Interview: Keina Yoshida


It’s time we introduce you to Keina Yoshida and her entertaining blog Human Rights Film Diary! Keina Yoshida is currently working as an intern at the ICC and is in the middle of writing a PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE). Her research focuses on the interaction & interrelation between International Criminal Justice and Cinema. Find out more about Keina and her Blog where the worlds of Law and Film collide!

PPL: How and why did you decide to write a PhD on Human Rights and cinema?

Keina Yoshida: Back in 2009 -2010, I worked for a while as a lawyer for an organization called Women's Link in Madrid. During this time, we wrote a manual on gender crimes in the context of Argentina because of the Mega Causas (major cases) that were going on at the time. These trials dealt with crimes against humanity by the military junta in Argentina (1976-1983).

Women’s Link specifically focussed on the issue of gender crimes. Their objective was to bring a gender perspective into cases that were being handled there. It was within this context that we started researching and writing this manual. My boss, who is from Argentina, suggested that I could watch some Argentinian films that were made about this subject as part of my research. I watched The Official History (1985), the first Latin-American film to win an Academy Award, Night of the Pencils (1986), A Wall of Silence (1993) and many others.                                                                                                     

I found out that there are many post-dictatorship movies in Argentina because the new government funded these films as part of the national cinema movement. The idea of this policy was to promote democracy and a way of opening up and showing the world that the government allowed for freedom of expression in all its forms. This got me thinking about the many links there are between cinema and human rights. Often we are alerted to situations by movies even before we're students or lawyers.  I wanted to look deeper into how human rights and cinema interrelate with each other and it eventually became a project that I really wanted to do. I decided to write a proposal for a PhD and was awarded full funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in London. I’m very lucky.

PPL: The Peace Palace Library first came into contact with Human Rights Cinema in March of this year when we visited the Movies that Matter Film Festival in The Hague. We were interested in one particular film, ‘Justice for Sale’(2011). We decided to organise a Library Lecture around this film and the subject matter and we invited the filmmakers to come to the Peace Palace.

 KY: That’s must have been very exciting. For me that’s where the link between law and cinema comes in to play. I was fascinated by the idea of how law can tell stories and how movies tell stories. For example, I believe that movies on war crimes trials have didactic purposes. They want to teach us about history and for purposes of memorialisation make a record of what happened. Movies have multi-facetted narratives about guilt and innocence. They can say which factors played a part and how these interact. We, as lawyers, are often constricted by things such as rules of evidence so I'm interested to see that how that changes a story in the film medium. Sometimes filmmakers are obliged to follow film conventions like linear narratives and things like that but they are also free and can do what they like as in art cinema. This really can change the way the story is told to an audience and bring about a new perspective on legal issues.

PPL: Do you think movies and YouTube- videos can really make a difference in the understanding of certain issues? Some Hollywood celebrities are involved in human-rights projects to bring specific problems into focus. For instance, George Clooney helps to bring attention to the crisis in Darfur with his documentary ‘Satellite Sentinal Project’ and his involvement in the documentary film ‘Sand and Sorrow’ (2007). Another example is Angelina Jolie who recently heard the verdict in the trial of Thomas Lubanga before the ICC. Both are hugely criticised for their efforts. What do you think about that?

 KY: I think it's really easy to criticise. Angelina Jolie is being criticised a lot because of her film In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011). In the Land of Blood and Honey is very similar to the film As if I'm not there (2010). I think it's interesting to watch both together as there are echos of the Kunarac-case   that come through both of them. It's very easy to criticise but if you ask the person in the street if they have seen the Lubanga-trial then they might say I saw on the news that Angelina Jolie was there. And that's how people become aware of it. They are doing what they can. Perhaps the messages that they're sending out are not nuanced enough for these critics or differ from the messages that lawyers want to send out.

I chose not to focus on social media in my PhD. I think that's an entirely different project. Nowadays, Courts and NGO’s have YouTube-channels and use social media in different ways. They make their own little edited clips of the trials to get their own message across. 

PPL: Do you think it's important that students interested in human rights and human rights lawyers supplement their knowledge from textbooks, documents and case-law with films & literature?

KY: Definitely! If you're studying human rights and you’re interested in human rights why wouldn't you be interested in the culture that surrounds human rights?  I personally believe that as lawyers it’s very important that we’re aware of what non-lawyers see, hear and think about human rights. Filmmakers can bring a new perspective to human rights issues that are not always obvious in the law textbooks. They can sometimes look at the more personal aspects of stories that can get lost in legal procedures and legal analysis.

I also think it can bring to the fore marginalized discourses. This is also where my idea on gender issues comes in.  During the 90’s there were feminist critiques of international criminal law and the idea that Nuremberg didn’t prosecute gender crimes and that there were no prosecutions for the plight of so called comfort women during the Tokyo trials. Yuki Tanaka, a well-known Japanese professor of history, said in one of his books, that everyone growing up in the 50’s & 60’s in Japan knew about the comfort women because it was in all the movies. He questioned why it wasn’t in any of the legal textbooks.  Nowadays you can go to most law libraries and find books on comfort women but you can also go the local video store and find films on this or other situations in which people have been marginalized.

We live in an audio-visual world, visual images and documentaries are part of a legal education. Books may shed some light on important questions, but films leave huge impressions. I am looking at films that people would not necessarily pick out like the Nanking documentaries, based on the book of Iris Chang. I think many voices like Asian voices have been marginalized in films and literature. I think it is important to feature that.

PPL: Do you have any ‘favourite film’, as far as that is possible, that deals with the issue of  gender crimes and/or violence particularly well and gets the message across?

KY: I believe films are very personal. I think different films are going to affect people in different ways. People will have a personal connection with certain stories or a film that will help them to understand. I don’t have a favourite film on gender crimes; I don’t know if this is possible. If they are graphic, they’re very hard to watch. I mean something like The Whistleblower (2010), a Hollywood production, puts the spotlight on human-trafficking, in the aftermath of conflict. This is something we don’t associate with the Balkan conflict all the time. I thought about The Tribunal (2009), the film about the ICTY. There’s no graphic sexual violence on screen and yet sexual violence and the silencing of gender crimes are themes that run throughout the entire movie. It’s interesting to watch that and to compare it to ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ or to films by local filmmakers from Bosnia like ‘Esma’s Secret’ (2006) . That is a great movie as well.

PPL: Sometimes films with legal themes are criticised for having legal errors or for legal inadequacy. After the Library Lecture ‘Justice for Sale’ some people commented that there were errors in the legal presentation of the case. What do you think about that?

KY: In law and film scholarship this is the main preoccupation of lawyers. They have a tendency to go through films and focus on the technical legal errors. As lawyers we’re comfortable doing that because we can watch a film and point to the legal aspects that are familiar to us. I don’t focus on that. I personally would like to step outside that box a little and think more theoretically about how they interrelate and link with one another and in what way they legitimise and undermine each other.

PPL: Do you think that there are certain criteria or characteristics that can qualify a film as a human rights film?

KY: That’s a difficult one, because you can always find a human right that is somehow engaged in the storyline, for example, freedom of expression. It also depends on how you look at it. Do you look at the content within the movie or do you look at the movie as an object of the law? For example, if a movie has been censored you can write about it as part of a human rights case and therefore it is a human rights issue in and of itself. I don’t have strict criteria that I use for my blog. It has gone from researching and watching movies to people recommending films to me.

I recently wrote about ‘Notorious’ (1946), a film by Alfred Hitchcock after attending the Hitchcock Film Festival. Sometimes it’s interesting to feature these cinema greats. It’s not really a human rights film but it does start with the trial of Mr Huberman, a Nazi-spy living in the US, who is prosecuted for treason. I thought that was interesting because these are issues which engage international criminal law. In the aftermath of the Second World War, US nationals were prosecuted for complicity with the Third Reich. For example, the Axis-Sallies,  who proliferated propaganda through radio-broadcasting during the Second World War. I try to link films that bring up certain issues that speak to me and talk about the role that law plays in these movies.  I probably do need to have a stricter and set criteria.

PPL: Do you prefer documentaries over films? Do you think that one or the other is suited better for this particular topic of human rights?

KY: I think that they are complementary, but for my thesis I focus on fictional films and on narratives. In fictional films there is more freedom to explore certain aspects like music, to make the movie easier to watch. It is a way to get around the legal criticism and make it more attractive for people to see a topic from different perspectives. 

PPL: Would you ever consider making a film yourself now that you’re becoming an expert on this subject?

KY: I think I will leave that to someone else who is an expert. Filmmakers have a different sense of vision. It’s a passion, it’s got to be hard; they go into the field and work for years. It can be a real struggle to get a good script, funding, promotion etc.

PPL: Are you interested in taking part in a jury of a Human Rights Film Festival in the future?

KY: Maybe, someday. It would be nice to finish my PhD first! At least my project will be completed and I would have some of my ideas clarified.