Our Voices

Out of sight, out of mind: How new film ‘The Zone Of Interest’ challenges all of us to be vigilant in protecting and defending human rights

This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document outlining the basic fundamental rights we have because we are human. A document drafted soon after WWII with the hope and desire that the atrocities witnessed would happen “never again.” An aspirational document proclaiming in the first sentence of the preamble:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Sadly, in the past 75 years, our history is littered with example after example of barbarous acts, and it is littered with the millions who did, for whatever reason, nothing.

When a mass atrocity occurs we often hear, from subordinates, “I was just following orders.” And from those in charge, but not the leader? A similar response. In reality, most of us are either unaware of what is happening, we are aware but it does not impact us directly so we exercise willful ignorance, or we are aware and we benefit so we remain silent.

Collectively, we can change this narrative—we can ensure that the next 5, 10, 75 years are different.

How do we do this? The UDHR provides guidance here as well as:

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Human rights education (HRE) is our way forward. Recognizing HRE is more than just learning about human rights. HRE is about creating conditions, within any learning environment, that draws on the collective experiences and aspirations of the students to learn and grow together in our understanding of what it means to live in dignity, freedom, and peace. And then, to take action to promote, protect, and defend human rights for all.

In my over 30 years of experience in the human rights space, I have come to value the role film plays in increasing our awareness of human rights issues and the varied complexities around both the violations and defense of human rights.

Whether a feature or documentary, films provide windows and mirrors into our world, into the lives of others and into often complex and difficult situations and issues.

As I reflect on the state of our world today and the 75 years since the adoption of the UDHR, I am drawn to films that subtly draw us in and challenge us to be vigilant in our observations as we watch the story play out.

The movie The Zone of Interest is such a work. A generational film, the perspective presented connects us to a history we think we know so well and yet challenges us to leverage the commitment to never forget and move wholly and radically forward from human rights atrocities that continue to be committed.

The film centers on the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig as they strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp. Without ever entering the camp or showing what is happening in the camp, you know.

Early in The Zone of Interest, Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) is hosting her mother’s first visit to the pristine two-story stucco villa she shares with her husband Rudolf and their children. When asked if the maids in the house are Jews, she gestures towards the ivy-covered partition separating her burgeoning garden from the massive structure on the other side. “The Jews are over the other side of the wall,” she says brightly.

Out of sight, out of mind.

This thought-provoking film brings to us the Holocaust like no other with simple yet powerful cinematography and images.This is a story of who we are in the neighborhood of pure evil, how we go on living our lives and ignoring the systematic and well-planned elimination of a group of people, denying their humanity and so much more.

While the global community committed, 75 years ago, to upholding the basic fundamental human rights of every person, largely due to the events portrayed in The Zone of Interest, we see too many examples of “Out of sight, out of mind.” The U.S.-Mexico border wall, the treatment of migrants shipped throughout the U.S. The continual, thoughtless killing of innocent civilians during current wars.

As educators, The Zone of Interest is a useful and powerful resource to support those conversations and our continued learning about how to be more vigilant in recognizing our own actions or inactions in the face of atrocities, in our understanding of what it means to be complicit in the face of human rights abuses.

Until we commit to protecting and defending the human rights and the humanity of each person, we will be resigned to live in our isolated zones.

We can do better. we must do better.

The Zone of Interest opens in select theaters on December 15, 2023. If you are interested in learning more about this film, please contact Karen Robinson at robinson@rfkhumanrights.org.