Kelly Matheson promotes human rights activism through film

“Today, everyone has a phone in their pocket and therefore everyone can be a human rights activist,” said Kelly Matheson, a renowned human rights attorney, award-winning filmmaker and MSU alumna during her March 8 lecture. Working to protect civilians through law, Matheson is involved with a wide range of human rights issues including Ebola prevention, climate change, human trafficking and war crimes.

Matheson is a graduate of MSU’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking program and is the senior attorney and program manager for WITNESS: Video as Evidence, a program that trains and supports activists to use video safely, ethically and effectively to expose human rights abuse at both a national and international level. “My experience at MSU set me up for success in my career. I came to MSU without a second of experience in film and no experience behind the camera. Going through the program and having MSU teach how to use film to make a difference, made all the difference for me. I could not do it without MSU,” Matheson said.

A specific moment in Matheson’s life prompted her to combine her background in law with her background in film to protect human rights through video: “Every single one of us has a moment that moved us, mine was an image from the Amazon. There was a massive oil spill in the Amazon and this video footage captured a man covered with oil in the waters of the Amazon and he was using gasoline to rub off the oil. That to me showed problems with health, problems with environmental degradation and problems with the right to life. From that moment on, I knew.”

Matheson brought attention to the many challenges and dangers brought about in the field of video as evidence, “You have a right to freedom of expression and a right to freedom of assembly, but you also have a right to personal security and a right to dignity. Often times those rights are in conflict with each other.” Matheson described an incident in Burma where a video was released by peaceful protesters and was taken by the government, who used it to identify protesters and make arrests and executions, a prime example of the challenges her program faces.

Matheson explained that, “It is the people I work with and meet that give me the hope and the joy to continue, they are the real heroes and the ones literally risking their lives to make a difference.” One group in particular has stood out to Matheson: “There’s this group of young students, 21 of them, that are bringing legal action against the US federal government for our leaders’ failure to protect the atmosphere and trust for their future. If they win then we all win because we will have won a constitutional right to a healthy atmosphere. These young people are out there advocating for our collective rights.” The court case began on March 9.

Using her work in the Middle East as an example, Matheson described her relationship with and the importance of cooperation between citizen journalists and public interest lawyers. “The lawyers collaborate with the journalists and my job is to be a bridge between the two. Journalists need to make sure they are collecting information safely and effectively so the lawyers can use it to bring perpetrators to justice. The quality of the videos has gone up and my hope is to see that continue around the world. Images have power that print will never have,” she said.

Matheson quoted a woman she was fortunate enough to meet through the WITNESS program: “A true listener listens with the willingness to help.” Matheson asked all MSU students and faculty to, “Listen to each other and think really hard about how you can make a difference.”