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Important Movies For Troubled Times: Human Rights Film Festival Head Explains How to Program With Purpose

It's no easy task to choose message-driven films in this day and age. John Biaggi explains the philosophy of the globe-spanning festival.

“On Her Shoulders”

For 29 years, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival has singled out films that highlight humanitarian challenges around the world. While much of its lineup often premieres at bigger festivals such as Sundance and Toronto, the Humans Rights Festival — which brings its program to cities around the world — creates a unique context that helps certain message-driven films stand out. For artistic director John Biaggi, programming the festival provides an opportunity to catapult cinematic activism to a world stage.

While the nonfiction festival’s purpose may seem more pressing than ever in the divisive era of the Trump Administration, Biaggi said that the philosophy of the programming has remained the same. “There have been all these different human-rights issues around the globe for decades, but more of them have only been uncovered recently,” he said. “I think people feel like, the world is so full of problems. The world was always full of problems. We just didn’t see them. That’s the shift that you’re seeing.”

On occasion, the festival has been a launchpad for movies that appeal to specific causes, such as the documentary “Growing Up Coy” — the story of a transgender six-year-old girl whose parents sue a school after their daughter is banned from the women’s bathroom — which premiered at the 2016 edition before scoring distribution with Netflix. “Complicit,” an exposé of how Chinese tech works have been poised, premiered at the London festival before landing screening dates at the UK Parliament and the UN.

The 2017 New York edition opened with “On Her Shoulders,” Alexandria Bombach’s Sundance-winning portrait of Yazidi massacre survivor Nadia Murad and the impact on her life as a public figure that continues to this day. With the festival continuing through June 21, Biaggi pulled back the veil on its programming approach.

Look Beyond the Front-Page Headlines

When we’re programming, there’s obviously the immediate human-rights issues on the front page at the moment, but there’s a lag in getting good films on breaking human-rights stories, especially documentaries. Sometimes, you have to wait a while to show a comprehensive film. Instead, the festival pulls out films that might be about issues that have fallen off the front page. In this year’s program, we have a film about Cuba. When was the last time you heard something about Cuba? It’s an ongoing problem for the problem for people crossing the strait.

“Silence of Others”

“Distant Barking” deals with the situation in Ukraine, where there’s a huge humanitarian criss. The film beautifully epitomizes the populace and how it deeply affects their psychological state, especially children. “Angkar,” in Vietnam, is about this new generation that has this amazing amnesia about the past in their country — Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. They don’t want to deal with it. There’s also “Silence of Others,” from Spain. You think of Spain as a European country that’s so first world, yet they’ve never dealt with the Franco regime’s killing of 100,000 people. They want to move on. But you can’t do that in a society and expect it to be healthy in the long run. There needs to be some form of justice and apology for people to move on.

Diversify the Audience

The festival is used by our parent organization in cities where Human Rights Watch has an office. We work in over 90 countries. So the festival is shown in quite a few places — between 15 and 20 cities each year — so that’s how we try to reach different places in the world. Reaching people who might not agree with your point of view, which is always the tough nut to crack, that’s something we’ve tried through outreach. When we’ve shown films from some areas, we’ve tried to reach out to religious groups that might include people who aren’t a left-leaning audience. When we show films that deal with the U.S. military or veterans, we try to bring in different military organizations. When we have films that deal with the police, we try to bring in police organizations into the discussion, certainly into the room. We are trying to reach across the gaps and find people with different viewpoints.

Focus on Who’s Telling the Story

We’re very conscious of diversity, whose voice is telling the story — an authentic voice, someone from the region, that conflict, that country? The festival is particularly sensitive to that, including who we put up onstage for every discussion.

Avoid Boring Talking Heads

The film has to tell a story in a compelling way. We’re always looking for well-rounded, three-dimensional film characters. You can’t just go to a remote place and interview people. If the interviews are stiff and removed from the filmmaker, it’s more reportage style. We stay away from that. We want to see characters who take you through a story in a compelling, emotional way. Audiences relate more when they can empathize with someone on the screen. We don’t see a huge amount of films that we would’ve liked to program. We always lose some to other festivals, or television deals. It’s not like a huge number. In the end, there are just not that many films that are really strong each year.

Make Sure They Did Their Homework

Every year, there are quite a few human-rights films we can’t show because they’re not factually accurate, and we can’t stand behind them. There are so many of these festivals, and often there’s nobody there who’s an expert in that particular human-rights situation. Every single film we look at that gets past the first round is viewed by a human-rights researcher who knows the topic.

Consider the Impact Your Programming Can Have

At Human Rights Watch, as you can imagine, the shock of the 2016 election was a huge, really grim reality to face. As an organization, we realized there wouldn’t be that many people in the U.S. government we could engage. It’s been a struggle for the organization. For the film festival, we had to sit down and have some deep talks about our reaction. One idea we came up with was pushing back by putting the spotlight on successful activism. I think you see that in the program. At least half the programs in New York and London are about someone who has taken a great risk, pushing back against powerful forces in their society, and it serves to show that there are successes. Everything is not grim and dark. There are brave people out there doing great things and we need to spotlight them in these dark times.

The full lineup of the Human Rights Film Festival is available here.

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