by Beverly Aarons
The 2020 Social Justice Film Festival (October 1–11) is streaming online now. This year’s theme is Transform: Another World Is Possible. Individual tickets and festival passes are available on a sliding scale. Dozens of films from around the world are grouped into 25 topic blocks: reproductive rights, environmentalism, Black Lives Matter, poverty, trauma, “good vibes,” and more. Four film panel discussions will be live-streamed via Facebook at no cost to the public. Since its inception, the Social Justice Film Festival has continuously expanded its cinematic offerings from independent and first-time filmmakers exploring important social issues. Originally launched as a festival that featured films from prisoners, the Social Justice Film Festival has grown to include numerous human rights issues under its banner. I had an opportunity to speak with the festival’s Managing Director, Aurora Martin, and one of the participating filmmakers, Gilda Sheppard.
Martin joined the Social Justice Film Festival planning team in 2013 while working at Columbia Legal Services. She fell in love with the festival because it brought together two of her most valued issues: public policy and the arts. She had spent the better part of 20 years trying to make societal changes in the realm of law and policy but eventually realized that changing hearts and minds through arts and culture was just as important.
“I really felt drawn by the film festival and the fact that it really kind of introduced me to the creative and artistic pieces of what is needed in the culture of justice,” Martin said. “After 20 years of feeling like I’d been part of working within the justice system and understanding how changes can be made through law, I really felt that what was calling to me was also kind of the need to not just invest all my time into structural change but really cultural change. And that’s what Social Justice Film Festival really kind of represents is the ability to see to what extent can these films and these stories — whether they’re just one minute long, 10 minutes long, or one hour long — can actually move people. Even if it’s just for that moment. Move people into action. To activate them to be involved more and to care more.”
Gilda Sheppard, an ethnographic filmmaker and the producer of “Since I Been Down”, is also hoping to move people to care more about prison justice. Her film spotlights prisoners from Tacoma, Washington who were imprisoned in the wake of the 80s and 90s “tough on crime” legislation. It was a time when Tacoma residents and policymakers took a punitive approach towards juvenile offenders — an approach Sheppard believes created a “false sense of security.”
“It hasn’t stopped it. Gang violence is still going on,” Sheppard said. “It’s a symptom of the disparities, of poverty, of public health issues.”
Sheppard said that she understands that people want to imprison those who have harmed their loved ones, but she doesn’t believe that this is a solution to crime. She believes that communities that decided to imprison youth “fell for the okey-doke” because they didn’t look at what caused the youth to commit crime: “gentrification” and “long, hard suspensions from school.”
“So what do you do? You punish?” Sheppard asked. “There’s a culture of punishment.”
And it’s this culture of punishment that Sheppard is hoping to see change. Her film “Since I Been Down” shows Black prisoners, many serving 20 years to life, working together to get an education while imprisoned. For her, the film is an opportunity to demonstrate who a person can become if given a chance — even someone who may have committed horrific crimes.
Films like “Since I Been Down” are just the kind of cinema Aurora Martin is glad to see showcased in the festival. They represent a unique intersection of the arts and social issues that gives viewers an opportunity to see new perspectives and to consider “experiences of justice” they have never imagined before.
“I kind of feel like the technicality of law and justice is not the same as, you know, experiencing justice,” Martin said. “And perhaps that’s why we’re having such a profound dissonance right now when it comes to racial injustice … we don’t experience justice the same way, and it’s not fair.”
A full schedule of films can be found on the Social Justice Film Festival website. Sliding-scale prices for individual tickets start at $5 while passes start at $75.
Tune in for free live-streamed discussion panels:
- Personhood Discussion (Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. PDT)
- Indigenous Futures Panel (Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. PDT)
- Prisoner Justice Q&A (Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. PDT)
- Voting Matters Discussion (Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. PDT)
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image: A still from the film Suppressed 2020: The Fight to Vote courtesy of the Social Justice Film Festival.