October 1, 1995

Festival Watch: Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

Human Rights Watch—the largest U.S.-based organization devoted to safeguarding human rights internationally—founded its annual film and video festival six years ago as a showcase to exhibit documentary and fiction works on human rights themes. The festival illustrates the faith of its founders that film and video are ideal tools for education and persuasion: they are fast, portable, flexible, adaptable to various formats, capable of speedy revision of both picture and sound components, and can be transported, exhibited, and reproduced relatively inexpensively.

Because the watch monitors human rights in 70 nations, it necessarily deals with a broad range of abuses, including ethnic cleansing; terror, starvation, and deportations as weapons of war; the use of chemical weapons and landmines; the torture of prisoners; oppression of minorities and women; child labor; female genital mutilation; censorship; and problems of democratization. These themes and others were documented and dramatized among the 30 titles that were screened June 16-30 in New York City's Walter Reade Theater. A smaller group of works (minus the videos) went on to Los Angeles's Museum of Tolerance Jul 15-21. Selections from the festival will later tour to upstate New York, Boston, Seattle, New Mexico, Vancouver, and Palm Springs.

About half of the festival's titles were documentaries, both long and short, film and video, U.S. and foreign. Of great impact was Marcel Ophuls' 1976 film The Memory of Justice, still on the mark as a timeless indictment of the war criminals and collaborators hiding among us (and within us?). With characteristic self-confidence and inex­haustible inventiveness, Ophuls almost good-naturedly probes for over four and a half hours, from the Nuremberg trials to Vietnam, combining stock footage and new materials, finding guilt and evasion of responsibility aplenty, even within our own ranks.

The pursuit of Nazi war criminals in The Memory of Justice was echoed and updated by The Art of Remembrance: Simon Wiesenthal, a new profile by Austrians Johanna Heer and Werner Schmiedel. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wiesenthal pledged himself to the tire­less search for Nazi killers in hiding, eventually leading to the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann.  Wiesenthal's work within Austria has been hampered by the official suppression of evidence about Austria's complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich. Today, ethnic conflicts within Europe, including Germany, can perhaps lead one to despair, but not Simon Wiesenthal, who perseveres.

Like the Nazis, the Communists in Romania were brutal and thorough. The popular rebellion against the dreaded Ceausescu dictatorship began in 1989. Timisoara, by Bost Ovidio Pastina, is titled after the city where a demonstration by peaceful civilians turned into a massacre. In grainy black-and-white, often abstract images, the film records first the euphoria of young marchers (including children with flags), then the approach of tanks, youths who leapt upon the steel monsters, screams, panic, bodies littering the streets. The dictator's secret police invade the hospitals to shoot wounded survivors in the head. The Timisoara massacre hardens the resolve of rebels elsewhere; eventually the dictator is seized and executed.  New leaders emerge-"ex"­ Communists, new born-again democrats. There is no "THE END" on the screen; instead, we read, "THIS FILM HAS NO END."

Halfway around the world, in India, racial and religious violence has deep roots, a theme explored in Father, Son, and Holy War, by Anand Patwardhan. Committed to social reform in India, Patwardhan's half-dozen award-winning films have dealt with such issues as unionizing workers, slum housing, women's rights, and ecology. Here we see politicians urging men to assert their virility in violence against religious enemies, communal orgies of nighttime destruction against minority neighbors, and the systematic dehumanization of women through the common practice of wife burning (an unwanted wife "accidentally" spills hot kitchen oil on herself because her dowry and submissiveness proved insufficient) and Sati, from the Sanskrit word for "good woman," the ancient and still-practiced ritual in which a widow willingly throws herself on the burning funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Women of Islam: The Veil and the Republic, a French film by Arezki Ahcene, explores the choices facing many Muslim women now living in France, having come (perhaps unwillingly) to this alien land of a different race, with a strange culture and language and an infidel religious faith.  Another French work, Olga Nakkas Lebanon: Bits and Pieces, uses the voices of women over stock footage to explore the myths and memories of old Lebanon, including its 17 years of warfare. Formerly prosperous, cosmopolitan, and cultured, today Beirut is surrounded by shantytowns of displaced refugees, its future uncertain. The film attempts to find a new identity and purpose amid the "bits and pieces."

The Drilling Field, a British offering by Glen Ellis, documents the basic struggle in Nigeria that has counterparts in many nations: how to "move the nation forward" (that's the jargon) versus the local traditions and livelihoods of farmers and fisherman, the Ogoni people, who are surviving on ancestral properties. In the oil-rich delta of the Niger River, battle has broken out between the Ogoni and Nigeria's military dictatorship. Troops sweep in for the kill. The standard atrocities. Mission accomplished.  Nothing special. The government insures the uninterrupted flow of oil, thus cash, from the Shell Petroleum Development Company to the capital in Lagos, to enrich the already rich.

Like the Ogoni, the Nuba are an African minority, far distant, in miles and in concern, from the "forward" central military Islamic Khartoum gov­ernment. The Right to Be Nuba, by anthropologist Hugo D'Abeaury, was shot secretly by a heroic French-British team traveling by foot and camel to the remote hills of the Sudan. The Nuba, a black people, are resisting the government's genocidal policy of enforced assimilation into the predominant Arabic-Muslim culture. The government is winning. The Nuba, a proud, strong people, are being slaughtered in roundups of thousands, their villages and crops burned, their cattle cut down. Has the United Nations ever heard of the Nuba?

Maciej Drygas’ beautiful The State of Weightlessness provides a welcome break from horror.  A magnificent Polish film that affirms our humanity at its finest, amid the wonder and grandeur of space exploration, The State of Weightlessness shows us five burly middle-aged Soviet cosmonauts, each speaking extemporaneously, sometimes painfully, but with the natural poetry of ancient Slavic mystics, describing the shattering sensations, feelings, thoughts of magical flight, of transcendence, of participation in this enlargement of our collective human potential.

American veteran producer Robert Richter, whose documentaries are usually long and densely informative (Who Shot President  Kennedy?, The Money Lenders: The World Bank and IMF), is now producing a one-hour look at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. His School of the Americas/Assassins, nom­inated this year as an Oscar short, is a 17-minute summary of that full-length film, now in development. Assassins refutes the Pentagon's claim that the School of the Americas is non political and merely trains Latin American officers in how to salute without knocking your hat off. The film traces some offi­cers back to their home turf, where they serve rightist usurpers as death­-squad terrorists and use their U.S.­ acquired skills to search out and destroy peasant insurgents and their families.

Another American offering, Laurel Chiten's Twitch and Shout, argues for recognition and tolerance of those 100,000 Americans among us who are afflicted with Tourette Syndrome. TS is a strange genetic disorder, not fully understood by science, that unexpectedly triggers not only twitches and shouts but tics, shrugs, shivers, spasms, noises, offensive expletives, and/or dance-like gyrations. Producer Chitin and several Tourneys (as they refer to themselves) met with festival audiences in lively sessions. The film's humor and irony relieved, yet heightened, its serious motif: that scorn and discrimina­tion toward Tournees are simply the result of ignorant prejudice.

Carol Jacobsen's From One Prison... deals with discrimination of another sort. Four prisoners, murderesses sentenced to life or long terms for having killed abusive lovers or husbands in self-defense, tell their own stories; no family members, judges, attorneys, wardens, guards, penologists, psychological therapists, or omniscient narrators intrude. We learn of their having endured for years brutalizing mistreatment by men bent upon domination, humiliating the women, breaking their wills, breaking their noses, battering them, sometimes raping them casually, having nothing better to do. Police and social agencies were indifferent or ineffectual in stopping these abuses prior to the murders. We learn that 80 percent of women in long-term prisons today are there for having killed male partners in self-defense. Their sentences typically range from 16 to 20 years or more. In contrast, men who kill their partners typically are sentenced to two to six years. From One Prison..., Jacobsen's fourth film about women in prison, will accompany petitions for clemency for the film's four and for other women who have killed in self defense.

The American documentary In the Name of the Emperor, by Nancy Mei-Yu Tong and Christine Choy, born respectively in Hong Kong and in Shanghai, is about genocidal atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China in the late 1930s. In the 1937 "Rape of Nanjing" (then China's capital), an estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed, 20,000 women were raped, children were used as human targets for bayonet practice. An American missionary was able to photograph some atrocities, and that footage is used here along with diaries, eye-witness testimonials, documents, and new footage from other sources. A related topic of the film is the estimated 200,000 Korean women compelled by the Japanese army to serve as prostitutes for their warriors. Recently, reluctantly and partially, the Japanese government has apologized for wartime atrocities. This film, and others, are encouraging historians and peace activists in their long campaign to compel Japan to acknowledge its own history.

Festival director Bruni Burres is satisfied, justifiably, with the growth of the festival in the six years since its founding, from a niche event to its present eminence as the only international film and video festival specifically address­ing human rights issues. Press visibility today is enhanced. The new venue, within New York's prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, is a great plus. Screening and discussion facilities at the Walter Reade Theater are a vast improvement over the ad hoc arrangements of previous years. In New York attendance doubled, and there was more contact with New York's ethnic minorities, increasing the appetite for films.

In 1994, the festival gave perhaps 15 hours to films and videos on Bosnia; this year, none. Perhaps U.S. television is amply covering events in Bosnia now. Alas, no documentary on Rwanda was at hand. TV covered the massacres there, but with news reports only.  Within the Arab/Israeli sphere, Burress said that suspicion of western film crews and resentment regarding allegedly inaccurate reporting in the past inhibited good documentary production on that area and on the peace talks. But several films on related topics were seen at the festival, notably Women of Islam and Lebanon: Bits and Pieces.

This year the festival offered strong programming acknowledging the half­ century anniversary of the end of World War II. Burres noted that several of these films (especially The Art of Remembrance: Simon Wiesenthal and Ophuls’ The Memory of Justice) emphasized vigilance and responsibility, themes that are basic to the mandate of the festival's parent organization, the Human Rights Watch.


New York writer Gordon Hitchens is a founding editor of Film Comment.