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Remembering War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations: Oral History, New Media and the Arts is a three-day interdisciplinary conference co-organized by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) and the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations project (www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca), an ambitious five year Community University Research Alliance (CURA). This conference seeks to bring scholars, artists, professionals and community-based researchers together to promote deep engagement with life stories that contain or are defined by experiences of mass human rights violations. Its guiding principle is a sincere commitment to public engagement.
The importance of this conference emerges from the realization that we live in an “age of testimony.” It is no exaggeration to say that survivor testimony has been the single most important source of information about mass human rights violations in the twentieth century. Eyewitness accounts from survivors of war, genocide and other human rights violations fill our airwaves and our bookshelves. Large Holocaust testimony projects such as Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation have recorded tens of thousands of survivors. Thousands more have told their horrific stories to Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and International Tribunals in a growing number of countries, including Canada. The vantage point is that of the objective eyewitness, telling it like it was.
In the case of oral history interviews, however, these difficult stories of loss should not be permitted to begin and end with the violence. Instead, emphasis is placed on deep engagement with the life story as a whole, within which experiences of mass human rights violations may be only brief. The longue durée, with the requisite attention to the “before” and “after” provides a different context in which to explore the meanings of mass violence – it becomes more deeply personal and more explicitly subjective. In cases where survivors seek refuge in foreign lands, it also becomes more self-consciously transnational as narrators recall the aftermath of violence, migration, and the challenges of starting over. What is remembered and why is profoundly influenced by ones present circumstances.
We perceive this shift from testimony to life history to be fundamental, as it provides us with an opportunity to consider how mass human rights violations are experienced and remembered. What does it mean to be a “survivor” of war or genocide? How do individuals and communities construct and transmit their stories to their children and to people outside their social networks? When, where and why are particular stories about mass violence told, and by whom? Meanwhile, as researchers it is essential that we ask ourselves how these life histories can most effectively be represented and communicated to wider publics. Can life story interviews be used as a catalyst for community dialogue and political action?
This conference will serve two primary purposes. On one hand, it is intended to highlight and interrogate the aforementioned historiographic trends that have influenced the study of mass human rights violations. On the other hand, it will have a political function, whereby we strive to promote the humanity of the life stories we work with - prior to, during and after the interview. By bringing together affiliates of the CURA Life Stories Project with other Canadian and foreign academics, professionals, artists and community-based researchers, we intend to inspire lasting global dialogue and awareness of these challenges. Furthermore, we hope to inspire experimentation with various forms of new media as a means of reaching a wider audience with the life histories we lived, remember or record