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Global Studies faculty deliver 'Back to School' lectures during Stanford Family Weekend

Handa Center Director David Cohen discusses human rights with Faculty Fellow Beth Van Schaack in CEMEX Auditorium over Family Weekend.

Photo credit: Stefanie Pietkiewicz
Mar 4 2019

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Faculty affiliated with two Global Studies centers gave micro-lectures during Stanford Family Weekend, which took place February 22 and 23, 2019. This annual event provides families with a glimpse of their undergraduate student's life at Stanford. Read about the lectures below.

Around the World in 10 Films

Hundreds of students and parents filled Cubberley Auditorium to listen to Pavle Levi, a professor of film studies and the faculty director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, provide a taste of a class he is teaching this quarter, FILMSTUD 135: Around the World in 10 Films. The introductory-level course explores themes pertaining to the social, cultural, and political diversity of the world through the study of international cinema.

Levi’s one-hour lecture focused on multiculturalism, Eurocentrism, and the origins of cinema. He highlighted several short films produced by the Lumière brothers, two of the first filmmakers in history.

Famous for inventing the cinematograph, the Lumière brothers were fascinated with documenting the world. “Sometimes, the more remote the subject matter, the more interesting and inviting the film,” said Levi.

Levi showed a number of films produced by the brothers, including a caravan of camels traversing the Egyptian pyramids, an African knife dance, and an opium den in French Indochina. To the surprise of many, Levi revealed that several of these films were staged, proving that there was a desire to control and even manufacture reality from the beginning of cinema.

“Filmmakers commonly project onto reality their own views and their own biases. If there is, for example, a desire to produce the exotic – well, when you cannot find it, you can stage it,” Levi explained.

Behind this yearning to cinematically reproduce exotic cultures lies a wide range of problematic assumptions, such as the idea that European culture is superior to other cultures.  “This assumption leads to the license to indulge in condescending, dismissive, and even racist attitudes and stereotypes,” he added.

Many of the earliest films, including those made by the Lumière brothers, reflected a Eurocentric bias. “This is the opposite of the kind of perspective we are trying to teach students today,” Levi argued. “And that is to appreciate the diversity of world cultures without having to a priori evaluate them as superior or inferior.”

He ended his talk with several films produced by contemporary filmmakers in 1995 in celebration of 100 years of cinema. The films by Spike Lee, Zhang Yimou, Idrissa Ouedraogo, and others paid homage to the Lumière brothers’ films while also challenging the Eurocentric bias built into some of their motion pictures.

Are Human Rights in Retreat?

“Apologies for this spoiler alert, but the answer is yes. Human rights are in retreat,” Beth Van Schaack, a faculty fellow at the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, told the audience in her opening remarks, adding that she promised to end on a more positive note.

In a fireside chat with Handa Center Director David Cohen in CEMEX Auditorium, Van Schaack gave attendees an overview of the state of human rights starting in the 1990s, when international criminal tribunals were set up in response to atrocity crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Shortly after, the International Criminal Court was established to prosecute individuals for international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Since this “heyday,” human rights have markedly declined. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States, a traditional leader in human rights, launched a war on terror, which involved major human rights and civil liberties violations. In recent years, crises have arisen in countries like Venezuela and Syria, where calls for criminal accountability have gone unanswered.

There is some good news, however. “Even though those hotspots are as bad as we’ve ever seen … on the whole, we’re actually seeing that the lives of ordinary people are improving,” Van Schaack said, pointing to the progress made in eradicating extreme poverty, improving access to education, and stopping the spread of communicable diseases. “That’s where we need to continue to work.”

While she gave a birds-eye view of the state of human rights across the globe, Cohen zoomed in on Southeast Asia, where the Handa Center does much of its work and offers many internship opportunities to Stanford students.

Cohen pointed to several countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, where human rights have recoiled. A sweeping theme across the region is media censorship. “In many of these countries, posting or even liking someone else’s post is sufficient basis for prosecution,” Cohen explained.

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery also continue to be pressing issues in the region and globally. “There are tens of millions of people in slavery today, and there are millions of people being trafficked,” he added. “Where we can say there’s progress is there has been a steady increase in the resources to address human trafficking.”

With everything going on in the world, how does Cohen stay motivated in his efforts to promote human rights? He answered, “What gives me hope is that, everywhere we work, there are young people, there are civil society organizations, there are individuals within government who want to make their countries better and want to make the world a better place.”

As a final thought, Cohen reminded the audience that meaningful change takes time. “Of course we want to achieve short-term and mid-term impact, but we’re really working for generational change. That’s why it’s so wonderful that, at Stanford, we have these amazing students who come to us and want to work with the Handa Center who share that vision and want to make a difference in the world.”