Filmmakers Take A Stand: Human Rights Watch ’98

Filmmakers Take A Stand: Human Rights Watch '98

Filmmakers Take A Stand: Human Rights Watch '98

by Anthony Kaufman

If the pen is mightier than the sword, how powerful is a film or
videocamera? Powerful enough to topple totalitarian regimes, cease the
prejudices of the past, stop the exploitation of women? The films and
videos collected in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, now in
its ninth year and traveling to several US cities, attempt these feats
and attempt them unilaterally, creating a multi-faceted picture of the
world’s human rights blight. The crossover and complexity of human
rights issues is found in the festival’s new ovelapping programming with
other New York-based festivals. Joint efforts with the New Festival
(the New York Lesbian and Gay), the African Film Festival, and the
Margaret Mead Festival reveal a “human rights film” is not so simply

“A lot of these issues overlap the festivals,” says Bruni Burres,
Director of the Human Rights Festival. “We’ve been [running] at the same
time and we just haven’t been thinking of how we can collaboratively
program together.” Burres continues, “There [are] wonderful communities
of film festivals and filmmakers in New York, and we’re trying to build
on that. We have our community, they have theirs and we’re trying to
intermingle a lot more.” So far, the response has been positive from
both the organizers who benefit from cross-over audiences and from the
filmmakers, who receive more exposure for their films. “It’s nice to
bridge those communities,” says Burres.

This bridge is well-represented by last night’s festival opener,
co-presented by the New Festival, a film by acclaimed cinematographer
(“Do the Right Thing”) and director (“Juice”), Ernest Dickerson. “Blind
Faith” is set in the discriminatory era of the 1950’s, and the $3
million Showtime-financed project profiles a black family torn apart
after their aspiring son is accused of murdering a white man. Beyond
its acute civil rights surface, the film delves much deeper to explore
intersecting themes of sexual orientation, familial abuse and social

In keeping with its collaboration with both the New Festival and the
African Film Festivals, “Blind Faith” is just one of a few films that
links human rights with such common U.S. problems as racial and sexual
discrimination. Other New Festival-sponsored co-presentations include
acclaimed Sundance award-winning doc “Out of the Past“; the ‘first and
last’ East German film about homosexuality, “Coming Out“; a Philippino
love story that was banned in its home country, “The Man in Her Life,”
and Zhang Yuan’s “East Palace/West Palace” who won’t be coming to
promote his film’s in the U.S. because the Chinese government won’t let

Co-presented with the Margaret Mead Festival are two strong documents on
black life in America, past and present. “Inside Bedford Stuyvesant” is
a 1968 WNET-TV production dedicated to positive images of Black
Americans. More intriguing than Harry Belafonte getting questioned by
black power youths is a memorable segment where a Le Roi Jones Youth
Theater group performs a poem of penetrating racial injustice. Thirty
years later, “Melvin Van Peebles’ Classified X” shows us how necessary a
show like “Inside Bed-Stuy” was — his first person account of African
Americans in Hollywood is a revealing look at the subtle and not-so
subtle discrimination against blacks throughout media history.

The plight of Japanese-Americans will also be covered in a number of
documentaries, most notably the moving “Beyond Barbed Wire“, a
skillfully level-headed doc that balances stories of the
Japanese-Americans that were held in American internment camps with the
soldiers who left their parents behind the barbed wire to prove that
they could die and die harder for their country, than anyone else.
Playing with “Wire” is the winner of the 1997 Academy Award for Short
Film, “Visas and Virtue,” a amateurishly executed, tear-jerker about the
Japanese equivalent of Oscar Schindler who issued some 2,000 exit visas
to Jews during World War II. The film is a lesson in Academy
sentimentality like no other.

Among the powerful pics promoting women’s rights are a distinctly Indian
epic “Death Sentence“; “The Murmuring,” a documentary on female
survivors of Korean brothels from World War II, and Ellen Bruno’s
hard-hitting “Sacrifice,” a nightmarish vision of Burmese girls sold
into Thai slavery and prostitution.

Totalitarianism, politics and prejudice form another triptych of
intersecting themes in a collection of Slavic films. Stalinism gets its
due in two pics, the eye-opening Meryl Streep-narrated “Eternal Memory:
Voices from the Great Terror
” and “Boy Hero 001,” about a 12 year-old
who became a Stalinist national hero for turning his father into the
secret police. From the Czech Republic comes one of the more subtly
and deftly directed narrative films in the festival, Petr Vaclav’s
Marian” about a young Romany (gypsy) boy ‘rehabilitated’ by an abusive
institutional system.

This year’s Nestor Almendros award, named for the esteemed
cinematographer, went to the Russian doc “Ordinary President,” a wry and
penetrating look at Byelorussian politics and its Hitler-inspired
despot, President Alexander Lukaschenka. The filmmaker, Yuri
Khashchevatsky, who was severely beaten after the doc aired on French
Television, will receive a cash prize of $5,000. “We think it’s really
important to try to give something to a filmmaker so they can work on
their next project,” says Burres. The prize winner is gauged by
“weighing the subject of the film, the artistic merit of the film and
what the filmmaker has had to persevere to complete the film.” Burres
singled out “President” for “incorporating humor so well, a wonderful
gift with Human Rights films.” Another winner, the more widely-known
Barbara Kopple will receive the 4th annual Irene Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award for her “unparalleled leadership in introducing
mainstream audiences to controversial human rights issues.”

“These kinds of films are no longer pigeon-holed as political films,”
says Burres, noting the number of other film festivals where their films
have screened and the worldwide scale of their program. “This cinema
has become very much world cinema. Human rights and political filmmaking
is getting more mainstream,” explains Burres.

Burres and Associate Director, Heather Harding, selected the films from
several sources: a call for submissions, festival outreach at Toronto,
Rotterdam and Berlin as well as working with human rights activists to
find out who in the field is working on important issues. “We’ve gotten
[more] submissions in the past two years than ever before,” says Burres,
noting the high number of dramatic films as well as feature-length
documentaries, and the rising tide of video work. “People have really
honed the skills of videomaking and we’re getting a lot of very strong
videos. They’re making it in video and then transferring it to 35mm to
get a stronger theatrical showing if they can, but realizing that they
can make it originally on digital video or beta and that the quality is
really strong.”

One of the outcomes of the Film Festival is an inspiring organization
that all filmmakers should become aware of called FilmWatch: “It started
with an arm of Human Rights Watch called the Fund for Free Expression,”
explain Burres. “It was put together by Hannah Pakula, and the Fund for
Free Expression and the Film Festival, to gather filmmakers, especially
American directors, to sign their name and be able to be visible when a
filmmaker or film is censored anywhere in the world.” For Mr. Suh
Joon-sik, the director of the Korean Humans Rights Film Festival, who
was arrested and jailed last year for screening a controversial video
documentary, a Film Watch writing campaign was instrumental in getting
Mr. Suh released on bail earlier this year. “We thought it was really
important that film and videomakers begin to get support,” says Burres.
“We thought it was important that filmmakers take a stand.”

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