Movie goals: issues to tissues to checkbooks

Times Staff Writer

If there’s one thing activist Hollywood increasingly understands, it’s the potential for turning a message-driven film into a political movement. And perhaps no one understands that better than Bonnie Abaunza, the founder of Artists for Amnesty.

“Bonnie is the Wizardess of Oz in the [film industry’s] human rights community,” said activist John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project and co-author, with actor Don Cheadle, of a book on the Darfur crisis, “Not on Our Watch.” “Look behind the curtain on many of the key campaigns and there she is.”

In fact, you could think of her as one of those new-wave product placement people, though she’s out to awaken and persuade rather than to sell. Her notion of cinematic success comes with the hope that when people leave their multiplex in Iowa or South Carolina, they will take home not only two hours of entertainment but also the will to act, whether for a better future for Africa’s child soldiers, an honest diamond market or religious tolerance.


“When people read a newspaper story or magazine article, it moves them,” Abaunza, 42, said in a recent interview. “But when they see images on a screen and watch actors playing real-life characters, it affects them on a much deeper level. We have seen it time and again. When they leave the theater, they want to send an e-mail, write a check or pick up a phone. Just do something to get involved.

“We realized we could harness the power of film to mobilize the public to act.”

During the release of “Blood Diamond” last year, Abaunza and her colleagues at Amnesty International and Global Witness produced a series of public service announcements -- with statements from actress Jennifer Connelly and director Ed Zwick -- urging the public to purchase “clean” diamonds, gems that were not mined in war zones where rebel forces are violating human rights and fueling conflicts with money from diamond sales. (Connelly filmed another PSA calling for an end to the use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world.) “Because of the film, ‘conflict diamonds’ and ‘child soldiers’ made it into the public dialogue,” Abaunza said.

When “Hotel Rwanda” was about to come out on DVD, Abaunza approached MGM-United Artists to include a PSA by Cheadle explaining that similar atrocities were taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. Donation envelopes were tucked inside the DVD cases, and within four months more than $100,000 had been raised for Darfur relief efforts. In addition, Amnesty launched an online campaign, with downloadable information packets, about the Darfur crisis. The movie, which was released in 2004, premiered in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and was then shown at universities across the country on international Human Rights Day. (Earlier this week, President Bush made a statement that activists had been waiting for: The world must act to stop the genocide in Darfur, he said, imposing economic sanctions against Sudan.)

With next week’s special screening in Los Angeles of “A Mighty Heart,” a movie about the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Abaunza is busy working with the film’s distributor, Paramount Vantage, in an effort to promote “cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and innovative dialogue” through the Daniel Pearl Foundation. The movie, which stars Angelina Jolie, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last week to generally favorable reviews.

“The film honors the humanity and courage of Danny and Mariane Pearl,” she said. “We’re hoping that the public will embrace this film and work with the Pearl Foundation and other organizations to promote human rights and religious tolerance.”

Involved since age 15

Abaunza, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua and Ecuador, was raised in West Los Angeles. She joined Amnesty International when she was 15. “I became very politicized during the Sandinista revolution and during that period of time [the 1980s] there were wars throughout Central America and conflicts in Asia and Africa.”


She went to UCLA, where she studied political science and international relations. After college, she went to work in the film industry, where she ran director Simon Wincer’s production company. Six years ago, she left to launch Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty program, reaching out to celebrities and members of the entertainment community to support social action campaigns.

In addition to her work for Amnesty, Abaunza has recently joined Beverly Hills-based Participant Productions as vice president of social action and advocacy. The production company -- which produced such award-winning films as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana” -- has a mission to release films that “create great social change.”

Abaunza and her Participant colleagues are now working on a variety of campaigns for a half-dozen upcoming films, including “The Kite Runner,” based on the bestselling novel about two boys growing up in war-torn Afghanistan. Also in the pipeline: a movie on the Chicago 10 and a documentary on an orphanage in South Africa.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to use movies as a lever for change,” said John Schreiber, Abaunza’s boss at Participant. “We’ve been able to show that it’s possible to make great movies that make a difference. I know for sure that what we are doing is encouraging other producers and filmmakers to do the same.”

He credits Abaunza with helping to create the model. “She invented a new type of social activism and cause marketing,” he said. “She’s a real pioneer in the merging of celebrity and issues in a way that produces tangible materials and positive change.”