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by Chris Barsanti

12 Jun 2017


Black Code (2016)

It wasn’t that long ago that one-time proselytizers of the World Wide Web paradise to come, like Douglas Rushkoff, began to sheepishly come forward and admit that, yes, they might have been a tad over optimistic about the world-changing potential of the Internet back in the ‘90s. We are just now starting to see some reevaluations from the eager Netizens who proclaimed that the Twitter- and Facebook-fueled Arab Spring was the harbinger of a glorious new dawn of an empowered, jacked-in cybernetic citizenry. The darker side of the democratization of online messaging, however, is on full display in Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code, screening at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

An adaptation of the book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the movie is an anxious and earnest policy piece about the darkening Web that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring’s first flush of people-powered optimism. Deibert and the Lab’s band of “Internet sleuths” research monitor the state of worldwide human rights as it intersects with the virtual realm, where “Big Data meets Big Brother”.

What Black Code sees is that a tide turning against citizen activists around the world. In Tibet, the Chinese government’s strategy of total surveillance works to smother the decades-long resistance movement, particularly any online reference to the hundred-plus activists who self-immolated in protest of Beijing’s policies. The government in Ethiopia centralizes Internet access through a single, monitored server. Pakistan and Brazil keep close tabs on any anti-government activity online, while Syria’s place as the “Arab Spring’s dark aftermath” sees malware and Facebook misinformation weaponized against their citizenry. 

In what Deibert refers to as the “commercialization of cybercrime”, numerous companies now provide off-the-shelf products to companies and governments looking to monitor and stifle resistance movements. Deibert and the watchful researchers of the Citizen Lab don’t exactly provide answers to the campaigns of oppression they document, but they provide a hopeful reminder that at the very least, somewhere on the Web, somebody is watching—for the right reasons.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

A curious inclusion in the Human Rights Watch Festival, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy is a PBS-friendly thumbnail biopic of Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who—if the legion of his fans who show up in the movie are to be believed—is a pop science hero of magnificent proportions. As the bowtied host of a goofy kids science show back in the ‘90s, Nye was a great popularizer of scientific inquiry for the after-school crowd; a kind of bridge between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The former was, in fact, a hero of Nye’s and the latter shows up here as Nye’s slightly more authoritative but just as aggressively gung-go comrade in scientific arms.

While the movie itself is something of a hodge-podge, it keeps returning to one of Nye’s current missions: fighting the scourge of climate change deniers. While debating the reality of man-made climate change with oleaginous goons like the Creation Museum’s Ken Ham or the bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi (a glib and pugnacious propagandist who must be seen to be believed) might not seem like exactly the stuff of human rights, it is certainly a service to humanity.

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

Nearly the definition of the kind of movie an event like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is made to showcase, Erik Ljung’s captivating The Blood Is at the Doorstep tracks the aftermath and struggle for justice that came after the 30 April 2014 fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton in downtown Milwaukee during broad daylight by a police officer. Although it begins in fire and violence, the bulk of the movie is a timeline following that shooting itself and the passionate, quietly strong campaign fought by his family to ensure that the city found somebody accountable for what happened.

Ljung’s portrait doesn’t attempt to litigate the shooting itself. Instead of pulling apart the forensics of what happened, the angle of this bullet or the conflicting testimony of that witness, it focuses on the Hamilton family and their attempt to come to grips with what looked in all fairness like an unwarranted killing. There are times when this feels briefly like a weakness, that maybe a closer examination of the case itself could have helped clarify things. But Ljung’s approach is ultimately a humane one, embedding closely with Hamilton’s grief-struck mother and brothers as they move from shock to anger to steady and organized action. Before long, the family is leading a growing number of like-minded activists on marches protesting the reluctance of the city to file charges against the officer, or at the very least institute mental-health training for the police.

The outlines of the Hamilton shooting are depressingly familiar. From his history of mental illness to the officer’s history of excessive force complaints to the overwhelming amount of force used (14 shots fired at a man who by all accounts had started fighting with the officer after being woken up in a city park, but likely never posed a real threat) to the closing of ranks by police and the splits in tactics between nonviolent and more aggressive protesters, these are all elements that have become numbingly familiar in America’s cities.

Although there is plenty of outrage in The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Ljung is primarily an empathetic storyteller. From his surprisingly luminous cinematography to the intimate portrayal of the family’s stout and humble resilience, this is a movie that is always finding beauty in ugliness and manages to celebrate the former without forgetting the latter.

by Sachyn Mital

3 Oct 2011


Last Friday around noon EST, the NYC blogosphere, from Gawker to Gothamist to BrooklynVegan, lit up with rumors that Radiohead would be playing a “surprise show” for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrators in downtown Manhattan. We even wanted to share the news with you.. But then sometime after 1 pm, when the bigger news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, had picked up on the story, Radiohead’s PR firm came out and said something to the extent of ‘this isn’t happening’. Yet the OWS group insisted the performance was still on, so I made my way down there to check it out in case something happened. It just so happened that Radiohead did not play, though I thought I heard the makeshift band play some Radiohead riffs.

The OWS protest is noteworthy in and of itself however. My first impressions were that this was a mostly ragtag bunch of hippies, and while that may have been true, underneath the most outrageous appearances, there was some measure of organization and a message. As I plodded through their home in Zuccotti Park, I found areas designated as a kitchen, a makeshift medical station, a library and a media center with working computers. A group had gotten together to play music at one end of the park. A man in saffron walked around handing out cough drops. And most importantly, people were walking around asking for donations so the group could continue their protest. All the while, NYC police had created a perimeter, including vans and a lookout tower and occasionally made their way through the park to get people off the sidewalk.

by Andy Johnson

9 Feb 2011


Photo: Meriadec Buchmuller

When Ban Ki-moon, current Secretary-General of the United Nations, became the fourth man holding his position to give the annual Cyril Foster lecture at Oxford University, he did so at a moment which made his talk’s subject particularly timely. In keeping with the theme of peace and understanding requested of the lecture series by the man for whom it is named, Mr. Ban’s contribution was titled “Human Protection and the 21st Century United Nations”. Before he began his speech proper, Mr. Ban acknowledged its relevance to the crisis raging in Egypt, and mentioned his talks on that subject with British prime minister David Cameron earlier in the day.

To hear the UN’s position restated directly from its Secretary-General at such a crucial time made us feel fortunate indeed. I was among a group of postgraduate students from Keele University’s School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy (SPIRE)  who had skipped seminars and made the trip south to see Mr. Ban’s lecture. The journey was a hastily organised gamble; we’d learned of the Sec-Gen’s visit only 48 hours previously, and knew that demand to hear him speak would be substantial, with entry being far from guaranteed. When we arrived at the Examination Schools building on Oxford’s High Street, its shabby and scaffolding-covered exterior appearance meant that only 30 people had recognised it and begun to queue. By the time the doors opened at 5pm and we were let inside, that number had risen to around 1,000, only half of whom could join us in the main room in which Mr. Ban actually spoke. The others had to make do with the projector screens set up in an overflow room.

by Sachyn Mital

14 Oct 2010


Delaware Senate Debate: 13.Oct.2010 – University of Delaware, Newark

Introduction/Background:

Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Republican primary for the Delaware U.S. Senate seat over nine-term Representative Mike Castle really stirred the political pot. O’Donnell is a Tea Party candidate with the backing of former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her victory has drawn broad attention to the tiny state of Delaware (2009 est pop. 885,122). In the past couple of weeks, national news programs have broadcast from this state, which lacks its own network affiliated station. Rachel Maddow televised her show live from the Deer Park Tavern, a local bar/former lodging noted for hosting Edgar Allen Poe on one evening long ago. The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi recorded a segment, “Divided Delaware”, showing the cultural dichotomy between “Northern” and “Southern” voters within the state. University of Delaware college students are abuzz with all the attention Newark’s main street and campus have gotten.

by Sachyn Mital

6 Nov 2009


Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Colin Powell may have graduated from the City College of New York with a 2.0 GPA in 1958 and he may not be savvy with computers, especially Facebook or Twitter.  But he worked his way up to four-star general, head of the NSA, Chairman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State under George W. Bush.  And he likes hot dogs.

In his speech at the University of Delaware on November 3rd (Election Day), Former Secretary of State Colin Powell came to address “Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust and Values” as the second guest in the prestigious UD Speaks series (2008’s guest was CNN news anchor, Anderson Cooper.)  While his speech was candid, humorous, and patriotic, it did not carry any substantive weight and deliberately avoided many major criticisms.

Entertaining and engaging the audience from in front of the podium, Gen. Powell never directly addressed any major topics from the previous administration, only making light of some of the policies put in place.  A couple of days after his entitled use of the company 757 passed on to Condoleezza Rice, Powell hurriedly entered Reagan National Airport, paid cash for a plane ticket before checking into his flight without any luggage.  You might guess where this is going: he was justly subjected to a very thorough TSA security screening.  After the screener acknowledged the General, he replied “If you know I’m Colin Powell, why aren’t you over there looking for Osama?”

Though he touched on other light topics including his grandson setting up a Facebook page for him, Powell gave a few words of wisdom to President Obama to “not be pushed by the left” and “don’t not decide” because of the right about increasing troop presence in Afghanistan.  Discouraged by the sight of 6 million children without health care, he also urged reform for universal health care to all Americans.

Gen. Powell’s advice came in the form of “4 E’s.”  Economics and its creation of wealth is the first most powerful political force he said. The second most important, energy combined with economics, generates emissions and leads to the third E, environment.  He urged people to confront global warming while reprimanding skeptics.  The final E, education, demonstrated his desire to educate children.

He also corroborated his faith in America’s positive image, sharing two stories.  The first was of a Japanese billionaire who picked New York City as his favorite city in the world in an interview.  When asked why, the billionaire replied, it was “the only city in the world where people came up to him and asked him directions.”  In the second story, a NYC hot dog vendor on Park Ave did not let Gen. Powell pay for a hot dog and instead thanked him because “America has already paid me.”

And its not just the hot dog vendor who knows that America is still the “land of hope” and opportunity, Powell noted.  There are lines at American embassies around the world were people say “I want to go to America.”

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

Courtesy of Kevin Quinlan, University of Delaware

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