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Keeping the Pressure On: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A black-and-white mugshot from 'Procedure 769.'

The worldwide proliferation of new documentaries has meant that festival programmers today have increased riches to draw upon, in their bid for relevance and audiences. Some recently established festivals specialize or emphasize a narrow spectrum from the annual avalanche of new documentaries, e.g., the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, which in June concluded its seventh annual event.

But "narrow" need not mean cramped or confined: indeed, the selection of human rights films is broad (41 titles from 15 nations). Human rights films seem to increase each year: only recently has the American public become aware of gay and lesbian "rights"—the right to legal protection in jobs and housing, to run openly for public office, to custody of one's children, to serve in the military, even same-sex marriage. There certainly are other human rights, recent and long-standing, and the festival attempts to acknowledge these emerging themes.

The mandate of Human Rights Watch, which governs the festival: "Human Rights Watch investigated and works to stop human rights abuses in over 70 countries worldwide. Our reputation for timely, reliable disclosures has made us an essential source of information for those concerned with human rights. Our goal is to hold governments publicly accountable if they transgress the rights of their people."

First, the dynamics of the Middle East. 119 Bullets Plus Three (Yeud Levanon-Israel) concerns the ex plosive Arab­ Israeli conflict. Dr. Baruch Goldstein, of the extremist group Kach, used 119 bullets to kill 39 Moslems at prayer in their mosque. Shortly after, law student Yigal Amir used three bullets to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The film traces the fanatic ideologues within Israel, as well as among their ideological Arab enemies.

All Hell Will Break Loose (Amir Feldman-Israel) deals with the scores who died in suicide-bombings in Israel within the last year. Some who died were Arabic, as are some who survived. They confront surviving Israelis. Predictably, violent racial clashes with tolerance and reconciliation.

Intezaar (Rashid Masharawi-U.K./Palestinian co-production) examines the Palestinian refugee camps set up by the U.N. in 1948, as thousands of families were expelled from their ancestral lands to create the new Israeli state.

Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land (Michel Khleifi-U.K./Palestinian/Belgian co-production) combines pathos and humor to show us mixed marriages across religious and ethnic lines. The film notes that emerging individualism challenges the intolerant orthodoxy of both Arabic and Jewish faiths.

If You, Me and Jerusalem (Micha X.Peled and George Khleifi-Israeli Palestinian co-production) is a cinema verite report on an all-volunteer ambu­lance crew of Israeli and Arab men. During their tiring 24-hour shift, they work smoothly for the common good.

Days of Democracy (Ateyyat El Abnoudy­ Egypt) traces the role of women within political life, from the powerful pharaonic queens of millennia ago, to the repression, including female genital mutilation, of recent centuries. As the new millennium begins, a new spirit of assertion flowers among Egyptian women, including campaigning for public office.

And, the dynamics elsewhere. How the Hell Did They Survive? (Trix Betlan-Holland). Head lines in France: three Moroccan brothers are suddenly released, broken in body but not in spirit, after 19 years in a secret prison camp in a remote desert. Arrested by Moroccan secret police, never charged, suffering in cold, total darkness, without medical care, with bad food and water, the brothers, now free in Paris, seek justice.

Documentaries on ethnic cleansing abound. Yellow Wasps: Anatomy of a War Crime (Ilan Ziv and Rory O'Connor-U.S.) concerns a special Serbian paramilitary force that in 1992 invaded Bosnia to torture, kill and deport Bosnians, leading to the deaths of hundreds and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands in collaboration with other Serbian forces. U.S. and UN. officials knew of all this, also the world press. Little was done for years.

Calling the Ghosts: A Story of Rape, War and Women (Mandy Jacobson-U.S.) was executive-produced by the Hollywood star Julia Ormond. The film offers testimony by Bosnian women raped by invading Serbs, emphasizing two victims who later campaigned to make war-rape an international crime. They succeed: their torturers and rapists, and others, are now on trial by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Devil's Children (Annie Arnou and Stev Van Thielen­ Belgium) also concerns war­ rape, here usually followed by murder. In Rwanda, many Tutsi women and young girls were raped by marauding Hutu bandits. Those women who survived the initial assault on their villages witnessed in horror the one-on-one slaughtered with machetes and knives of their entire families, including their own children. Taken pris­oner, gang-raped, the women often found themselves pregnant, thus the film's title. Alone without families, reviled and dis­ graced, many pregnant women attempted crude self-inflicted abortions, or they abandoned their infants.

Mass Grave (Joao Godoy—Brazil). The title says it: during its long military dictatorship, Brazil filled cemeteries with "disappeared" political prisoners. Through the memories of surviving families, the film reconstructs that shameful period, still shrouded in secrecy.

Hunters of Utopias (David Blaustein­ Argentina). A very long film, Utopias uses stock-footage and testimonials about Argentina's turbulent history of recent decades, documenting the sacrifices of mili­tant but irrepressible minorities seeking to create a democracy.

Procedure 769 (Jaap Van Hoewijk­ Holland) is a report on the judicial process, and the mechanical how-to, of a famous California execution. Robert Harris killed two teenage boys, was caught, convicted, sentenced to death. His execution was a prime-time media event: California had just restored its death penalty after 25 years. To celebrate, 49 witnesses gathered for the big death, many of them relatives of the victims. Of the 49 spectators, eleven discuss on-camera the high-tech Procedure 769, a chilling protocol that details every step required by law to be followed during the execution.

Lost in Mississippi (Jim Chambers­ U.S.) looks at the rights of convicts in Southern prisons, emphasising their myste­riously high suicide-rate—47 in five years in one state (Mississippi), half of them African-Americans. In talks with victims ' families, correctional officers, current and former inmates, Chambers segues into sex, gender, race, politics, religion.

Finally, Tell The Truth and Run: George Seldes and The American Press (Rick Goldsmith-U.S.). This is a career­ portrait of a maverick print-journalist who at 98 is the grand old man of irascible iconoclastic journalism, also spiritual mentor to three generations of scribes and activists— I.F. Stone, Victor Navasky, Ralph Nader, others. "In Fact—An Antidote for Falsehoods in the American Press," founded by Seldes in 1940, alienated mainstream publishers and the financial powers behind the news. Naturally, Seldes became a pariah, exiled from the fraternity of his peers. Susan Sarandon narrates; Ed Asner voices Seldes's written words, from his many books and periodicals.

Because the Human Rights Watch emphasizes practical reform where possible, in its world-wide investigations of abuses by governments and institutions, it naturally seeks maximum exposure of its annual festival films. The program tours to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and to Boston, Seattle, St. Louis and other U. S. cities, then to Haiti, Hong Kong, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil and London. Perhaps a third of the films are fiction, new and old (e.g., a mini -retrospective from Su­ Kwang Park of South Korea), all on themes related to the abuse of human rights. In New York, screenings were held at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Filmmakers were usually present, debate was encouraged, follow-up materials were made available. A youth-outreach program went to New York City high-schools.

Festival Director Bruni Burres, in her published program of titles, has thoughtfully included a list of distributors for each title, with address/telephone/fax/etc. This is an invaluable extra for any festival, giving a source by which to locate a film.

GORDON HITCHENS is founder of Film Comment and served as editor for the magazine's first seven years; he is also a Variety stringer and has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to m1mer­ us film festivals throughout the world.