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03 - In Doing Things with Heart
Meet The Man Who is Rebranding Human Rights
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03 - In Doing Things with Heart
Meet The Man Who is Rebranding Human Rights



The modern day hero wouldn’t be caught wearing a cape, or fighting crime in an iron suit, or seen contemplating life from the tops of skyscrapers.

The modern day heroes are the people who inspire us to strive when the future is grim, to take another step when it seems impossible, to dance like no one is watching (when really, there’s always someone watching). The modern day hero inspires us by being their genuine selves.

As a regular civilian, I search for these kinds of extraordinary people; those that are inspirational in every day life. I yearn for them, I hunger for them: the heroes that save the day, on the daily.

Oppression ran through their blood and their history. So it was painful and tragic that his family couldn’t recognize the suffering and oppression of others. 

“As a child, I was obsessed with becoming famous”.

“As a child, I was obsessed with becoming famous”. 

These are Gilad Cohen’s words. It’s unexpected coming from someone who has spent most of his adult life illuminating other people’s struggles. He was nominated by last month’s hero, Dave, the former inmate who now uses art to offer a space for self-expression and therapy to people who are otherwise lost, abandoned or struggling. Though Gilad’s methods of using art as a catharsis are not entirely different from Dave’s, his story takes us on much different path.

Gilad’s story begins 80 years ago with his Jewish grandmother, "Baba", who at the age of three was left in a Romanian orphanage after her father was shot and killed for reasons still unknown.

Gilad’s story begins 80 years ago with his Jewish grandmother, his “Baba”, who, at the age of three, was left in a Romanian orphanage. Her father was shot and killed for reasons still unknown. Perhaps only Gilad’s deceased great-grandfather and his murderer will ever know what happened. The family guesses that “maybe it was Nazi sympathizers, or people who wanted his money”. But Gilad’s grandmother simply pegs it down to “the times”, leaving her children and grandchildren to their curiosity.

The story continues as Baba finds her way through Israel and settles in North York, Toronto, where the family sets new roots. Years later, worlds away from that Romanian orphanage, donning a trendy haircut and a sweatshirt that reads knocking on your soul, we meet our protagonist, Gilad.  His is a story of how he has come to run a Human Rights film festival and speak on the world stage about human rights abuses. Though Gilad is a complete stranger, I can't help tears coming to my eyes when I listen to his story.

When Gilad was eight years old, his father went to Israel to take care of a sick family member for what was supposed to be 10 days. In the process, he drained the family bank accounts, leaving Gilad’s mother without money to pay the mortgage. He never returned. Gilad, his mother, and sister stayed in a hotel owned by a friend, and bounced from house to house as Gilad’s mother worked to support them. Through all this, Gilad never considered himself homeless. All he saw was an eternally optimistic mother who would always come through in the end, always put a roof over their head, and never made them feel they were lacking. She was his first and enduring role model.

***Photo of Gilad's mother and Angel. Angel was the special guest at JAYU's most recent film festival this past December. He spent 13 years in prison for a crime he never committed and was the subject of the film "Coming Home". It was for Opening Night Film in 2015 and JAYU did the Canadian Premiere of it. 

Gilad would become an ordinary teenager growing up in Toronto, with one underlying obsession: becoming famous. 

“I went back to my old house not too long ago and saw that I’d written be famous on my mattress in black marker”.

At the time, he didn’t know what helping others would look like; it was like a lingering dream with many missing pieces. But over time, he has worked to put those pieces together.

This might have something to do with Baba pronouncing, in her thick Romanian accent, that he was going to be the next Anderson Cooper. Or perhaps it was a coping mechanism for a life he wanted that was bigger than the circumstances he grew up in. Even still, don’t all teenagers dream of fame in their youth? Regardless, it would become Gilad's credo. Be famous.

This began to change in university, when Gilad went on a volunteer trip to Argentina with the Global Youth Network. It was on this trip that he realized there was something much more profound than fame. His life’s purpose began to turn outwards in the direction of helping others. At the time, he didn’t know what helping others would look like; it was like a lingering dream with many missing pieces. But over time, he has worked to put those pieces together. 

... he signed up for a day trip to North Korea, mostly for the novelty of saying he had gone to this place that was a mystery to most people, “kind of like telling your friends you’ve been to Mars”

A large piece fell into place not long after, when Gilad spent over a year and a half teaching English in South Korea. During his time there, he signed up for a day trip to North Korea, mostly for the novelty of saying he had gone to this place that was a mystery to most people, “kind of like telling your friends you’ve been to Mars” he tells me. As he rode on a tour bus between the three very carefully selected historical sites permitted by the North Korean government—a school, a waterfall, a temple—he didn’t feel he was learning anything. The tour guides told them specifically what they could and couldn’t photograph, later searching through every single picture in his camera to make sure there were no views of the city. When they visited the sites, they were allowed to walk only so far: past the fountain but no further than the pillar. There was something so strange about the uniformity of the buildings. He couldn’t tell the difference between a grocery store, a shopping mall, and a school. The people were noticeably smaller and thinner than in South Korea, and there was no sense of personal style. When he left North Korea, he had more questions than when he arrived. A few months later, he would learn that these controlled trips had been called off. News broke that a woman had gone past the pillar and ended up being shot in the head. 

After this, Gilad became fixated on finding out more about North Korea. He learned about concentration camps detaining 10s of thousands of people, about the severe lack of access to information, and a famine that has killed close to 1 million people since the 90s. This knowledge brought on a shift in consciousness and a sense of humility. How could he have not known what was happening just north of the border?

“Everyone knows Kim Jong-un, but what about the people he rules over?”

He made it his life’s purpose to raise awareness of North Korea’s conditions beyond the mainstream media’s general parody of its dictatorship (a la The Interview and Team America). “Everyone knows Kim Jong-un, but what about the people he rules over?”, he questioned.



Oppression ran through their blood and their history. So it was painful and tragic that his family couldn’t recognize the suffering and oppression of others.

His life’s puzzle pieces were forming a clear picture. Yet despite all of his success raising awareness, the people he cared about most in his life, his own family, didn’t seem to care. Throughout his childhood, stories of the Holocaust and the suffering of their people were common. Oppression ran through their blood and their history. So it was painful and tragic that his family couldn’t recognize the suffering and oppression of others.

“We grew up learning about how the Holocaust had affected us, and were drilled with this ‘never again, never again, never again’ attitude. But it’s happening right now. So I was sort of challenged with what does ‘never again’ mean? Does it mean ‘never again’ to us? Does never again mean to the Jews? Or does never again mean to anyone?”

It was the breakthrough with his mother that led Gilad to start JAYU, a film festival that illuminates Human Rights issues.

Thankfully, change would come. One day, Gilad and his mother sat down to watch a film called “Crossing” about a young North Korean boy forced to become a refugee. When the film ended, his mother broke down and cried. She asked him if he had anything else like this to show her. Gilad was surprised. Over the years he had shared articles, facts, and his real life experiences with his mom. He had lectured. People listened to him. He was on Al-Jazeera, damnit!  But it was this film—this piece of made up art—that broke down her wall. Through film, she saw their despair. She saw the suffering in others that she knew in her own people. 

 This is Gilad’s mission. To bring the “human” back into human rights, essentially rebranding the way we view human rights issues.

It was the breakthrough with his mother that led Gilad to start JAYU, a film festival that illuminates Human Rights issues. JAYU is going into its fifth year, partnering with both TIFF and HotDocs, and attracting filmmakers from across the world. They also run local projects, like #WhatIsHome, collaborating with photographers, storytellers and Syrian refugee youth to explore what home means to them. JAYU’s spinoff podcast, The Hum, will be premiering soon, providing a space for people to talk about Human Rights without focusing on the heavy tragedies, cultural fallout, academic analysis, or legal red tape. This is Gilad’s mission. To bring the “human” back into human rights, essentially rebranding the way we view human rights issues. To make it a commonplace topic in our day to day. To show that the rights of a human are innately and uniquely something we all have. And to convey this through the stories we have to tell, the creativity that dwells in us all. 

“Before we’re Jews, or before we’re North Koreans, before you’re a woman and I’m a man, we’re all human beings...Knowing this, it should be my responsibility to get people to care!”

As I continue this journey to find people who are doing things with heart, one thing comes up again and again: our history. Where we come from and where our ancestors have been before us influences so much of how we view the world. But in the end, it is us who choose where to direct that view, and what to build from it. Sometimes the world seems to move towards an inevitable dystopia. Trump for President. Fear in the democratic process. A bombed out Homs (Syria) and world leaders flailing their arms from behind their podiums, simply powerless to curb it. 1984 has come and gone and we’re not fazed by it. It’s almost enough to make me buy into my own version of the fear the radicals are peddling. I am discouraged.

But then I meet Gilad, and I think for a moment that the power of the heart is stronger than the fear in my head.

But then I meet Gilad, and I think for a moment that the power of the heart is stronger than the fear in my head. In the way Gilad’s mother fixed her eyes on the future and fought for her family, regardless of the pain and fear she felt when her husband abandoned her without a word; in the way that many North Koreans flee their home for a possibility of something different for their kids; in the way Gilad himself has inspired thousands of people—not to mention his family—through storytelling; I see proof that there’s always some way through.

At the end of our time together, Gilad tells me something he’s never talked about publicly (not even with his family) and is only recently beginning to come to terms with. In his teenage years, Gilad developed anorexia and bulimia. Although these are eating disorders generally associated with girls, and often trivialized as ailments of superficiality, they’re both destructive mental health disorders that some have claimed are harder to kick than cocaine. He dealt with this alone, in secret, for ten years. Thinking back to being a teenager, he realized that he had no way of expressing what it was he was going through. 

To this day, he doesn’t know if he’s ready to talk about it openly, or if he really knows what to say. But knowing Gilad, he’ll probably start sharing even before he’s ready. That’s at the heart of why JAYU, Korean for freedom (??), exists. 

“It’s only through sharing and relating to others that I think you’re able to overcome it” he tells me.

Has there ever been a time when your heart led you astray?

As before, I asked Gilad the same final question that I posed to Mani Mogo and DaveHas there ever been a time when your heart led you astray?

"I was working full-time elsewhere and JAYU was this side hobby. I always had this dream of it becoming a full-time job, but I was scared to take the plunge because I'd have to give up my salary, my savings, my stability for something that wasn't paying me.

By chance one day, and I call this one of the greatest days of my life, I got in a really bad motorcycle accident. I was knocked out cold. The bike was mangled. And as I got up at that moment, I thought to myself ‘what am I doing with my life?’ I thought, if I wasn’t getting up everyday and giving out of my heart and out of my passion, I wasn’t giving anything. And so I decided to take the leap and become a full-time entrepreneur. For the longest time it was all of those other things that were scaring me away from doing it: material wealth, financial security. And those are things that I don't have right now, but in the ways in which I'm lacking financially I make up for by being so privileged and wealthy in experience, in the fact that I can wake up and do something that's fulfilling me and making a difference.”

JAYU is in its fifth year with Gilad at the helm. He’s set a course that he knows is right. He does it for himself as much as he’s doing it for others. Who knows? Perhaps he’s destined for fame, after all.

Let's start a dialogue.

Join Us on Facebook: In Doing Things with Heart

***Photo Credits: Family, childhood and motorcycle photo from Gilad Cohen, "Let's Talk About Our Fears" from Chin Pua

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Story By
Katy Chan Creative Director & Photographer

In Doing Things with Heart
Photographer based in Toronto, Canada

Imogen Grace Interviewer & Writer

Writer & filmaker based in Toronto and New York who loves all stories of grand adventure.

Jason Ahn Editor

"Killing time with gin and lime", writer based in London, UK.

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