«Even if we can’t see the light in the tunnel, we still have to resist and fight for a better world»

HUMAN idff Oslo: Festival Director Ketil Magnussen discusses the 2023 festival programme, the role of the festival director, the controversy around Two Kids a Day, and balanced presentations in the face of war in Europe.

The largest documentary film festival in Oslo is HUMAN idff Oslo, showcasing the latest Norwegian non-fiction works and international documentaries alongside a variety of events such as debates, talks, seminars, workshops, art exhibitions, and theatre plays. The festival offers two competition programmes – Nordic and International – as well as a diverse film programme focused on human rights and social issues.

With HUMAN idff Oslo scheduled to run from March 6th to 12th, we had the opportunity to speak with its Festival Director, Ketil Magnussen. In our conversation, we explore the role of the festival director in such an event and provide insights on what the festival has to offer. Additionally, we address the controversy surrounding the European Premiere of Israel’s Two Kids a Day, and consider how a European documentary festival can approach human rights issues in the context of war on the continent while maintaining a fair and balanced perspective.

HUMAN idff Oslo talk
PC: Sebastian Dahl

Over its 15 years, how have you seen the festival evolve? Has its original mission and vision been strengthened over this time?

We started the festival in 2008 as a Human Rights Film Festival, with the name Human Rights Human Wrongs, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration. The festival came out of a collaboration between The Oslo Documentary Cinema and several organisations at The Human Rights House in Oslo. So the first festivals had a very clear purpose of getting more people interested in and actively engaged in Human Rights issues.

After the first few years, we started to expand the programme and include more films; films that were not clearly human rights films, and in 2018 we made it a much broader festival by including a competition programme for Norwegian documentaries with no thematic limitations and a broad international program out of competition. And we shortened the name to ‘Human’ to signal that we were now more than a human rights film festival.

From being purely an audience festival, we’ve put a lot of effort into also becoming a meeting place and platform for the Norwegian documentary film community, something we’re now working to improve every year.

We’re still an audience festival and think we have a huge potential to grow in Oslo. We are also a festival for a professional audience working in the film industry, civil society, research, politics, education, etc. When we started the festival, we had five partners. Today we have more than 50.

From being purely an audience festival, we’ve put a lot of effort into also becoming a meeting place and platform for the Norwegian documentary film community

As a Festival Director, how do you view your role and responsibilities? Where do you fit in the ultimate team effort to plan and produce such an event?

I am very involved in the programming of both films and the talks and debates we have, and the contact with all our partners in the film industry, civil society, universities and other institutions. In addition, I work with the strategy for where the festival is heading in the long and short run, as well as the financing and reporting.

Even though the festival is too big to have one or just a few topics each year, we still try to formulate something that can be an underlying theme for each specific year. For the 2023 festival this theme can be formulated in two words; resisting inevitability. The idea behind it is that we’re living in times where many people have a problem seeing solutions to the challenges we face as societies and as the human race. Even if we can’t see the light in the tunnel, we still have to resist and fight for a better world. This is not something we advertise outwards, but something we have as an inside guiding premise.

Besides that, I try to support the team we have. As we can’t afford to have a full-time team employed throughout the year, there are always new people on the team that have to start from scratch.

Though not entirely human rights-focused, HUMAN idff Oslo does lean strongly toward Human Rights films. But, of course, even in times without war in Europe, there are human rights issues throughout the world. So how do you balance this reality to assess such issues fairly?

We have a competition programme for the best human rights film, and many of our talks and debates are about human rights issues.

We have tried to find a balance between being a festival focusing on Human Rights and, simultaneously, a documentary film festival focusing on the art and craft of documentaries on a broad scale.

We are trying to have two profiles. One is our strong interest in current affairs and human rights, and documentary film is a very important medium for investigative reporting and for telling stories that regular journalism can’t. The other profile is to focus on documentary film as an art form, an arena for new Norwegian and International films, and a platform and meeting place for the Norwegian documentary film industry.

HUMAN idff Oslo performance
PC: Sebastian Dahl

Speaking of war in Europe, one dynamic has been an intense tribalism around the «good vs evil» framing within mainstream western media. Personally, I feel there is space to strongly condemn the actions of Putin, while also acknowledging the role of the western military-industrial complex. These days, given many in the Nordic region’s desire to join NATO, how does a human rights festival based in the region reconcile with the human rights contradictions such an organisation presents?

There are always contradictions, but in the current situation, certain things are quite clear to me. The Russian attack on Ukraine is indefensible.

We are planning to have a discussion on what kind of justice process there can be after the war in Ukraine. If and when there is such a process, there will also have to be a reckoning with potential Ukrainian war crimes and human rights violations committed during the war. However, the main perpetrator so far is President Putin and the Russian war machine.

There could be a more open discussion about the western strategy (or strategies) before 2014 and the strategy to help put an end to the war. Still, when a war starts, especially a brutal invasion like Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which is so close to us, things tend to become quite black and white for a while.

I don’t think we can call NATO’s policy towards Ukraine a human rights issue. The human rights violations so far have mainly been committed by Russia.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is indefensible.

HUMAN idff Oslo will also present the international premiere of the film Two Kids a Day, an Israeli film about two Palestinian boys who are arrested on average once a day by Israeli police. The film has since caused quite a stir in Israel, with the country’s Minister of Culture essentially saying it will pull funding from any future films that «harm the good name of Israel. »They even call for a pledge from filmmakers that they will not engage with such material under the threat of lack of funding. But the film screened in Israel and only now is receiving such backlash. What are your impressions of this? Is the government approach censorship? How do you plan to present the film at the festival, and what sort of conversations will occur around it?

This is an extreme reaction towards a film company. The film is well made and based on solid research and interviews with Palestinian children who have been arrested, Israeli soldiers, a former military prosecutor, and human rights lawyers. It won the Award for best research at the film festival in Jerusalem.

The film company is under extreme pressure. I don’t think it’s possible for the minister of culture to put force behind the demand to pay the state funding back in any legal way, but we see now that the Israeli government is trying to get more control over the courts of justice. If they succeed, they will have much more power to do what they want without any oversight. It’s a scary prospect.

I think the reaction is coming now because the new government in Israel only got into office late last year.

We work with an organisation called PIM, which works to get attention to the situation of Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons. The leader of PIM will introduce the screenings.

Unfortunately, because of a very tight budget this year, we could not invite the filmmakers to Oslo. This is, of course, very sad for a film festival. With rising prices and lower financing, we have had to make a lot of uncomfortable cuts this year. We are now working hard to find more sources of financing in addition to the ones we have so that we can return to a more normal festival in the coming years.

I think conversations will continue among the audience who comes to the screenings. The film is shocking in the way it exposes the normalisation among the Israeli military and military prosecution of the maltreatment and dehumanisation of Palestinian children.

We haven’t planned for any discussions directly after the film screenings, but we will have talks and discussions where this film will be part of the backdrop. Some members of Jenin Freedom Theatre are coming to perform their play The Revolution’s Promise, and we have planned several talks in addition to the play.

HUMAN idff Oslo screening
PC: Johnny Vaet Nordskog

Finally, what aspects of the 2023 programme do you particularly look forward to?

I look forward to everything, but I am particularly excited about a couple of talks.

We have two master classes; one with Susanna Helke, who made the docu-musical Ruthless Times – Songs of Care about the privatisation of health care in Finland. The other one is with Jon Bang Carlsen from Denmark, whose last film, Dreaming Arizona, is in the program. He will talk about his method of making hybrid documentaries by staging scenes. I think he is a very interesting director and look forward to hearing more about his work.

I am also looking forward to hosting several premieres, listening to the talks we have planned, and meeting and talking with a lot of people from the documentary industry in Norway and a few international guests.

Featured Image Credit: Guro Solli Hansebakken

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