Starting today, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is hosting an international film conference. The event will host more than 60 filmmakers and scholars from around the world to talk about how filmmaking plays into the international struggle for civil and human rights. I sat down to talk with Doctor Serge Bokobza, who chairs the foreign languages department at UAB and heads up the conference. He says his year’s event is homage to the 49th Anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
(Bokobza): That was the angle that we took, because that was a turning point in the United States, the killing of four little girls was really a wakeup call. People were kind of lukewarm about civil rights, but that bombing really changed the picture. And after that, the civil rights just went through a wave in the United States. Also, that vision of non-violence, of calling for quality and for rights to the state, was also something that influenced, like non-violence for example, something that influenced other movements in the whole world.
(Martin): Can you briefly talk about the films that UAB will be screening during this film conference?
(Bokobza): We are showing a documentary on Thursday, a feature film on Friday, and a documentary on Saturday. The documentary on Thursday is civil rights and human rights activists from France, Aime Cesaire. The movie on Friday is a feature film that was presented at the Cannes Festival this year by a director named Mezrak Allouache, and his movie is called The Repentant, and it has an echo with Birmingham because it’s the death of a little girl, but it is not a documentary, it is a fiction film, and it is taking place after the “Civil War” that took place in Algeria. And then on Saturday afternoon, we have a documentary on the Egyptian Revolution. The documentary follows several weeks of demonstration on the Place Tahir in Cairo.
(Martin): So how do these international films, like the films you just talked about, address these issues of discrimination and repression and the struggle for social equality?
(Bokobza): When we send a call for papers on this issue, we got a lot of response. But then I realized that people were misunderstanding; I had to write one page to explain what we wanted. What I said was we’re not interested in the fight of nationalism, like we aren’t interested in the fight between the Irish and the English; we are not interested in the fight between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we wanted was really something that was in line with the struggles that took place in the United States, which is a fight for equality. The civil rights movement was not asking for a new country, they were not asking for a new language, they were not asking for anything; they were just asking for equality.
(Martin): Going back to Alabama, which is coming up on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, it’s an event that changed the racial and social dynamics not only in the state, but around the nation. Some may even argue that it is a struggle that still continues today. What kind of civil and human rights challenges are met today in the international community?
(Bokobza): I think that we’re going to have a paper on Russia, and the professor is a professor at the University of Volgograd, and she is going to talk about the Muslim minorities in Russia, as seen in films, because we are not interested in sociology or history. What we are interested in is representations. One of the best films dealing with civil rights in the US, Mississippi Burning, with Gene Hackman and Willam Defoe, is really at the core of the type of films that we wanted to ask, “Is there such a film in the rest of the world?” Milk, for example, with the gay rights, those are the issues that Hollywood has tackled, and the question was, “Is the rest of the world doing what Hollywood is doing?”
(Martin): What is your intention or your mission that you want to accomplish with this film conference?
(Bokobza): What we want is to show to the people of Alabama and our students here at UAB is that their struggle for human rights and civil rights is continuing in the rest of the world. And also, what are the best venues, how do you change the world? If you want social changes, is it better to make a film or is it better to go down on the streets and demonstrate. And is it better to make a fiction film, a feature film like when you want to tell a story, or is it better to make a documentary?