INTERVIEW: Ben Achtenberg | The Center for Victims of Torture

INTERVIEW: Ben Achtenberg

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture is an insightful one-hour documentary about the experiences of torture survivors and those who provide care to them. It highlights the need for appropriate, sensitive care for all survivors who seek refuge in the United States. Interviews with a number of survivors as well as professionals working at torture rehabilitation centers – including CVT – humanize and demystify the process of healing after extreme violence.

Producer/director Ben Achtenberg spoke to us about his film. Ben is the owner and project director of the Refuge Media Project, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture
Click image to watch trailer for Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture

What spurred your interest in producing this documentary?
I’ve always been interested in issues of impunity, which I see as spectrum from torture all the way to schoolyard bullying.  And, independent of that, many years ago, gotten on CVT’s mailing list. I don’t remember how I came across it, but I was immediately interested in what the organization was doing. CVT is relentless once you’re on their mailing list, as you know, so for many years I was receiving your mailings. At the same time I was running my company, Fanlight Productions, that distributed independent documentary films primarily on health and mental health subjects, which included about fifteen documentaries that I produced myself. [One of Ben’s films, Code Gray, was nominated for an Academy Award.]

Anyway, about 5 years ago I had decided to retire from distribution, and I was ready to take on a bigger production project. So all those pieces came together around the idea of doing something about torture. I got in touch with Doug Johnson, who was the executive director of CVT at that time, and did a scouting trip. CVT introduced me to a number of staff and to some of the survivors you’ve served, many of whom later ended up in the film. So that scouting trip solidified the idea. When I got my crew together, CVT was the first place we went.

Who did you intend your audience to be?
Refuge is not primarily intended for broadcast television or for theatrical release, though I am certainly open to that if opportunities arise. It’s really aimed at people who care about social justice and international humanitarian issues, and who might be inspired to get involved in working with survivors, or in support of survivors. So that would certainly include anyone in medicine, psychology, social work, and so on, but also students in those fields.

From the beginning, one of my primary goals has been to create a tool that organizations like CVT and the others profiled in the film can use to train and motivate staff and volunteers and – maybe even more importantly – educate their communities about the experiences and needs of the torture survivors living among them.

My sense from the screenings I’ve had is that people get it. People are affected by it. They get the message. I’ve heard from many people who work with survivors who tell me that the typical reactions of people they meet are, “How can you do that?”, “It must be so horrible,” “You must be so depressed.” I’ve gotten the same reaction from people I’ve told about the film. But what I’ve found is that that is totally not true. As you know, the film is shot entirely in this country and people who make it here are exceptional people. They have a lot of strengths. They’ve already, in a sense, overcome. They have had many traumas and have terrible stories to tell, but they are survivors by definition. So it was not hard to find people willing to be interviewed and it was not traumatic for me to do these interviews. They’ve been great people to meet. They’ve enriched my life, and that’s exactly what I was told would happen by your staff and the staff of the other programs.

What did you learn through this process? Did anything surprise you?
I had no idea how extensive the problem of torture is, and I had no idea how limited the resources are. It still shocks me that there are so few centers around the country and that they have to struggle so hard to survive. They do great work but every city should have a center. I know there are other groups, beyond torture rehabilitation centers like CVT that interact with survivors. But on the whole the services available are pretty limited.

With regard to The asylum system, I was shocked to learn how limited the support services and funding are for people who come to this country as asylum seekers and survivors, and how much they’ve been reduced in the past several years.

[Editor’s note: Unlike many other developed nations, the United States provides neither Federal benefits nor work authorization to asylum seekers. See Human Rights Watch’s report: At Least Let them Work]

What is the Refuge Media Project?
In choosing the name, The Refuge Media Project, as well as the name of the film: “Refuge,” I was kind of playing with the idea of whether or not the U.S. is really a refuge for people seeking safety. But also, as you know, “refugee” is a specific legal category in terms of immigration law, separate from those seeking asylum. Since the film was dealing with both, I didn’t want to blur that distinction. The film title relates to anyone seeking safety here.

The production team for Refuge consisted of myself as director and primary interviewer; my cameraman, Bruce Petschek, who also worked closely with me on the final editing; and our associate producer, Roz Dzelzitis, who had an enormous role in our preliminary research, and in making things run smoothly during the production. Now that the film is in distribution, I’m the only one working on it fulltime.

The Refuge Media Project blog that I do is the other significant element of the project. I was getting it out on a pretty regular basis during all the years of production and editing, and working on it helped me to stay in touch with developments in the care of survivors, as well as many related issues that I’ve felt are relevant to the audiences for the film. It’s got a fairly good and growing readership, but I’m always working to expand its audience.

What response have you gotten about the video from survivors, and from others?
It generally gets a very positive reaction and generates great discussions. Audiences get engaged, and recognize the importance of the work the groups in the film are doing. Many viewers have asked whether there are groups in their areas that they can volunteer with, or connect with in other ways – which is exactly what I want from the film. Others ask about getting copies for themselves or their institutions – which of course is also what I want.

How can people get copies of Refuge?
DVDs of the program are available free to treatment centers and similar organizations serving survivors and asylum seekers on a low budget – I ask for $10 to cover shipping and handling if possible. Such groups should write or email me directly: The Refuge Media Project, 47 Halifax Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130 or ben [at]

Purchasing information for other DVD purchasers is on the Refuge website.  Digital streaming rights for university buyers are available from Kanopy.

Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture features a number of groups working with torture survivors including CVT,  Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition in Washington, DC; the Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors in Atlanta, GA; the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights in Boston, MA; and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, also in Boston.







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