When Human Rights Watch launched its film festival more than a dozen years ago, it strove for an equal balance of dramas and documentaries to help spotlight critical issues around the world. But a fifty-fifty split soon proved impossible to maintain as selection committees quickly conceded that the most compelling, involving, and unforgettable human rights stories are best told through the documentary genre. Docs now make up more than 70% of the festival, which has become one of the world’s foremost venues for human rights films.

What sets the festival apart from others is the organization behind it. Founded in 1978, HRW is the largest human rights organization in the U.S., with a legion of researchers conducting fact-finding missions into human rights abuses around the world. HRW publishes its findings in dozens of books and reports every year, generating extensive coverage in local and international media. The publicity is designed to embarrass abusive governments in the eyes of their citizens and the world. And, not surprisingly, films can do so quite effectively.

John Anderson, film critic for Variety and Newsday

Originally begun as a small sideline, the film festival has become HRW’s key mode of outreach. “You think of all the reports we do –  it’s great work but it’s not very dynamic,” says Associate Director John Anderson. “And then you have this film festival. It’s a way of taking your constituency and getting them interested in Human Rights Watch in a dynamic way.”

That engagement was very much in evidence in this year’s London festival, held over eight days in March. The festival screened eighteen documentaries and six dramas, which drew an impressive cross section of Londoners to regularly sold out screenings at the Ritzy Cinema in multicultural South London.

Some of the films were sadly well-timed. Bethlehem Diary, shot during Christmas 2000 shows the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians living in Bethlehem during the Intifada. Staying with old Palestinian friends, British filmmaker Antonia Caccia chronicled their efforts to live ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. In doing so she accomplished what countless news stories about suicide bombers and military reprisals fail to do: put a human face on the crisis. In the Q&A afterwards, Caccia said she’d had enormous difficulty getting the film seen. Two weeks after the London screening, Bethlehem became the centre of full-scale war landing it on front pages everywhere.

When such international crises finally come to the forefront of peoples’ consciousness, HRWIFF is able to hit the ground running. Bethlehem Diary and an expanded Middle East program will be featured in the New York program this June. Such was also the case for Jung: in the Land of the Mujaheddin. The film about the horror for Afghanis of living through never-ending conflict was screened at last year’s New York festival, long before very many Americans were concerning themselves with an obscure country named Afghanistan. After September 11 the story is a bit different: HRW have now helped the film be seen at more than 150 special screenings throughout the country to put a human face on unfolding tragedies. ( https://vimeo.com/54934434 )

Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujahedin (2001) by Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati

“Obviously we felt that Americans are so horribly uninformed about that country.” Anderson says. “Considering how we were now approaching the ‘problem’ by bombing, people needed to see the Afghan people and get a sense of them and the twenty years they have spent suffering over there. Hopefully they’ll wonder: ‘Isn’t there a better way to do it?’.”

In fact, Anderson has seen a surge of interest in the festival and human rights issues since last September’s events. “It’s sad in one sense that we’re even more successful because of such an event,” says Anderson. “But hopefully maybe it allows us to shape the debate somewhat.”

HRW is well positioned to shape the debate by getting films seen by the people who need to see them. The organization often sends tapes to politicians and mainstream broadcasters who follow up with their own stories. “When you have connections like that and you can get people to see it, then it becomes more effective than just being a film festival,” Anderson says.

The festival is less concerned about obtaining brand new films than it is about providing a gateway to issues that need to be heard, Anderson says. After screening at the festival, he and his colleagues prod broadcasters and distributors to give it a larger audience. “We really do try to help out like that. And it’s pretty effective. We’ve helped a lot of films get at least along the route to being seen.”

While content is key, each of the films showing at the festival stands on its own in terms of artistic quality. Anderson says that there’s been an enormous increase in both the number and quality of human rights documentaries submitted in the past few years, thanks to a greater interest in human rights and the increasing use of digital technology. At any rate, the improvement in the quality of the films is a good thing for Anderson: he watches from five to six hundred human rights films a year in a continuous selection process.

The festival now runs in New York, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco and London, with road shows of a selection of films touring other cities in the UK and US. Anderson has found a striking difference between American and European reactions to documentaries. “To Americans, documentaries are some kind of a truth, which is completely bunk. It’s a silly notion. If you’ve ever taken a camera and made even a five-minute documentary you’ll know right a way that you’re just creating a reality for other people,” he says. “The Europeans in general are much more documentary literate. That’s why I like London so much, because the question and answer sessions are much more interesting; they’re much more political. They go beyond the aesthetics and the way the camera was pointed and they get into the subjects.”

This was clear in London this year, as the Q&A sessions frequently became heated, most notably after a screening of Lebanon Dream. The film follows a Lebanese profiteer in his final days of illegal cross-border trading with Israel. The Q&A with Israeli director Nurit Kedar demonstrated just what a specialized crowd the film had attracted as she faced confrontational questions from Palestinian supporters, Lebanese-born immigrants and Middle Eastern journalists.

Lebanon Dream by Nurit Kedar

The specific impact of HRW’s International Film Festival on human rights issues is difficult to measure, as it steadily tries to bring the concerns of a larger world to often complacent American and European audiences.

“It’s a grassroots approach,” Anderson says. “What kind of an overall effect does it have? It’s very hard to say. Because I think like most grassroots unless they reach a critical point, like a huge march on Washington for instance, it’s hard to say what the grassroots do. But even if you can shape people’s thinking about a subject like this, you never know what it might lead to.”