Doreen Beinart’s human rights documentary series


By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent


CAMBRIDGE - The governmental discrimination that Doreen Beinart encountered while working to alleviate the effects of racism in her native South Africa only served to strengthen her resolve to expose instances of injustice, in fact, to expand her mission to a global scale.

Beinart, who holds a 1974 Harvard Graduate School of Education M.Ed. and is the wife of American Repertory Theatre founder and longtime director Robert Brustein, had been advising black women who experienced discrimination under the apartheid government when she was harrassed by police authorities. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cape Town, she went on to become Associate Editor of South African Outlook, an anti-government journal, until she came to Harvard in 1972.

“I had hoped to return to South Africa to work on alleviating illiteracy, but instead found myself a permanent resident in Boston,” she recalled. Beinart became the Managing Editor of an architectural journal at the MIT Press in the mid-70s, and also assisted welfare mothers in a Head Start program. Currently, Beinart directs the Film Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; she is also involved in the Word on Fire series, which will resurrect Jewish books burned by the Nazis in WWII this spring at the Boston Public Library.


“I got into the film program by a stroke of luck,” she said. “I sat next to Boston philanthropist Greg Carr at an ART dinner, and asked him whether he had any interest in a film program at his newly formed center.” Carr ironically had, and asked Beinart if she could start at 8 a.m. the following morning.


Beinart will teach a September course in film and human rights which had been put on hold while she redesigned the Martha’s Vineyard home she shares with Brustein, who, semi-retired at 76 with myriad lecture, article and panel commmitments, is beginning a Senior Fellowship at Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program. “But right now, we are in our Martha's Vineyard house, both working as well as enjoying the tranquil beauty of the island in winter,” said Beinart.


Adele Pienaar, Beinart’s Sephardic mother, was born in Alexandria, Egypt; her family came from Spain’s Rioja region. Her late Russian Jewish father Alec, a decendant of Rashi, emigrated from Cork to South Africa, where her grandfather established the wool, hyde and skin trade, still in the control of her family. “I grew up traditionally Jewish: Hebrew school, bat mitzvah etc.” she said, citing her mother’s Shabbat meals which have kept her entire extended family together.


Her son Peter, 30, a former Rhodes Scholar and editor of the New Republic, appears every Sunday on CNN’s Final Round program, where he recently took on Pat Buchanan, who asserted that the Jews were behind the war in Iraq. Quasi-Orthodox, he just became engaged and holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale, as does Beinart’s daughter, Jean, 27, Deputy Art Director for People Magazine, Special Editions.


Beinart’s film program aims to inform the Harvard community about political developments around the world. “I try to choose documentaries which tell powerful stories with a general human rights theme,” she said, noting that some of the extraordinary films have difficulty finding distributors in this country.


On April 1, “Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda” will document the Rwandan genocide. “It depicts both the pain of the past and the complexity of trying to establish justice and move toward reconciliation,” she said. “The reconciliation tribunals are a new citizen-based form of justice aimed at unifying 8 million Rwandans after the 1994 massacres that left 800,000 people dead in 100 days.” Anne Anghion, the filmmaker, will appear. “The film depicts Rwandan United Nations head Dellaire’s efforts to stem the bloodshed despite a lack of UN support,” she explained.


This semester, Beinart screened Wedding in Ramallah, and The Road North, a film on the recent Nigerian beauty pageant mired in worldwide controversy over the stoning of Amina Awal, who had become illegitimately pregnant in violation of Sharia law. Filmmaker Alexis Bloom was on hand, as well as Nigerian lawyer and Kennedy School Mason Fellow Sam Amadi. Beinart plans to then show a South African film, Amandla, successfully screened at Sundance this year. “The idea behind the film program is to screen hard to find, beautifully made documentaries that shed light on regions in conflict, and to showcase accompanying discussions led by filmmakers and experts,” she said. “The Carr Center is fortunate to be headed by public intellectuals extraordinaire, Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Power, and to be endowed by Carr.” The films are screened at the JFK School’s Weiner Auditorium, at 79 JFK St. in Harvard Square, at 6 p.m.


The series is a benchmark of Beinart’s longstanding commitment to human rights. “It took me a very long time to find work outside the home that could hold my undivided attention,” she said.