Last July, the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch put out a hefty report drawn from its prior two decades of watching dogs in some 20 countries. Called Selling Justice Short, the dossier showed why accountability was a good thing for peace and, if nothing else, could help heal victims by acknowledging their anguish.
For those who didn't read it, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival supplies some visual Cliff's Notes. This year, its documentaries and fictional dramas give witness to human rights violations in 25 countries, and "Accountability and Justice" is its primary theme.
Jointly presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New York edition of HRWFF will take place June 10 to 24, 2010 at the Film Society's Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street).
Now in its 21st go-round, the Festival is a top international showcase for cinema focusing on human rights. Amplifying on current events, selections are as topical as tomorrow's news. Take for example Crude, Joe Berlinger's documentary on the ravages of oil exploitation in Ecuador, which screened at last year's festival, and which again bubbled up in the media around a federal judge's May 2010 ruling to allow Chevron to subpoena more than 600 hours of its footage.
HRWFF is looking especially relevant these days for another reason: the dismal distribution and exhibition climate for independent cinema in general and issue-driven works in particular. Its sold-out screenings and radial word of mouth brings films to audiences who may have few if any other ways to catch them in a theater.
The Balibo Conspiracy is a case in point. Robert Connolly's political thriller about a war correspondent who pokes into the 1975 murders of five journalists in East Timor is being feted as the Benefit Night selection (June 10), yet to date no U.S. distributor has nabbed it.
Adversity can often add to a film's sex appeal, yet Balibo has been hard pressed to parlay its banning in Indonesia into commercial come hither in this country. And not even a quake of earth shattering proportions has launched Raoul Peck’s Haitian drama, Moloch Tropical, onto the "must have" list of stateside distributors. Yet the film will be honored as this year’s Festival Centerpiece. Just as Connolly and special guests will attend the Balibo post-screening discussion and reception, Peck will be on hand to discuss his film.
The official Opening Night screening, on June 11, is 12th & Delaware. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are back from Jesus Camp with this revelation of the Florida crossing where pro-life and pro-choice facilities push their mandates across from one another. The documentary, which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, was shot during the year when abortionist Dr. George Tiller was assassinated. If that isn't news peg enough, what is?
Presumed Guilty/Presunto culpable is the Closing Night film. The documentary by Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete fingers the dysfunctions of Mexico's penal system in its chronicle of a Mexican street vendor mistakenly accused of murder and sentenced to two decades behind prison bars. As with their short documentary, The Tunnel, the filmmakers' intervention led to the protagonist's release from jail. Law and Order may be a closed dossier, but Presumed Guilty is open for business.
Mexico reclaims the screen in Backyard/El traspatio, Carlos Carrera's crime drama about the real murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez. Starring Jimmy Smits and Ana de la Reguera, the film can't hope to top Carrera's 2002 film, The Crime of Father Amaro -- Mexico's biggest box office performer – however, the topic and its link to the police system in that country continue to haunt today's headlines.
Two other titles take on official systems. One is In the Land of the Free, Vadim Jean's inquiry into possible miscarriages of justice for three Black Panthers serving in Louisiana's Angola prison, and the other, a non-fiction courtroom drama from Rebecca Richman Cohen called War Don Don, about prosecuting war crimes in Sierra Leone.
Films under the aforementioned "Accountability and Justice" rubric include Enemies of the People, in which co-director Thet Sambath unearths bloody truths behind his parents' slaughter -- and that of two million other Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge. Sambath and his directing partner Rob Lemkin will be on hand to discuss the film and to receive this year's HRWFF Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. Enemies of the People snared the 2010 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize.
"Development and Migration" comprise the second programming theme of this year’s Festival. Pushing the Elephant is one of two films to consider migration resulting from war. Late '90s strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the point of departure for this non-fiction narrative about a family now living in Phoenix, Arizona and their reunion with a long-missing daughter. The film, co-presented with Mapendo International, will be followed by a Q&A with directors Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel and film subject Rose Mapendo.
Nero’s Guests studies the agrarian distress and inequality that has resulted in an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers. The award-sweeping film is by P. Sainath, rural affairs editor of The Hindu.
Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson return to HRWFF with the latest two entries in their series, "How Democracy Works Now: Twelve Stories." Last Best Chance and Mountains and Clouds bring viewers into the U.S. Congress as it grapples with immigration reform. The filmmakers will entertain audience questions following the screenings.
"Societies in Conflict: Iran and Afghanistan" forms the third theme of HRWFF 2010. Highlights include Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's chronicle of a U.S. platoon's deployment in Afghanistan.
Twenty-eight of this year's 30 selections are New York premieres. Youth Producing Change, now in its third version, will make its world 2010 debut at the Walter Reade. The project groups 11 short films made by teen filmmakers from around the world, and is presented in collaboration with Adobe Youth Voices. (For a related article, see our story "'Youth Producing Change' Opens Denver Human Rights Watch.")
Complementing this year's screenings will be a photographic exhibition about maternal mortality in India. Called In Silence, the collection by noted photojournalist Susan Meiselas will be presented in the Walter Reade's Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery throughout the festival.
The full Festival program is posted at www.hrw.org/iff.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival
June 10 to 24, 2010
Walter Reade Theater
Lincoln Plaza (Upper Level, between Broadway and Amsterdam)
165 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023