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?’.”

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