Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into documentary filmmaking.
As a gay person growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era, my life experiences played a decisive role in shaping my sensitivity, affinity and passion for Human Rights and documentary filmmaking.
Video has given me the opportunity to fine-tune my thoughts through editing, and, more importantly, allows me to explore issues and subjects that are important to me – such as children’s rights. Documentary filmmaking thus became a very natural career choice.
I completed my education in France and obtained a high-school degree in Economics and Social Sciences. I then got a diploma in Marketing and moved to New York to pursue a B.A. in Media Studies and Documentary Filmmaking at CUNY Hunter College. In 2007, I completed an M.A. in International Affairs from the New School with a focus on Media and Culture in International Development.
How did you get into making films about children’s rights and what types of videos have you made in the past?
When I first began working in the area of human rights, I was mostly interested in Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgender (LGBT) rights. From 2005-6, I volunteered at the Ali Forney Center, an LGBT homeless teen shelter in New York City. I organized afternoon workshops in order to engage the youth and keep them off of the streets.
I screened films and documentaries to establish a dialogue among them youth about relevant issues such as AIDS, drug use and to help them feel good about themselves as individuals – who just happen to be different and are often discriminated by society or put down by religion.
I wanted to teach the youth video filmmaking skills and create a participatory project of their choice; however, this never materialized. I came to realize after weeks after weeks of working with them that the youth were very volatile and could not commit to long term projects – despite being interested. It is still something I plan on doing, sometime in the future.
When I joined the GPIA at the New School in 2006, I could no longer commit to the Center every week. But the experience made me realize how meaningful and important it was to address the rights of this vulnerable disenfranchised segment of society. It directly impacted my curriculum choices at the New School, where I took several Media and Human Rights courses – and the issue of child rights always stood out to me.
At the GPIA I collaborated with another student and film maker, Fréderic Choiniere, on a project about street children in France and in Canada – through the lens of two Canadian Photographers. (Part 1 and 2 of the video are available online). Then, as part of my M.A. coursework, I participated in the International Field Program (IFP) and spent 3 months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here I worked on another video project where I looked at the history of street children and human rights.
Tell me more about this video you made in Rio and how it relates to child equity.
The project was called “Children’s Hope” or “Criança Esperança” in Portuguese. It is a short documentary I made while in Rio, Brazil in the summer of 2007. It gives a historic background of human rights and more specifically children’s rights issues in the country. it is not an original subject, as we all have heard of street children in Brazil. But seeing so many of them during my stay and realizing the high degree of apathy among the Brazilian population, I felt it was necessary to make a piece that showcased my perspective on the issue.
Through the IFP, I was introduced to the organization Sao Martinho – a formidable organization that engages lawyers, psychologists, and educators to foster a safe environment for street children. My intention was to underline the dedication of the people involved in such organizations, who unfortunately, don’t receive the credit and support they need. I really wanted to give the organization something back – that they could use in their fight against a resistant society. I also wanted to the video to give the street children a voice.
Over several weeks, I met and spoke at length with lawyers, educators and conducted several interviews with the children. I regularly visited various Sao Martinho’s branches as well as 2 children’s orphanages.
I faced two major obstacles working on this project,; one was the language barrier, and the other was finding out at the very end of my stay that the children were not permitted to speak on camera. I needed to obtained authorization from judges and it was unlikely to obtain it since it was protected under the law. It was quite a blow and was extremely demoralizing, especially for the children who were now eager to express themselves.
Can you comment on some of the issues faced by street children in Brazil?
In my opinion, street Childrenand the complex issues they face are really a legacy of colonialism. The intermixing of culture meant that many children were rejected from fitting neatly into either the Indian or white communities – so they were left to fend for themselves.
Despite the fact that Brazil has the most progressive laws protecting children’s rights and was one of the first countries to sign the UN Charter on the Children’s Rights in the early 90’s, the laws only remains entirely on paper – not in the practice.
Contrary to what we might think, a majority of street children have a home to go back to. However, they generally come from poor and/or troubled families who cannot take care of them. Generally what happens is after a while, some end up not coming back home and end up living in packs. These “packs” generally have leaders and each member has a specific role to fulfill. They often make bridges, beaches and isolated areas as their homes.
Unsurprisingly, street children in Brazil fall into with prostitution, drug dealing and trafficking – all under the eye of a corrupt police, who are able to advance their own interests in the status quo.
Briefly, what are the core issues that make street children so vulnerable?
The core issue street children are facing is the overall rigid mentality of Brazilian society. The society at large does not want to directly deal with the situation and charge the street children as “a bacteria” to be removed. Death squads regularly kill children and by some estimages, 80% of the population approves of this.
Also, without a birth certificate it is almost impossible for the children to become a legal part of society; they cannot even obtain a driver’s license. Since most of them do not have this identification, they often have no other options than to join gangs and start dealing drugs.
Many children need a good home, but adoption laws are very strict and dissuasive. It is almost impossible to adopt in Brazil.
Street children often times have no one to turn to but themselves and do not even have the protection of the government or the police.
Throughout my experience in Rio, I realized the tremendous challenges faced by Human Rights activists in Brazil. Working in the Human Rights’ field in this country is hard – if not discouraging – as activists are often viewed as “defending criminals”.
Can you tell me more about what you see the role of Media is in relation to human rights – specifically children’s rights?
Media today has become more accessible and can help raise greater awareness for inclusion.
I am very inspired by the organization, WITNESS, whose motto is: “See It, Film It, Change It”. It uses video and technology to “open the eyes of the world to Human Rights violations.” The organization provides video equipment and training to people who are victims of Human Rights abuse and use this throughout the world. Their aim is to give these communities a voice of their own, which I wholly support.
I believe that media has the capacity of raising awareness and can play a determining role in making our world more democratic. It is really about creating awareness of the issues they face. The more we see short videos online, the more people will become aware of what is going on. The production doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive and doesn’t have to be professionally executed to pass messages – In my opinion it is an amazing tool to increase peoples knowledge on what is going on wrong in our world.
Specifically for children’s rights, how do you see this as being important?
Children are children and need a safe home and environment to grow into their own personalities and morals. They need role models in their lives and can’t fend for themselves. We, as adults, need to take responsibility for their protection and well-being – only we can do it.
Do you consider yourself a video activist? What kind of issues other than this are you interested in addressing?
Yes, definitely! I think children’s right’s is an important issue, but I am also interested in addressing LGBT, women’s rights and Immigrant /refugee rights. We need to keep in mind that we don’t need to travel across the world to make a difference, Human Rights abuses can be found right in our own backyards.
View more videos on Sébastien’s YouTube Channel here
Contact Sébastien with questions or comments via e-mail: email@example.com