Documenting the lives of 500 children at a home for disadvantaged children in Honduras showed Hunter Johnson first-hand the experiences of migrant families.
“That isn’t what they want to do, but it’s kind of what they’ve been forced to do … you know, coming from situations where they need to leave,” said Johnson, a 2011 film and media arts alumnus.
The experience compelled Johnson to want to pursue telling stories of human rights. He’s now creating a documentary highlighting the human disappearance crisis in Mexico.
The project is a part of his thesis for his master’s of human rights degree at the University of Minnesota. The documentary features two journalists Johnson met while traveling in Mexico, Darwin Franco and Dalia Souza of ZonaDocs, an independent Mexican media organization. Johnson will follow Franco and Souza covering the issue in Guadalajara and the families of the disappeared.
Mexico started a war on drugs in 2006 and has seen more than 60,000 human disappearances since, according to BBC.
As part of his master’s program, Johnson is working with the UMN’s research team known as The Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico. There, he works to gather data and research to help learn and contribute to the issue of disappearances.
As a result of his work, he sought a way to tell the story in a more compelling format.
“As a documentary filmmaker, I was constantly thinking of a way this could be represented visually in a storytelling format,” Johnson said.
So far, Johnson has traveled to Mexico and collected over 50 hours of “dynamic, informative, and emotional” footage, he said.
Johnson has been working on the project under Barbara Frey, a professor of human rights at UMN.
“It’s important for the audience to understand the nature of the problem, who’s responsible for the disappearances who are the disappeared, and what their families are going through,” she said.
While finding buried bodies in Mexico, basic identification procedures, like DNA testing, have rarely been performed, according to the Human Rights Watch.
“Everyone has the hope that they’ll find their loved one alive, but sometimes there’s no progress and people have gone five or 10 years without hearing anything from them,” Johnson said.
Ruth Ost, senior director of Temple’s honors program, has known Johnson to be someone who’s passion for social justice extends to other aspects of his character. She mentored him while he was attending Temple and wrote him his letter of recommendation for UMN.
“He has a way of making you want to have him around,” she said. “There’s something so kind and genuine about him that makes you feel like if you told him something it would be safe in his custody.”
Johnson plans to continue working on his documentary after he completes his master’s program in May. He receives most of the film’s financial support from the program, but is looking for grants, partners or collaborators to continue supporting it until its release.
“This is a huge story, and there’s a lot of potential given the access I have to these characters who are eager to share their story, so I’m looking for ways to continue the project after I graduate,” he said.
Johnson wants to lift up people who have a message of hope, he said.
“There’s a lot of people throughout the world who have stories and we have to do a better job of listening to them.”