Human Rights Watch (HRW) has decided to take on Hollywood to improve the visibility and awareness of humanitarian issues in popular culture.
As part of the move, the advocacy group has signed up with a talent agent firm, Activist Artists Management (AAM), to provide “scripted and unscripted content in film and television”, an HRW statement said.
In doing so, the organisation is following the lead of the Pentagon, the FBI and CIA who have longstanding relationships with Hollywood. They all have teams focused on curating their image, while HRW is looking to promoting ideas and themes, not the institution itself.
The group has set up a department of three staff and additional consultants, to deal with Hollywood full-time – advising writers and directors on incorporating realistic treatment of human rights issues into their work.
“We’re excited to work with Hollywood to spread that message and equip committed activists, advocates and artists standing up for justice through the stories they tell,” said Tirana Hassan, HRW’s new executive director.
Amanda Alampi, the organisation’s director of campaigns and public engagement, argued it was a logical step towards deepening the impact of HRW’s investigative work.
“We have consistently done human rights investigations and told real-life stories to try to put a human face on it. But increasingly, we think that scripted storytelling is going to be really important in this area,” Alampi said. “So what we’re trying to do is think about – how do we insert a positive human rights message into popular culture? And Hollywood seems like a great place to start.”
She said one way HRW would try to wield influence is to work with producers and writers “to encourage them to think about human rights to choose to tell stories more responsibly” in movie projects already in the pipeline.
“Then a second area is really about whether we can pitch story ideas that would actually tell effective human rights stories,” Alampi added. “We already use our meticulous fact-finding to sway policymakers and put perpetrators in the dock. This is about reaching a broader public with stories that illustrate human rights issues – especially through unexpected storytellers and platforms, like space or superheroes.”
The perils of trying to enhance human rights stories for dramatic effect were illustrated over the weekend when Amnesty International’s Norwegian branch posted a series of AI-generated photos supposed to portray the second anniversary of a brutal crackdown by Colombian police on a protest movement. Amnesty explained that the decision was taken to protect the identities of the protesters but the pictures were taken down following widespread criticism.
Alampi argued that allowing Hollywood to script and fictionalise true stories would not impinge on HRW’s reputation for factual accuracy, because the group would not be central to creating the fiction, but would simply pass on ideas that could be a starting point for movies with a human rights message.
“This is not about getting attention for HRW or getting us into a story, it’s about seeding human rights through effective storytelling, so I don’t think that’s a concern,” Alampi said. “Often our work in entertainment advocacy is focused on being a connector between our partners, impacted people and storytellers who could help share those stories with wider audiences.”
Bernie Cahill, an AAM founding partner, said: “Activist is honored to partner with Human Rights Watch to amplify the important stories of its decades-long fight for justice, dignity, compassion and equality for people everywhere.”
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