Making video to make change 

By Karen Herland

Musa Ngubane of South Africa and Dale, a sex workers’ rights advocate from Asia, worked together at the launch of the Video Advocacy Institute. Magnifying glass

Musa Ngubane of South Africa and Dale, a sex workers’ rights advocate from Asia, worked together at the launch of the Video Advocacy Institute.

After nearly four years of fundraising, Witness was able to bring 30 human rights defenders from around the globe to benefit from Concordia’s Loyola digital production facilities for the first-ever Video Advocacy Institute (VAI).

The training program taught the advocates how to use digital video technology to “change practices, policies and law,” according to VAI coordinator Kelly Matheson.

The VAI was developed by Witness, a human rights organization that gives activists the tools to record human rights violations and to bring that evidence to decision-makers.

From July 15 to 27, Concordia’s Communication Studies program and Documentation Centre hosted the event, offering access to classroom, studios and editing suites along with logistical planning and coordination.

Witness developed the program to bring the participants here for two weeks of intensive skills-building. Until now, Witness had offered daylong sessions and ongoing support to partner groups.

“We wanted to see how much we could pack into two weeks,” said curriculum developer Sam Gregory. “We wanted to teach telling stories that make people act. I’m sick of the stuff that makes people feel depressed.”

The 30 participants were selected from nearly 300 people who filled out online applications describing their experience in human rights work and the issues they hoped to address.

“They all shared their hopes, dreams and backstories. I was inspired by the applications,” said Matheson. The applicants were selected to represent a range of issues and regions. Advocates from South Africa, Thailand, St. Lucia, Hungary — in total, 25 countries — slept in the Jesuit residence and devoted 12-hour days to learning skills. Almost all benefited from scholarships covering their travel, meals, lodging and the course itself. Many received camera packages at the end, to ensure that they can put their knowledge to use.

Members of Concordia’s faculty, along with a team of interns, taught participants how to shoot, frame and edit their work. “This has been by far the best experience I’ve had at this university, if not in my life,” said Andy Morrisson, who is finishing his BA in Communication Studies. “These are really amazing people.”

As one of eight interns, he earned credit taking a team of three participants to Benny Farm to interview some of the residents, and showing two different teams how to edit the results of their interviews. “I felt that I was looked upon as a teacher and associate in the work of these human rights workers,” Morrisson said.

Meanwhile, representatives from Witness shared techniques for interviewing people involved in politically or socially dangerous issues and how to handle media interviews themselves.

Gregory spoke at a panel discussion held during the VAI. He was joined by Hseng Noung, who described how the Burmese regime has used rape as a weapon in the conflict. Flavia Cherry spoke of her efforts to ensure that women’s rights are protected in constitutional reform in St. Lucia.

Musa Ngubane is part of an internet community supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights across Africa. She described the prejudice and violence faced by many across the continent (two women had been murdered in Johannesburg just before she came to Canada).

Being at the VAI introduced Ngubane to advocates dealing with war, poverty, violence and unequal access to health services around the world. “I used to think LGBT issues were the most important, and we faced the most violence. Now I understand how many problems are out there.”

Witness Executive Director Gillian Caldwell explained that the program and its impact would be evaluated carefully. Besides the satisfaction of the participants, the impact of the training will also be monitored over the next months.


Concordia University