This year’s Human Rights Arts Festival is embracing the communicative power of art.
Running from Jan. 23 to April 17, the festival includes work from multiple artistic disciplines and genres. First launched in 2017, it combines film, theatre, dance and music, all drawn together by the common theme of advocating for human rights and starting conversations between disparate groups.
“The arts are very wonderful storytellers,” Tricia Baldwin, the Isabel’s director, said in an interview with The Journal.
“We read a lot in the media, but when you’re walking in the shoes of somebody, that’s when you really understand. That’s what changes society. What the arts can do is shine a light on something that we haven’t experienced yet and give us a feeling of what it’s like to experience that.”
The films were curated in collaboration with the Department of Film and Media and handpicked by department professors Susan Lord and Dorit Naaman. They traverse a wide range of human rights issues that people around the world are facing.
Among these is the documentary Advocate, which tells the story of Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel’s work defending political prisoners, and a scathing analysis of violence in Colombia called Killing Jesus, a drama based on the true life story of director and screenwriter Laura Mora, whose father was assassinated by a hitman whom she later met, and Uvanga, a Canadian film set in Nunavut, telling the story of 14-year-old Tomas as he learns more about his Inuit heritage.
Live performances include the Art of Time Ensemble and Rolston String Quartet’s history of protest music in their show All We Are Saying. In this show, they’ll play music from a range of genres and artists, from Dmitri Shostakovich to Bob Dylan. Firebirds in Motion is a free event celebrating female empowerment through breakdance. Another piece showing will be Mush Hole, the highly-anticipated theatrical dance performance acknowledging the survivors of Brantford’s Mohawk Institute—Canada’s first residential school. The show was created and directed by Santee Smith, the Chancellor of McMaster University, and was first performed in the original Mohawk Institute.
“[Santee Smith] is brilliant: she’s creative, and she knows how to tell a story,” Baldwin said.
“I think that Mush Hole is going to be a very important work to have here in Kingston. We think that [residential schools] are in the past, but they have had ramifications way into the future.”
The theme of Indigenous empowerment is carried throughout the festival, coming off the heels of last year’s Ka’tarohkwi Festival of Indigenous Arts which brought Canadian superstars Jeremy Dutcher and Tanya Tagaq to the Isabel.
It’s also reflected in Beautiful Scars, a show developed through the collaboration of Juno Award-winning rock artist Tom Wilson and the Kingston Symphony, based on Wilson’s 2019 memoir of the same title. The show detailed his experiences learning of his Mohawk heritage as an adult, when he realized he was adopted in the Sixties Scoop—a period lasting from the 1950s into the 1980s where the government took Indigenous children from their homes and put them up for adoption into white families.
“I think [the festival] is a great incubator for new works as well,” Baldwin said. “It actually not only sparks awareness about issues, but also a really great sense of artistic creativity.”
Baldwin’s biggest hope is that the festival will encourage audiences to confront realities different from their own and be challenged with new perspectives. She believes in the importance of ensuring our society is educated on today’s issues from both sides of the conversation.
“I think it’s one of the great advantages of the arts. [Audiences] get to have this communal experience together, whether we’re watching a film or theatre or a music presentation. We start to get a very comprehensive view on issues that have been put in the dark before. I think artists are great change-makers.”
This article has been updated to reflect the accurate plot of Killing Jesus, a film on display at the festival.
The Journal regrets the error
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