Social Justice Film Festival highlights inequality

The Social Justice Film Festival is a annual event that exhibits a series of short and feature-length documentaries and narrative films that cover relevant social justice issues abroad and in the region. (Photo by Jayna Milan)

The Social Justice Film Festival [SJFF] is contrived of partnerships across the Pacific Northwest, coming together to host forums and screenings focused around issues of social justice. 

SJFF’s mission is to “forge creative alliances with diverse communities, bring inspiring filmmaking to new audiences, and make the art of filmmaking an integral part of social change,” as stated on their webpage.

The program was initially founded in 2009, but after a period of inactivity it was resurrected. SJFF current Director Anne Paxton contacted the original creators and asked if she could relaunch the festival again four years later. It’s been running ever since.

“Our goal in that first year was to really highlight prisoner justice issues,” said SJFF Assistant Director Laura Brady.

She noted that the festival has worked with the UW since its inception, and many SJFF staff are UW alumna. Brady recalled that Paxton had researched if any other festival focused on social justice, but to no avail.

“Film is such an incredibly powerful medium for speaking to social justice issues in ways that people can experience the issues right in front of their face,” Brady said. “It’s very different than reading about it in the news. It’s also an opportunity to tell really personal stories.”

Via The Daily

Choosing which films to screen is a hefty process. SJFF staff typically screen anywhere from 40 to 70 films, after having reviewed hundreds of videos that were sent in online. Brady said the screening process can take up to three months. 

While the festival screens films from around the world, it focuses on Pacific Northwest issues and filmmakers. 

“This year, we felt it was really important to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement,” Brady said. “We got a lot of fantastic films that were addressing institutional racism.”

The films and documentaries shown each evening of the festival are designed to have a common theme. Most films have an opportunity for discussion afterward between the audience and some guests, sometimes including the filmmakers themselves.

This year’s festival features a myriad of social justice topics, from technology to incarceration. Three of the first films screened are featured below: “East of Salinas,” “Promised Land,” and “Milwaukee 53206.” The festival runs through Oct. 25. 

Immigrant Rights

Opening night of the Social Justice Film Festival centered on undocumented immigrants and worker’s rights. The featured film that evening was “East of Salinas” by filmmakers Laura Pacheco, Jackie Mow, and Rachel Clark.

Set in Salinas, Calif., the documentary followed an undocumented family, while simultaneously following the heroic efforts of a third grade teacher, Oscar Ramos, who wove in and out of the family’s life.

The Anzaldo family is restricted in job choices by their undocumented status, forcing them to work as seasonal farm-hands. 

Filmmaker Pacheco noted that she was aware of how highly politicized a film on undocumented immigrants could be, and she wanted to stray from that. 

“You got to figure out the story that’s not being told,” she said. “We never hear about the children.”

Heavily featured in the film is the family’s only child, 8-year-old Jose, who becomes a favorite of Ramos upon entering the third grade. 

The filmmaker explained that the crew brought in human rights lawyers, knowing that there were clearly legal issues and safety concerns for the very people they had been documenting. 

“It’s hard to sit by and watch a family really struggle and know you can only help in small ways,” Pacheco said. “Some filmmakers think you can’t intervene at all, and I don’t see my role like that.”

After the show, there was a panel of immigrants’ rights lawyers and activists holding a discussion with the audience. One audience member asked how they could help make a difference.

“There are Joses in every single one of your school districts,” said a different audience member, Rachel Pashkowski, to everyone else. “And there’s female counterparts of Joses.”

Indigenous Rights

The second screening pivoted on the violation of Native American rights.

The featured film this evening was “Promised Land,” created by Sarah and Vasant Samudre Salcedo. It follows the Duwamish and Chinook tribes, and their fight for treaty rights.

Seattle is built on Duwamish land. In fact, Seattle is specifically named after a Duwamish and Suquamish descendant, Chief Si’ahl.

But the Duwamish, along with so many others across the United States, is not a legally recognized tribe. 

The film notes that these treaties (which grant recognition of existence) are “not an act of giving rights, but of reserving them.” 

“Promised Land” highlights the desecration of tribal artifacts, in which the Duwamish have walked onto contractors digging up tribal artifacts but couldn’t stop them because they’re not legally recognized. They then have to call professionals, like UW archeologists, to stop such acts. Even then, the Duwamish can’t legally own their own history.

There’s also the issue of “blood quantum,” the concept that a person can only identify, and be legally recognized, as Native American if they have a certain percent of tribal blood. With this definition, tribes inevitably shrink and can disappear. 

“It’s a necessary evil to claim their identity against those who say [Indians] are not who they say they are,” Reverend John Norwood said. 

The Duwamish and Chinook are both unrecognized tribes, but they still carry on their traditions. They say their ancestors, through all of the industrialization, are still here because “the river still flows.” 

Treaties are only granted through the courts, through a presidential executive order, through Congress, or through the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. 

The latter was attempted by the Duwamish. They had succeeded, and councilmembers were told to go to Washington D.C., under direction of the Bureau, to celebrate. But this was right before the Bush Administration had taken over, which claimed there was a signature missing by one Senate member, and also chose to put any executive progress made by the Clinton Administration on hold. Duwamish Native Americans were in Washington D.C., celebrating their recognition, and told two days later that it never happened. 

Because of this, the Bureau of Indian Affairs told the Duwamish they can’t attempt that treaty route again. 

“This isn’t a flashy piece of media,” filmmaker Sarah Samudre Salcedo said. “This is about real people.”

Disproportionate Treatment and Impact toward People of Color

SJFF’s third screening featured the struggles of people of color in social, economic, and institutionalized systems. 

The festival had two main films that night. They first showed a documentary about Flint, Mich. where the town’s poorest citizens, largely people of color, are suffering from lead tainted water. 

Then SJFF showed Milwaukee 53206, which focused on three central narratives of people’s lives after growing up in America’s most-incarcerated zipcode.

“What America has done is designate a lot of its social ills to the incarceration system,” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said. “What else there is remains to be seen.”

One man, Barron Walker, has been incarcerated for over 21 years. He was charged in Wisconsin before the state passed their 1998 Truth in Sentencing Act, in which judges cannot lengthen sentences based on the fact that they expect someone to get out on parole after a certain number of years. 

“What more does Wisconsin need to know to understand I’m not a menace to society,” Walker asked.

Men like Walker are left serving for longer than was ever intended. And wives, like Beverly Walker, are left maintaining a house and children on their own. 

Another character followed in the film was Chad Wilson who had been incarcerated, and was released. 

“You have to make a joke out of it [your situation, being reintroduced into society],” Wilson said, “because if you don’t, you look at society like they’re hypocrites. Laws are broken, not everybody gets caught.”

Rosa Vissers was one of three people who talked once the showing was over. She’s the executive director of Yoga Behind Bars, a program designated to help prisoners gain mindfulness skillsets to remove past trauma and current stress. Prisoners can also become trained yoga teachers from this program, teaching what they learn to other inmates. 

Vissers talked about having met one man in her line of work who was incarcerated since he was 21 years old, and sentenced to life. This man told her he had “never considered himself a human being,” because he was never treated like one. 

“There are people inside [working in prisons] who want to make changes,” Vissers said, “but their hands are tied as well. It’s really on us now to change laws.”

A full schedule of the Social Justice Film Festival can be found on their website, underneath “2016 Festival.” 


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