A festival blends a celebration of the human spirit with a critical examination of human rights issues using a refined interpretation of ‘human rights.’

The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival has established itself as a platform for screening both traditional and innovative human rights films in Australia.Presented in conjunction with visual artwork exhibitions, poetry and music performances, seminars and workshops, the film festival takes centre stage. The festival presents films that document issues of human rights abuses as well as those that critique traditional representations of human rights issues and the representation of ‘victims.’ The films are marvellous studies of the human condition, pushing the boundaries of the theme through a nuanced interpretation of it. This year’s selection included documentaries that told stories of human rights abuses such as the neglect faced by street children in Nepal (Lonely Pack), the horrific working conditions of ship-breaking workers at Chittagong dockyards in Bangladesh (Iron Crows) and the effects of climate change on lives in the Pacific islands (There Was Once an Island). However, the festival cast a wide net and included films that observed human rights concerns in Western societies, which appear less frequently in human rights documentaries.

Lonely Pack

Topics included: the playing out of the pro-life and pro-choice hostilities (12th and Delaware), the effects of technology on humans and societies (Plug & Pray) and the challenges of resettlement faced by migrants in Britain (Moving to Mars: a Million Miles from Burma). The Festival also included films that celebrate the power of collective and individual action to conquer adversity – the power of music in the ghettos of Congo (Benda Bilili), the successes of the peaceful, secular resistance movement to the ‘Fence’ in Gaza (Budrus) and the successful community action against gold mining in Argentinian Patagonia (Vienen Por El Oro Vienen El Todo).


Three documentaries stood out as illustrations of the eclectic approach to the film selection. I was worth fifty sheep (Dir: Nima Sarvestani) is a well executed, observational film that challenges the popular representation of Afghani women as ‘voiceless victims.’ Set within the confronting world of traded teenage girls within a patriarchal family structure, the teenage protagonist emerges as a strong woman who regains control of her life. Plug & Pray (director Jens Schanze) is a philosophical exploration of the complex ethical dilemmas being posed by advancing technology. The film features conversations with pioneers of newer frontiers in technology as well as scientists who question the effects of advancing technology on human lives, relationships and society. 12th and Delaware (directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) approaches the manipulative tactics of pro-life groups in America in an evenhanded, understated manner, resisting the temptation to adopt a didactic approach. The observational, direct cinema style lends an additional element of live drama to the documentary as the intriguing tactics of the pro-lifers unfold on camera. Taking a big picture approach to the articulation of human rights, the documentaries were both engaging and thought provoking. Coming on the heels of several films that depict the military conflict and its many aspects in contemporary Afghanistan, (Restrepo, Armadillo), I Was Worth 50 Sheep returns attention to the outdated practise of exchanging young girls for livestock that continues to plague Afghan society, through the story of a single family.


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