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Human Rights Watch: Bringing to Light Injustice and Activism Around the World

Human Rights Watch: Bringing to Light Injustice and Activism Around the World

“Hope, it’s all we’ve ever had,” says a Catholic priest in Michael Caton-Jones‘ Rwandan drama “Shootings Dogs.” “Now, it’s running dry.”

Indeed, as the globe grows darker, with news of genocide in Darfur, civil-liberty crackdowns in China and increased violence and abuses of power perpetrated by the world’s other superpower, the United States, our fountain of goodwill feels considerably parched nowadays. But there are many organizations — and filmmakers — who are replenishing that well, with what appears to be increasing intensity.

While the 17th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) kicked off in New York last week, there are more and more such events taking place around the globe. Today, there are established human rights festivals in Nantes, Moscow, Prague and Seoul, newer events in Bologna, Nuremberg, Paris, and Geneva, and fledgling showcases in New Zealand, New Orleans, Rhode Island and the Ukraine.

HRWIFF, working in cooperation with local organizers, currently brings a selection of films to 40 communities around the U.S., from Manhattan, Kansas to Muncie, Indiana. In India, one intrepid woman takes about ten HRWIFF DVDs and organizes screenings around the country.

“Is has grown,” acknowledges HRWIFF Director Bruni Burres. “As there has been a squeezing on freedom of expression and civil rights, we see more requests for the film festival, because this can be a formal place to discuss these issues.” In the last two years, she says, they’ve gotten requests from Lebanon, Nepal, and this year they’re holding a stand-alone event in Buenos Aires and a sidebar at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival.

In addition, Amnesty International has its own roving film festival, and other nonprofit orgs such as Media that Matters ( and Witness ( continue to illuminate wrongdoing through the power of images and bring the potential for justice where there seemingly is none. As Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”–at least for activist filmmakers, it is the most fertile of times.

No where is this more apparent than the Human Right Watch’s annual fest, which brings together a sobering collection of international atrocities and minor victories in London venues and later at New York’s Walter Reade Theater (continuing now through June 22).

Not surprisingly, this year’s festival is weighted down with carnage and suffering as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its greater “war on terror.” Between the Tribeca Film Festival (a HRW co-presenter), the New Directors/New Films series and the HRWIFF, Bruni Burres believes that the festivals have shown the creme of the crop of films about Iraq, and not “just journalistic pieces appropriate to the television news,” she explains, “but ‘real’ films about what’s happening.”

James Longley‘s triple Sundance winner “Iraq in Fragments” – also honored with this year’s HRWIFF Nestor Almendros Prize for courage in filmmaking – is a beautifully photographed impressionistic snapshot of post-invasion Iraq. Rather than focus on the war, Longley trains his camera on three cultural regions: Sunnis in Baghdad; Shia in Nasiriyah and Najaf; and Kurds in the north (the latter resembles a Socialist Realist vision, painted in gorgeous colors). What he finds, respectively, in each is brutality, anger, and a glimmer of hope – and that no one, not even the Kurds, trusts the Americans.

A devastating slice of life, James Corcuera‘s “Winter in Baghdad” offers a more blistering reminder of the war’s horrible effects on ordinary civilians–children’s bodies are blown apart, homes are crushed, and a group of boys struggle to live a normal life.

While Peruvian director Josue Mendez‘ 2004 feature debut “Dias de Santiago” doesn’t have anything to do with Iraq, it has everything to do with the impact of war. The film follows a twichy young veteran trying to re-integrate into society. Clearly influenced by “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and using a clever mix of color and black-and-white, Mendez puts the viewer into the alienated mind of the soldier; we hear his angry voice-over and witness his violent daydreams. It’s a sad and riveting little trip (now available on DVD). Where is the U.S. version of this story?

British filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross‘ “The Road to Guantanamo” – opening in theaters on June 23 – provides another urgent critique of current events. Just last weekend, three inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison killed themselves. In light of such news, the hybrid fiction-doc – about three hapless Pakistani British youths who wound up interrogated, tortured and interred there for two years — seems rather tame in comparison. (Comments Burres, “Just read one of our reports, it’s all there.”) Though never less than riveting, the filmmakers take a level-headed approach to their controversial material. “Road to Guantanamo” is no “Fahrenheit 9/11“; rather, it’s ten times more subtle, but just as effective.

If protest seems futile, “Camden 28” shows how it can be done: this stirring film chronicles Vietnam war resistors, comprised mostly of priests and devout Catholics, who set out to burn draft records and ultimately, helped turn the tide of public opinion. While Anthony Giacchino‘s debut feature doc appears on the surface to tell a standard tale of civil disobedience, a surprising story unfolds, full of twists and turns, betrayals and redemption.

One of the festival’s most well crafted movies is Manel Mayol‘s “Switch Off.” Alternating between powerful close-up interviews and majestic landscapes of Chile’s Ralco Valley, Mayol powerfully captures the clash between Spain’s largest hydroelectric company, Endesa, and the indigenous people illegally and coercively displaced by a huge dam on their land. In a succinct summation of the world’s woes, a Mapuche leader explains, “The opulence of the European economy is financed by my people’s misery.”

Mayol borrows some sly tactics from the Michael Moore playbook, juxtaposing promotional news clips with violent protests, getting the run around from Endesa’s spokespeople, and capturing the irony of all ironies: after Endesa sent the Mapuche people to live in new houses, they were given no electricity for years.

The subject of globalization and environmental devastation has gained traction at the HRWIFF in recent years, according to Burres, and Czech filmmakers Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky supply a more rough-hewn, but no less incisive counterpart to “Switch Off.” Filming in oil-rich Azerbaijan – so rich, in fact, the black gold appears to seep up around neighborhoods, polluting man and animal, alike – the young troublemakers present a wry indictment of Communist nostalgia and BP’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which has kept corrupt local leaders wealthy and workers impoverished.

Black Gold,” that is, coffee, is the subject of Mark Francis and Nick Francis‘s look at an Ethiopian coffee co-op struggling to make ends meet in a globalized economy. While “Black Gold” also shows how the wealth of the U.S. and Europe relies on the continued subjugation and impoverishment of Africa, the film is not the muckraking coffee expose that many Starbucks-haters would have desired.

Surprisingly, this year’s festival did not feature any films about the death and displaced in Darfur, considered one of our greatest human rights disasters and often elided in the mainstream media. But Burres says she just hasn’t seen any strong films. “It’s very hard to get access,” she says, “and the footage that has come out has been more for the news.”

Still, the HRWIFF has focused on other parts of Africa. While Caton-Jones’ Rwandan chronicle “Shootings Dogs” has been criticized for revolving around white characters, the film powerfully shows how feeble such people are – the young British protagonist’s final unheroic act is a mere apology, before getting on a U.N. truck and leaving thousands of Tutsis to be horribly massacred.

The festival’s opening and closing night film, Zach Niles and Banker White‘s “The Refugee All Stars,” observes a group of six Sierra Leonean musicians, survivors of their country’s war, who form a lively reggae-inspired rock band in a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea. Light on politics and less powerful than the movies sandwiched between it, “Refugee All Stars” nevertheless exposes a few horrifying stories – one man was forced to bludgeon to death his own baby – and reveals their ability to “de-traumatize” their people, as charismatic lead-singer Reuben says, and rise above their anguish.

It’s with their story, as Human Rights Watch Associate Director Carroll Bogert said on opening night, that we can “take hope.”

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