Human Rights in Film Awards at the RHA

Actor Liam Cunningham and Husam Alhraki, and the Lifetime Contribution award trophy

By Peter McNamara

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) recently held its Ninth annual Human Rights in Film Awards at the Royal Hibernian Academy, just off St. Stephen’s Green. The awards show formed part of the opening ceremony of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Taking place on Friday March 9th, this event – and indeed in the entire Dublin International Film Festival – was one of the last to escape the current series of closures.
Indeed, the night was a great success for the ICCL. The packed-out crowd at the RHA enjoyed wine and refreshments, watched inspiring clips from the five films that were up for an award, and were treated to a special appearance by Game of Thrones actor, Liam Cunningham, who received the first ever ICCL Lifetime Contribution to Human Rights Award, for his ongoing humanitarian work.

Five inspirational films, one fine location
The RHA made for an impressive backdrop to the night’s festivities. The spacious modern building, with its white walls, high ceilings, and soft natural lighting made for a pleasant location. The awards show was held in the ground floor gallery: rows and rows of clear plastic, modern-looking chairs faced towards a wide stage, with two large screens at either end, and a pair of red armchairs in the middle.
Chatting and laughing, people milled into the room to take their seats, with some pausing to look at the paintings, sculptures, and photographs that adorn the walls of the RHA gallery. All in all, it made for a fitting space to consider the finer points of human nature, our potential for compassion, courage, and imagination.
The night formally kicked-off with a welcoming speech from the host, Virgin Media TV’s Collette Fitzpatrick. It’s the second year that Virgin Media have helped support this award, and in her speech Fitzpatrick stressed their commitment to ensuring the ICCL awards became an annual institution. She then introduced life-long human rights campaigner Ailbhe Smith, who received a round of applause as she took to the stage.
Smith, who spent almost thirty years working for the Repeal movement, among many other causes, was chair of the jury for the 2020 awards. She was tasked with introducing a clip from each of five nominated films, and announcing the overall winner of the Ninth ICCL Human Rights in Film Award. Joining her on the jury was Brendan Courtney (broadcaster and fashion designer), Andrea Horan (campaigner and presenter of the United Ireland podcast), Bulelani Mfaco (spokesperson for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland), and Aoife Kelleher (film director and writer).

And the winner is…
The gong on the night went to Irish film, Herself, with a special commendation going to Street Leagues, another Irish film. Both films deal with the issue of homelessness.
Herself, directed by Phillyda Lloyd, tells the story of Sandra, a young Dublin mother struggling to provide her two young daughters with a home to grow up in. When it becomes clear that the local council won’t provide that home, Sandra decides to build it herself from scratch.
Street Leagues, directed by Daniel Holmes, follows the men and women of the Irish Homeless Street Leagues as they overcome homelessness and addiction through the power of sport. The film documents their journey to playing in the Homeless World Cup and features Colin Farrell, who is an ambassador for the street leagues.
The three films that missed out were worthy nonetheless. Hearts and Bones is a feature film that follows a war photographer and a South Sudanese refugee who become friends in Western Sydney and find much in common despite their differences.
Santiago Italia is set during the Chilean coup d’etat which led to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and focuses on efforts by the Italian embassy to relocate those endangered by the regime. Told through the stories of survivors, it’s an inspiring expression of hope in terrible circumstances.
And finally, Balloon is the latest film from Tibetan director and author Pema Tseden, whose previous film Jinpa won Best Screenplay Award in Venice’s Horizons section last year. The film is quasi-documentary style and follows a Tibetan sheep farming family through a seismic event.
Phillyda Lloyd received her award from Ailbhe Smith, expressed her gratitude to the jury, and gave an impassioned speech about the plight of the homeless in Ireland, which was met with a rousing ovation. It was then the task of Collete Fitzpatrick to introduce the inaugural ICCL Lifetime Contribution Award.

From the Seven Kingdoms to war-torn Syria
The new award is intended to honour a person in the film industry who has used their platform to passionately advocate for a better world. It was presented on-stage to Liam Cunningham by Syrian refugee Husam Alhraki, in acknowledgement of the actor’s particular interest and campaigning work on the rights of migrants and refugees. Liam first encountered Husam as a child, when the actor was visiting refugees in Jordan with child-focused overseas aid agency, World Vision.
Liam Cunningham’s humanitarian work has included fundraising and advocacy work for migrants and refugees in South Sudan, Syria and Greece. While in Greece, he called on EU leaders to do much more for the people who are stranded there. He is currently an ambassador for World Vision.
“It’s an honour for me to receive this award,” Cunningham told the crowd. “The Irish Council for Civil Liberties have been working to make Ireland a freer and better country for almost half a century. And it comes at a really important moment, when Europe is literally allowing refugees to die on our borders. We need to stand up against this,” he added, “to assert that the Europe and the Ireland we want to live in are places that offer refuge to people who need our help.”
The crowd watched a short film about the actor’s commitment to the welfare of the young refugee, Husam Alhraki. As a child, Alhraki fled the ravages of the Syrian civil war for Germany, with some help from Cunningham and World Vision. The film included a clip of the CNN coverage of the actor’s efforts, and culminated with an emotional meeting between the two, years later.
After being shown some compassion and trust, Alhraki managed to securely establish himself in Berlin, with a decent job and a wonderful grasp of the language. When the film ended, Cunningham and Alhraki sat down in the armchairs on stage, to talk about the young man’s plans for the future, and the many others like him in Syria that are so deserving of assistance.
As the night came to a close, ICCL director Liam Herrick emphasised the importance of film as a medium for spreading messages about human rights. He went on to thank all those involved in the show, and invited guests to stay for another drink or two. Unfortunately Cummingham and Alhraki had to hurry out: they were due to appear on the Late Late Show later that same night.
I spoke with Liam Herrick soon after the show, about the purpose of the ICCL awards, and his plans for the future of the event, and of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties itself.
“Well,” he told me, “we presented this award to Liam because of his passionate and outspoken advocacy for migrants and refugees, as well as his fearlessness in pointing out injustice and naming the systems that are to blame for it. We need people like Liam who are unafraid to use their platform to help protect our freedoms. These freedoms we take for granted are actually very fragile. Especially in these turbulent times.”
The ICCL: Champions of freedom
Not since the Emergency, during the Second World War, have we seen the kind of upheaval that’s come in the last few weeks. Herrick was speaking on March 8th, before the real thrust of the current crisis came to bear. And it’s at times like these that we need organisations like the ICCL most of all.
Their highly-trained staff pored over the new emergency legislation that the government quickly enacted to fight the Coronavirus (among the new measures, mass gatherings have been banned, and the authorities can detain anyone with the virus who refuses to self-isolate to help limit its spread). The ICCL ensured the legislation was proportionate to the problem, and helped secure a date for when the new powers will be revoked: November 9th.
For over four decades, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has been fighting for the rights of ordinary people, and watching over the powers-that-be. Set up in 1976, by a young Mary Robinson, among others, the council was formed “to promote human rights, to protect civil liberties, recover them where they have been removed, and enlarge them where they have been diminished.”
The ICCL is Ireland’s oldest independent human rights campaigning organisation. They monitor, educate and campaign to secure human rights for everyone in Ireland, and further afield. From the outset, they fought for greater Garda oversight during the Troubles, when human rights and civil liberties were being thrown by the wayside.
The Council also decided to campaign for equality for women and childrenʼs rights and – not a popular position at the time – the rights of psychiatric patients and an end to capital punishment.
The 1970s was a time of a rapid improvement in womenʼs rights. The organisation was one of the first to publicly oppose the anti-choice Eight Amendment to the constitution in the 1983 referendum. In 2018, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth, which was based in ICCLʼs offices, merged with the National Womenʼs Council of Ireland and the Abortion Rights Campaign, to create the successful ‘Together For Yesʼ campaign, which saw repeal of the Eight Amendment from Bunreacht na hÉireann.
The ICCL has also played a pivotal role in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. With the election of Senator David Norris to its executive board, they nailed their (rainbow) colours to the mast, something that was not popular in 1980s Ireland.
In 1990, it published the ground-breaking Equality Now for Lesbians and Gay Men, which forensically charted the discrimination and prejudice faced by lesbians and gay men in Ireland, which played a central role in achieving decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.
The 2015 ‘Yes Equality’ campaign was run in large part by the organisation, which saw 62% of the Irish population vote in favour of Marriage Equality.
For the last four decades they have done tireless work in the areas of victims’ rights, judicial reform, racism and intolerance, as well as bringing to light issues around censorship and freedom of expression in Ireland.
In addition, they have been a leader when it comes to policing rights – the organisation were one of the first groups to call for an independent Garda complaint procedure. As a result of ICCL advocacy, the the Garda Ombudsman was set up in 2005, and the Policing Authority in 2015.

The special power of film
Forty-two years later, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties remains a major voice in campaigning for human rights and civil liberties in Ireland and abroad, and the Human Rights in Film Award is part of their mission.
“Film is an incredible medium through which to spread ideas,” the organisation director Liam Herrick told me. “With this award we want to celebrate the special role that film has in reaching out to audiences, in the name of a good cause.”
For the last nine years, the Human Rights in Film Award has been a way for the ICCL to reach out to people in the film industry, to help encourage documentary-makers, script writers, producers and directors, to use the platform they have to tell the stories that really matter.
A powerful movie can make a viewer vividly see and understand the plight of others, in a way they won’t soon forget. They can show us the darkness in our world, while at the same time, point us to our higher potential.
“With this award,” Liam Herrick added, “we want to bring human rights messages to new audiences, and to raise awareness of the work of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Unlike many NGOs in this country, the ICCL receives no government support whatsoever.” Liam pauses to smile: “And we like it that way. It means we can speak with fierce independence about injustice, when and where we see it.”
“For that reason,” he says, before heading to mix with the crowd at the RHA, “we are entirely reliant on donations from our members and supporters. They make possible every single thing we do.”
The work of the ICCL is not easy or quick. It requires expertise, patience and financial resources. You might consider making a one-off or a regular donation to the organisation. Or you can become a participatory member or volunteer.
Contact the office on 01 799 4504 or email if you have any queries.