Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

To bear witness November 16, 2015 by Anne Cantrell • Published 11/16/15

When Kelly Matheson first heard about Montana State University’s graduate program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking, she knew it was exactly what she wanted to do. The former attorney and environmental educator had never picked up a video camera, but she viewed the program as the perfect way to launch a career where she could use video to protect human rights and the environment.

The first film Matheson made after she enrolled at MSU about 10 years ago—a documentary about pilots who fly volunteer missions over threatened lands in Costa Rica—was broadcast nationally, shown at a number of festivals and won a prestigious Telly Award. The film also launched Matheson on a dynamic career in video advocacy.

Matheson, who graduated with an MFA from MSU’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking program in 2009, now works at WITNESS, an international organization based in New York that trains and supports people to use video in the fight for human rights. As head of WITNESS’ Video as Evidence program, Matheson teaches activists how to use the medium to create change. Matheson’s work in Brazil was highlighted in a recent New York Times Magazine feature.

Matheson recently sat down with Mountains and Minds to talk about documenting human rights abuses with cellphone cameras, the risks associated with her job and why she keeps coming back to Montana.

What do you want people to know about WITNESS?

With the changes in mobile technology, citizens all over the world have cameras in their pockets. Every person has the ability to make a difference. That said, there’s knowledge and information needed to be able to make a difference effectively. My job—and WITNESS’ job—is to make sure citizens can use technology in a safe, effective and ethical way to protect human rights. That’s our focus and that’s what we empower people to do.

How does WITNESS use technology to protect human rights?

I have the honor of working with activists who go to the front lines and literally risk their lives to document human rights abuses. They want the material that they’re risking their lives to collect to be useful for justice and the protection of human rights. However, sometimes what they gather isn’t as useful as it could be because they don’t understand the techniques for filming to ensure that the lawyers can use it later down the road, or they don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the material to actually collect. So, we work to train those activists how to use video to document human rights abuses in a way that is most useful to secure justice and accountability. Whether it’s activists that work in Ukraine, the Middle East or the favelas in Brazil, we want to make sure their cameras become a powerful tool for justice.

Then, from a tools perspective, we work with technology companies to make sure that this proliferation in technology that we’re experiencing, this proliferation in cellphones, this proliferation in platforms, considers human rights values and human rights principles.

WITNESS has been in existence for more than two decades. What are a few examples of the organization’s successes?

Through the years, my colleagues have worked to document child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That work, in part, helped support the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, who was a warlord known for enlisting, conscripting and using child soldiers in armed conflict. WITNESS has also worked on a case in Kenya, where video evidence was presented to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to show that the Kenyan government had forcefully evicted the Endorois, which is an indigenous population in Kenya, from their land. That resulted in a landmark decision by the commission that actually applies throughout all of Africa, as well as sets precedent for the rights of indigenous people everywhere.

In its early days, WITNESS had citizen journalists use camcorders, but now that has changed to cellphones. Are there any unexpected benefits with this technology?

The proliferation in technologies has resulted in attention to human rights abuses. The cellphone (camera) has resulted in citizens’ (increased) participation, right to information, right to free speech. But on the flip side, it has also endangered our dignity, our privacy and our personal security.

What are the strengths of citizen journalism? What are its drawbacks?

Justice has a number of goals. One of those goals is truth, and one of those goals is accountability. I think the cellphone is exceptional for exposing the truth…. But I don’t think we’ve yet gotten to the point where the batting average for accountability is high. I get deeply concerned that we have all this video that exposes the truth, yet we are not willing to take the steps to change (reality). And not only are we not willing to take the steps, sometimes we just outright ignore what we see. That’s deeply troubling. My hope is to increase that batting average and ensure there are more perpetrators behind bars and less impunity for human rights abuses.

What motivates you to do this work?

The honor of working with front-line defenders. The people that I have the opportunity to support and work with day-to-day are the most courageous people that I’ve ever met. They’re willing to risk their lives to ensure that human rights are honored. It’s their passion, their commitment, their courage that keeps me going on the days that are really hard and you wonder why you’re doing it because you’re not seeing as much progress as you want to see…. Someone just asked me, ‘How do you still have joy in your life?’ It’s definitely difficult sometimes. But you can’t give up hope.

Do the activists you work with struggle with the question of whether to perform the work?

They don’t struggle with it. The people that I work with are very often in incredibly dire situations, and, honestly, I think many of them feel like they don’t have a choice. I guess they have a choice: They have a choice between do something or do nothing. And to do nothing isn’t a choice because then you become hopeless. And then you give up. Their commitment is profound.

You have a master’s degree in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. What did you learn in the program that helps you in your work?

Everything! I unequivocally could not be doing what I am doing right now if it weren’t for the MFA program at MSU. That is absolutely, 100-percent true. MSU gave me the foundation I need to do the work that I do. Period.

What did you do before you enrolled in MSU’s program?

As soon as I graduated from college, I wanted to see the world. My first career was as a science education teacher. That allowed me to travel all over the western United States—being on the Western rivers, climbing the Western mountains, seeing incredible sunsets and sunrises, and just breathing in fresh air. I was working extensively with youth, teaching them about environmental protection and the value of our natural resources. After six, seven years of doing that, I realized that it takes education a long time to kick in. I fully believe that education is the foundation that we all need in order to make the world a better place, but I realized that that’s going to take a while. And I wanted to stop environmental destruction immediately. I felt a good way of doing that was going into public interest environmental law. So I went to the University of Oregon, which has an outstanding public interest environmental law program…. After graduating from UO, I practiced law for four years in Alaska, Africa and Wyoming, and I realized that part of my job as a public interest environmental attorney was to communicate to the public what rights we were trying to protect. That’s when I learned about the MSU film program, and I thought to myself, ‘Film is an excellent way to communicate about environmental rights, human rights and the intersection of environmental and human rights.’ So I applied to MSU.

What do enjoy doing in your free time?

I have incredible opportunities with my job to be in different places in the world. I try and take time everywhere I go—when I’m done with the teaching or I’m done with the work—to dive into where I’m at. Whether that’s exploring the culture and the people or hopping on a bike in Ireland and biking on the rural roads or getting on a sailboat and going out and sailing in the Atlantic or hiking along a coastal trail in Turkey, that’s what I like to do.

There is risk to your personal safety associated with your work. Have you ever gotten to the point where you think, ‘I just can’t do this anymore?’

Every time I travel, we have a safety and security plan that is put in place, and it is tailored to the situation we’re in. In my work, I have never felt like I have been at an extraordinary risk. Certainly it doesn’t even come close to the risk that the activists that I work with are taking. Most of the risks are ones that we cannot control per se, but we take steps to mitigate those risks, and there are plans in place.

You still have a home here in Bozeman. What does Montana represent for you?

I don’t know that we necessarily have a choice of where we fall in love, but I have fallen head over heels for Montana and the northern Rockies and this beautiful town of Bozeman. Everything from the people to the town to the university to the mountains to the rivers to the wildlife. I don’t think you can really explain why your heart and your home are someplace. It just is. It’s just where I love.

If you knew that you only had a year left in your life, would you do anything differently?

I think I would do what I’m doing but lightly and with more risk. I would definitely take a little bit more time for myself and for my family and for my friends. Because I feel that family and friends are the most important parts of our life. But the activists I work with are my friends, so I would want to continue to work with them. And if I knew I only had a year left, I would likely take more chances to help them. ■

To read more about WITNESS’ Video as Evidence project, see: