World Animators Make a Film for Human Rights

“Whenever you get up on a soap box, people immediately stop paying attention to you,” says film director Stephen Johnson. “But if you stand on the soap box and tell jokes or show animation, you can get their attention and slip in some of the stuff they should be hearing without them realizing it. That’s the way I view this project--as a sort of trick.”

Johnson’s special message in his latest film is very different from his work on the first season of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and top rock videos, including Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” His project is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with 42 animators from around the world doing sequences illustrating the 30 Articles that delineate the rights and freedoms that every person is supposed to have.

The 19-minute film will screen between acts on the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now!” tour.

“The main point of this concert is to disseminate the articles of human rights, and they were planning on doing it primarily through small, printed pamphlets,” says Johnson. “I pictured most of them going immediately into the trash: Kids today live in an MTV world where they expect to receive information visually. I felt an animated film could express these complex ideas in the shortest time and hold people’s attention. Animation has traditionally been the most effective means of communicating ideas to an international audience.”

To maximize the film’s visual impact, Johnson chose animators who work in diverse styles and media. The Quay Brothers (England) use stop-motion techniques to depict steel pins shredding a document in a chilling evocation of the arbitrary censorship forbidden by Article 12, while Marcie Page’s sensual colored-pencil drawings illustrate the rights of families protected by Article 16.

George Griffin’s humorous cartoon of a dog unjustly accused of breaking a vase (U.S.A.) contrasts sharply with the grim pictures of a tortured prisoner scratched onto film by an anonymous Polish artist (Articles 11 and 5). Joan Gratz (U.S.A.) paints with streaks of colored clay to suggest the “free and full development” of each individual’s personality guaranteed in Article 29.

Jeff Bridges and Debra Winger read the articles in counterpoint to the visuals in the English version; U.N. translators have dubbed the film into 12 other languages. Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh provided the score.

“The most difficult problem we faced was finding images that were universal enough to play to audiences on five continents,” he explains. “Also, I wanted the images in the film to be positive. If we made a film about the way things are, no would want to watch it--especially not sandwiched between the acts in a rock show. That decision caused problems with some of the Eastern Bloc artists, who wanted to show how little attention is paid to some of the Articles. They’re right, but I wanted to aim the film at young people who still have some sense of idealism and to reinforce that idealism.”