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Stories from the Field: Tank Man

by Jason Witenstein-Weaver

Captured on video during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the lonely figure of a man, shopping bags in hand, halting the draconian machines of war gave the world pause to consider the power of one. A single courageous act, documented on film and video, highlighted the effectiveness of an individual in the struggle against human rights violations and proved to the world that a single person is a powerful agent of change. Standing as a modern day David in the shadow of Goliath this man’s action resonates still in the struggles of those who stand fast against the many manifestations of tyrannical oppressions that terrorize the world today. Whether it’s the nuclear crisis in N. Korea, the tragedies in Burma, the child soldiers of Rwanda, or the destruction of the rainforests in the Amazon, the Unknown Rebel stands as a symbol of the individual’s role in affecting change. If more people would refuse to give way in the face of cruelty, we could solve twice the problems in half the time. As such, the “Tank Man” is an apt representation of individual strength in the fight for global change and one of the most poignant symbols of video documentary image making of the twentieth century. Therefore, it serves as the most appropriate icon for a festival highlighting the triumph of the human spirit in the looming shadows of social injustice and the role that the documentary film maker plays in telling the story. No matter the oppressor, be it political, religious or viral, we in the media and in the arts must stand firm and bear witness so that others may live.