange, with the kind help of the festival, for a human rights representative and two of the survivors from Acteal to be present for the Q and A. Both Javier and Alfredo from Acteal wore their traditional clothes and as we arrived at the cinema we experienced what can only be described as a paparazzi moment. Around 12 cameramen jostled to take our photographs and as we were escorted by festival staff through the crowded cinema lobby, I realised that the massed public were gathered to see our film. Sure enough the cinema was packed, people even cramming themselves into the aisles and exits so they could watch. A TV news crew stood at the side waiting to record the Q and A.

Like many filmmakers I cringed and perspired through the projection, convinced the film looked terrible and that the audience were distracted, but at a certain point I looked round and realised that most people were crying. When the lights came up and the four of us took to the floor for questions the atmosphere in the salon was charged with emotion. If I tell you that nobody left the cinema and that the Q and A lasted longer than the film you might have some sense of the intensity of the moment. But what really made the screening special was the opportunity to share a platform with the survivors from Acteal. When asked how they felt about the film Javier replied, “it both pains me and makes me sad to see this film. It hurts, because they are my people that were killed, but it pains me more, because 10 years after the massacre there is still no justice.”

Listening to Javier and observing the rare cultural phenomenon of an indigenous man being attentively listened to by a non-Indian audience, I thought to myself, this is why I do it. After the numerous rejections from commissioning editors, the months of bleary eyed concentration in the edit suite, and the many times when I thought it just isn’t worth it... at that instant at least, and if ever I need to remember why I make documentaries... it is for moments like these."

Official website of the film (including trailer):


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