Like many university grads, Gilad Cohen took a job teaching English in South Korea when he finished his degree, but it was a day trip to North Korea that changed his life.
“It was a bizarre trip – border officials inspected all the pictures on our phones before we were allowed to leave, and many North Koreans seemed determined to go out of their way to talk about how great life was,” says Cohen. “When I got back to South Korea, I was horrified to learn that there are 200,000 people in concentration camps in the North. I was embarrassed at how little I knew.”
Growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors, Cohen had always been sensitive to stories of human rights abuses – and what he learned about North Korea struck a very deep nerve.
When Cohen returned to Canada, he enrolled in Humber’s international development postgraduate program, then went back to South Korea to complete an internship with a North Korean human rights organization.
In 2012, Cohen screened the first North Korean Human Rights Film Festival at the University of Toronto. A representative from the TIFF Bell Lightbox – a multi-screen theatre associated with the Toronto International Film Festival – was in the audience, and asked Cohen if he would consider screening the festival the following year at the Lightbox.
Cohen, who recently spoke at the UN about human rights, is now the executive director of Jayu, a volunteer-run organization that brings attention to human rights issues through art and media. The North Korean Human Rights Film festival is now known as the Human Rights Film Festival, of which Humber is a sponsor. Jayu also runs a speaker series, a street photography project and actively works to engage students in human rights activities.
And the meaning of the word Jayu?
Freedom – in Korean.
For more information about the Human Rights Film Festival, which runs from December 5-7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, go to http://www.jayu.ca/.