In line with the international celebration of World Internet Day, EngageMedia on October 30 launched Tech Tales: Films about Digital Rights in the Asia-Pacific, a collection of eight films that highlight human rights stories in the digital age. The films aim to raise public awareness and turn a critical eye on key digital rights issues – from state surveillance and censorship to disinformation and data privacy violations – that many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are currently facing.
Over 80 filmmakers, activists, and digital rights advocates from the region tuned in to watch the first public screening of the films by Jackson Brook in Cambodia, Richard Soriano Legaspi in the Philippines, Vijitra Duangdee in Thailand, Annisa Adjam in Indonesia, Yihwen Chen in Malaysia, Varun Kurtkoti in India, Andrew Garton in Australia, and a filmmaker from Myanmar whose identity has been withheld for security purposes.
In his opening remarks, EngageMedia Executive Director Andrew Lowenthal said the film collection comes at a time when technology has become increasingly central to people’s lives, and governments and companies are seeking to extend their reach and powers – threatening freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.
“The amazing Tech Tales filmmakers have brought great colour and detail to these critical issues, and to the civil society movements pushing for human rights and democracy both on and offline”, said Lowenthal.
At the launch, EngageMedia also formally announced the upcoming community screenings to be held in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Mongolia to ensure more audiences can watch the films. Among the confirmed screening partners are the UP Internet Freedom Network, Bulatlat.com, Jakarta Feminist, Nest Center, and Documentary Club Thailand. This November, 100 Manusia Film Festival Indonesia will also showcase the collection.
Highlighting stories of resistance
The eight films in the collection highlight stories on online gender-based violence in Indonesia; the rise of disinformation in the Philippines and Myanmar; blatant attacks and repression of artists, journalists, activists, and members of minority groups in Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia; online surveillance and data privacy issues in India, and the push for data sovereignty and decentralised data flows in Australia.
In their short messages after the screening of each film, the directors spoke about their hopes to inspire collective action through the stories of ordinary citizens, journalists, and activists pushing back against state and corporate overreach.
“Human rights are being squeezed and those in power are increasingly using technology to control the public. So, it’s up to us as a public to educate ourselves and argue back against the repressive use of tech or face new realities which are too late to change”, said Pattani Calling director Vijitra Duangdee.
Similarly, Yihwen Chen (The Offensive Internet) expressed hope that audiences will be more aware of their digital rights and take action to express their concerns. For Andrew Garton, the stories of the social justice pioneers featured in his documentary Peer to Peer may serve as an inspiration to “help us save the internet from its bias against facts and critical thinking that so much of it has become”.
For his part, filmmaker Jackson Brook, who told the story of Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun in his film Not Love Songs, said he was “really moved” by how Sokun’s family came together to speak out against the rapper’s arrest and “found their own voices to deal with this injustice”.
Starting the conversation for change
The filmmakers also underscored the importance of raising awareness through these films as a first step to engaging in meaningful action. Simply starting the conversation can eventually lead to critical questioning among the public and eventually pushback against repressive measures.
Speaking about his film Appa and His Invisible Mundu, Varun Kurtkoti expressed hope that the film “initiates conversations between family and friends regarding the impact of data policies on us on a daily basis.” Meanwhile, for Annisa Adjam, the animation style of her film My Clouded Mind aimed to raise awareness about the sensitive topic of online gender-based violence in a meaningful yet creative way.
By highlighting urgent digital rights issues, the filmmakers also wanted to expose attempts to hide violations and deceive the public through disinformation tactics. This was the sentiment expressed by an anonymous filmmaker from Myanmar (Black Out), who told the story of one activist family looking to find credible information in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup. Similarly, Richard Soriano Legaspi’s film Panulukan (Crossroads) also served as a tribute to his brother, a victim of the Philippine government’s controversial war on drugs, and “how our community was deceived by social media about this bloody campaign”.
Stronger regional collaboration needed
During the open forum, participants noted how the films – while focusing on unique stories from specific countries – also showed that the region is facing similar experiences and threats to freedom of expression. This underscores the need to unite and collaborate to champion digital rights and challenge rising repression in the Asia-Pacific.
Other attendees also expressed hope that EngageMedia’s Tech Tales will inspire others to explore creative ways to protect against digital rights violations.
In order to ensure that more audiences can watch the collection, EngageMedia continues to actively look for more screening and media partners. For interested screening and media partners, and to stay updated about Tech Tales, visit the Tech Tales project page.