Captured on video by their teacher as the contest officials delivered the news, Christopher Rodriguez and Julio Villegas are seen jumping up and shouting, “Yo! Yo!” and “Oh my God!”
The two high school seniors from Belleville, who attend the Bloomfield Tech campus of the Essex County Vocational Technical School District, were chosen as winners of the 2015 Speak Truth to Power national video contest, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, Tribeca Film Institute, and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center.
As the grand-prize winner, their five-minute film, which focuses on Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s humanitarian activism in the wake of the Nazi genocide, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23.
On April 21, Rodriguez and Villegas were feted at the Leroy F. Smith Jr. Public Safety Building in Newark. The celebration included the first public showing of the film before an audience of more than 125 people, including classmates, relatives, and Essex County politicians and dignitaries.
The film was part of an assignment for their Diaspora Studies class, taught by social studies teacher Jennifer DaSilva. The goal of the project was to highlight violations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the achievements of a human rights defender.
“We went down the list of 30 different human rights violations to see which genocide to pick,” recalled Rodriguez. “The Holocaust violated almost the entire Declaration of Human Rights. It was definitely the worst.”
But choosing a topic and executing the film are two different things. The pair had a week to complete their research, map out the film, and shoot it. The students told the audience how they filmed on a frigid morning, running short on time and battery life, to get the opening shots, a series of disturbing photos from various genocides taped to a metal fence. A passerby, portrayed by Villegas, appears to neither notice nor care about the images.
The film became much more than an assignment. The two students were moved by their research. “Like most people, I was going about my day at school, not aware” of what is going on — or went on — in the wider world, Rodriguez said.
Their film opens with the quote, “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” A somber narration describes Wiesel’s accomplishments and repeats his call to intervene on behalf of those denied their human rights.
Rodriguez and Villegas are both planning to go on to four-year colleges to study film. Rodriguez will attend Rutgers University, and Villegas has been accepted to Emerson College in Boston.