HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The Ritzy, ICA, Renoir, Gate Cinema, Clapham Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Curzon Mayfair
The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival returns to London for an 11th year with a programme of 22 inspiring and powerful documentary and feature films, which go beyond the headlines to reveal the human and economic realities of today’s global stories. This year’s festival includes the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others, plus two of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominations.
From March 21-30 the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival plays at seven cinemas across London. The Ritzy in Brixton remains the hub of the festival and for the first time the festival will also play at the Renoir. As ever the screening programme is augmented at all venues by what promises to be lively debate and discussion between filmmakers, audiences and human rights experts (see calendar at end of release).
Twenty countries feature in the 2007 programme: Afghanistan, Algeria, Belarus, Burma, Chile, DR Congo, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Iraq, Israel, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Mexico, Palestine, Romania and the USA.
The fundraising Benefit Gala screening for Human Rights Watch takes place on March 21 at the Curzon Mayfair with the UK Premiere of Mon Colonel, Laurent Herbiet’s brilliant directorial debut of historical and political intrigue, scripted by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg, and produced by Michèle Ray Gavras. Echoing the moral dilemmas of our times, Mon Colonel is set between the present day and the late 1950’s during Algeria’s war of independence. The film is a compelling portrait of a military struggling to deal with a war they have not been trained to fight: a guerrilla war against “terrorists” in which the opponent wears no uniform and melts away into the landscape to fight another day. Costa and Michèle Gavras will attend the Benefit Gala screening of Mon Colonel on 21 March and the Opening Night screening at The Ritzy on 22 March.
France’s relationship with Algeria is also a focus in the Closing Night on 29 March in the beautifully produced Days of Glory, directed by Rachid Bouchareb and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Days of Glory follows the gripping story of four Algerian “indigènes” who enlisted in the French army to take back France from the Nazis. The film depicts the forgotten but crucial role that tens of thousands of North African soldiers played in the liberation of France in the Second World War. Rachid Bouchareb will attend the festival screening of Days of Glory.
The 11-day festival is packed with special previews and UK premieres of award-winning features and documentaries. The Lives of Others is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s blistering indictment of the former East German regime. Water http://water.mahiram.com/, by the acclaimed director Deepa Mehta, is the final part of her trilogy (Fire, 1996; Earth, 1998). The original production of Water was halted in 2000 by violent riots led by Hindu nationalist groups, demonstrating about the film’s controversial subject. Water is set in 1938 and tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old child widow who is sent to live in an “ashram”, which is run by a deeply unpleasant woman who farms out the younger widows as sex-workers. Deepa Mehta has been invited to attend the festival screenings of Water.
The stunning black-and-white photography of Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s The Violin (El Violin) belies the harsh and cruel world depicted in this Mexican film. Don Plutarco, his son and grandson, live double lives: they are musicians and farmers, but also support an armed guerrilla movement seeking social justice. When the army seizes the village, the rebels flee, forced to leave behind their stock of ammunition. While the guerrillas organise a counterattack, Plutarco executes his own plan. Presenting himself as a harmless violin player to the ruthless army captain, he finds himself trading music for access to the field with the hidden ammunition. As days pass Plutarco realises that this ploy can only lead to betrayal.
Like many who watched the unfolding drama when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Spike Lee was shocked not only by the scale of the disaster, but by the slow, inept, and disorganised response to the emergency. In When The Levees Broke – A Requiem in Four Acts, Lee has produced an extraordinary account and intimate portrait of New Orleans, which recounts the stories of those who endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell a tale of misery, heartbreak, despair, and triumph.
Inspiration for aspiring radicals (and a point of reminiscence for aging ones) is offered in two festival documentaries featuring civil disobedience, the role of citizen’s in democracy and the power of protest. Anthony Giachinno will attend screenings of his impressive debut The Camden 28 www.camden28.org, which chronicles the almost forgotten and extraordinary story of a Vietnam- era disobedience case involving priests and devout Catholics who were betrayed by a friend-turned-FBI mole after they told him of their plan to break into a draft office to destroy papers. In Miroslaw Dembinski ‘s A Lesson of Belarusian, teen activists never give up on their belief that Belarus will one day be free. Through an underground newspaper, music and an opposition concert, Franek Viacorka (whose father is a political prisoner), and his classmates express their criticism of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime with passion and contemplation, and at grave risk to their own personal freedom. The filmmaker, Miroslaw Dembinski, will attend the festival screenings of A Lesson of Belarusian.
Resistance of another kind is explored in The City of Photographers, about a motley crew of photojournalists whose pictures capture Chile´s turmoil during Pinochet’s long regime. In bloody riots and protests, these fearless photographers learned their craft in the streets and created many of the now legendary images which helped focus world attention. For them, taking pictures became a form of resistance. Pinochet had the power and the guns, but these photographers had the camera.
The US military machine is scrutinised in two films. Why We Fight , the latest documentary by Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), expertly weaves together unforgettable personal stories with commentary by a Who’s Who of US military and political insiders, and asks the question why we fight? Featuring John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol, Richard Perle and others, Why We Fight launches a bipartisan inquiry into the workings of the military industrial complex (a phrase coined by US President Dwight Eisenhower in his legendary farewell speech) and the rise of American hegemony. Eugene Jarecki will attend the festival screening of Why We Fight. In the restrained yet powerful Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, acclaimed filmmaker Rory Kennedy (daughter of Robert Kennedy) explores the many troubling questions behind the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the damage that this abuse has had on America’s credibility. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib interviews people involved from all sides, including those who created the policy, those who carried out the brutal treatment and took the photographs, as well as experts on the legal and psychological ramifications of what went on there. What makes the film stand out, though, are the harrowing reflections of some of the Iraqis who were tortured.
Multinationals and corrupt officials are brought to task in Nigeria and Burma. In Suffering and Smiling www.newafricashrine.com the legendary Nigerian singer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his son Femi use song to speak out against Nigeria’s corrupt leaders. Since independence in 1960 the military and political elite have enriched themselves by allowing Nigeria’s oil and natural resources to be stripped by multinational corporations with little benefit to ordinary Nigerians. Fela gave voice to Nigeria’s disenfranchised underclass and sang of a free and united Africa. Upon his death in 1997, Femi took up his father’s legacy and asks why a continent so rich with resources has the poorest people. In Total Denial www.totaldenialfilm.com 15 villagers’ hunger for justice eventually leads them to bring a case in a US court against two oil giants – Unocal and Total – for alleged human rights abuse. For five years, producer and director Milena Kaneva collected accounts from Burmese villagers of forced labour, relocation of villages, rape, and murder associated with construction of the Yadana pipeline. Her “guide” during this journey was Ka Hsaw Wa, a member of Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, and one of the leaders of the student movement for democracy in Burma in 1988, which was violently suppressed by the Burmese government. Milena Kaneva has been invited to attend the festival screenings of Total Denial.
The extraordinary lives of men and women living in Palestine and Israel are depicted in two films, Hot House and Men on the Edge, both made by Israeli filmmakers. Shimon Dotan’s Hot House www.alma-films.com is a unique, probing documentary that explores the emergence of a Palestinian national leadership within Israeli prisons. The film offers a rare look at the experiences, motivations and mindsets of a number of key Palestinian inmates serving multiple life sentences and the remarkable degree to which they influence the political process in the outside world. It also exposes how the prisons effectively function as an incubator for a new form of Palestinian democracy. Shimon Dotan has been invited to attend the festival screenings of Hot House. In Men on the Edge www.magyx.tv, filmmakers Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon deliver an intimate and beautiful portrait of Israeli and Palestinian fishermen who lived and worked together from 1999 to 2003. The Palestinians were teaching the Israelis ancient fishing techniques transmitted from one generation to the next; the Israelis, by their very presence, were enabling the Palestinians to continue to fish in Israeli waters. Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon have been invited to attend the festival screenings of Men on the Edge.
One outstanding aspect shared by many of the festival documentaries is the inspirational strength of character, bravery and commitment of so many of the films’ (mostly female) subjects. Twenty-eight year old Malalai Joya in Enemies of Happiness www.dfi.dk/tidsskriftetfilm/53/on_fertile_ground, became one of Afghanistan’s most famous and infamous women in 2003 when she challenged the power of warlords in the country’s new government. Two years later, Joya ran in her country’s first democratic parliamentary election in more than 30 years. Filmmaker Eva Mulvad will attend the festival screening of Enemies of Happiness. Lumo www.gomafilmproject.org/ tells the story of Lumo Sinai, a courageous and feisty 20-year-old who was brutally raped by militia-men in the Democratic Republic of Congo and left with a fistula, a disabling condition that renders her incontinent and threatens her ability to give birth. She finds her way to a hospital for rape survivors and is buoyed by the love of the hospital staff, including a formidable team of wise women known to all as “the Mamas”. Lumo and her friends keep alive the hope that one day they will be able to resume their former lives, thanks to an operation that can restore them to full health. Filmmakers BJ Perlmutt and Nelson Walker will attend the festival screenings of Lumo. In Carla’s List the tenacious war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and her team at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague relentlessly, and against-the-clock, pursue notorious war criminals, such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic who are still at large. Valeria, Vilma and Mercy are three sex workers in search of a better life in the exhilarating and endearing The Railroad All-Stars www.medialuna-entertainment.de. The women live and work in La Linea, a destitute neighbourhood next to a railroad track in Guatemala City. Fed up with systematic abuse, they decide to take matters into their own hands and form a football team, “Las Estrellas de la Linea”. After the first game against a local high school team, Las Estrellas are banned from future competitions because of their profession; however, this controversy brings enormous media attention-precisely what the women had hoped for.
Rosita www.rositathemovie.com and We’ll Never Meet Childhood Again www.lawlor-pollock.com, are stories of parents and foster parents struggling to give life and love to their children in desperate circumstances. Filmmaker Janet Goldwater will attend the screening of Rosita about a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl, Rosa (nicknamed Rosita), who became pregnant as the result of a rape. The story made headline news throughout Central and South America in January 2003. Her parents, who feared for their daughter’s life and mental health, were determined to obtain an abortion for their child. In both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, abortion is illegal except when considered necessary to save the life of the mother. (Last October, Nicaragua’s legislature outlawed all abortion without exception.) Rosa’s parents who are illiterate campesinos working in Costa Rica, pushed ahead against the odds, only to be forced into battle with two governments, the medical establishment, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. First-time British filmmakers Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollack will present the World Premiere of their documentary We’ll Never Meet Childhood Again, which tells the remarkable, uplifting story of a courageous group of Romanian foster parents who adopted the children referred to as “Ceauşescu’s babies” – infants infected with HIV in Romanian hospitals and orphanages during the late 1980s, then left there to die. Health Aid Romania, an NGO, established family homes to care for these children. Over time the carers became parents to those children who survived. Through striking oral testimony, candid home video, and revealing observational sequences, the film charts these makeshift families’ extraordinary experiences over almost 30 years, and illuminates notions of family, parenthood, death and love. Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock will attend festival screenings of We’ll Never Meet Childhood Again.
A real strength of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is the consistent inclusion, year-on-year, of films which are nominated for – and sometimes win – Academy Awards in Foreign Language and Best Documentary categories. This year’s programme includes three Oscar nominated films; previous years have included the multi-award winning Iraq In Fragments (nominated Oscar for Best Documentary 2006), Paradise Now (nominated Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 2005), Born Into Brothels (winner Oscar for Best Documentary 2004), The Fog of War (winner Oscar for Best Documentary 2003), No Man’s Land (winner Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 2001) and Children Underground (nominated Oscar for Best Documentary 2001).