Crossing Borders

All you have to do is turn on the television news and you will find yourself immersed in a torrent of information, most of it flowing free of context. While even the most casual viewer can receive up-to-the-minute news on the situation in Israel, Afghanistan, or Colombia, how many have heard of Sabra and Shatila, Massoud, or La Violencia? The historical perspective is, in general, completely absent. The range of contemporary points of view presented is, to be frank, not much better.

So first a little historical perspective: Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 by a group of activists and lawyers who were concerned about the censorship and harassment faced by their friends and colleagues in the Soviet Union. The founding philosophy was quite simple—to make sure that, when censorship occurred, an independent monitor was watching and listening. In the years that followed, Human Rights Watch expanded its focus to include the Americas, Asia, and, eventually, virtually the entire globe. The group formed partnerships with like-minded organizations such as Amnesty International, and began to generate reports on a wide variety of issues, including many domestic concerns, such as equal rights for women, gay and lesbian rights, and the rights of prisoners.

A Human Rights Watch report serves as a tool for advocacy, allowing the group to use case studies and statistical information to apply pressure on governments and businesses to either change their policies or to break off dealings with those who benefit from human suffering. Yet Human Rights Watch organizers realized that those reports were almost exclusively read by a limited population of policymakers and analysts. The interest and influence of the general public was left largely untapped. So, in 1988, Human Rights Watch organized film screenings to coincide with its 10th anniversary. Out of that celebration, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was born.

Festival Director Bruni Burres cites Jung (War) in the Land of Mujaheddin as a particularly strong example of the type of film showcased at the festival. "All of the films we show are really stories and story-based." she explains. "[It] helps outsiders connect to particular people and situations." With Jung, directors Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti, and Giuseppe Petitto followed war correspondent Ettore Mo and doctor Gino Strada as they attempted to construct a hospital to provide medical treatment to the war-torn Afghan population. Burres notes that people in the human rights field had been following the situation under Taliban rule in Afghanistan for years. The film provides this historical perspective, while telling a narrative (one that is, in this case, remarkably uplifting) that humanizes the situation. Jung is also beautifully filmed.

Many of the films being screened at this year’s festival are, of course, topical. Several films deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including a US premiere of August, a video diary by prominent Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi (see p. 64). Organized with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this year’s program also features Afghanistan Year 1380, a follow-up film from Lazzaretti and Vendemmiati, in addition to Voice of the Prophet, an eerie interview with Rick Rescorla, who had predicted a massive terrorist attack before he was killed in the World Trade Center collapse. Other films examine topical subjects that have recently fallen off the media radar, such as the war in the former Yugoslavia, the focus of Good Husband, Dear Son by legendary Dutch documentary filmmaker Heddy Honnigman; California’s "three strikes" rule, which is examined from the point of view of three public defenders in Presumed Guilty; and the turbulence of contemporary Indonesia, which provides the back drop for the cinema-verite documentary Eye of the Day. Still other films probe issues that have received scant media attention, including Lourdes Portillo’s Senorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), which looks at the rash of murders along the Mexico-US border, where the bodies of several hundred women have been found in the desert.

For Burres, the selection criteria are clear: "[You] want to feature films that are strong pieces of art and [which] just compel you." At times, this has led to awkward conflicts with filmmakers who have made an aesthetically-unsatisfying film on a worthy subject, and who have accused the festival of "censorship" when the film was not accepted. Burres responds that "we’ve never taken a film [just] because of the subject." Nevertheless, subjects do tend to come up in cycles, as filmmakers both influence and are influenced by other media coverage.

Since the festival aims to broaden media horizons beyond the nightly news, gaining press attention is, in turn, vital to building a strong audience. It’s a catch-22 the festival both battles and embraces, with timeliness and controversy often proving to be inadvertent allies. Andrea Holley, who coordinates the festival’s travelling program (more on that in a moment), cites The Trials of Henry Kissinger (based on Christopher Hitchens’s book-length indictment of the former Secretary of State), Stealing the Fire (about a German scientist who has been convicted of selling nuclear secrets to Iraq), and Justifiable Homicide (in which Jon Osman and The Farm director Jonathan Stack examine the case of two Hispanic youths shot by a group of detectives that included former members of ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s security detail) as three films in the festival this year predicted to cause a media stir.

Thankfully, media coverage is only one method of drawing an audience. The festival works with filmmakers and distributors, many of whom are deeply-imbedded within the communities discussed on-screen, to do grassroots outreach. Ads in local and national foreign-language newspapers, not to mention fliers in cafes and community centers, have proven to be effective in the path. Building on Human Rights Watch’s contacts with other activist groups, the festival has established partnerships with alternative media groups such as Women Make Movies, Paper Tiger TV, and AIVF. Though the festival remains headquartered in New York—with a successful subsidiary festival in London—Human Rights Watch has aggressively pursued national exposure for its films. One partnership, with, has led to an online festival of short films (available at The online festival also provides a useful public venue for films that might get lost among the high-profile features in the main festival.

Ultimately, if Human Rights Watch can’t bring people to the festival, then it’s up to Holley to bring the festival to the people—acting on her belief that, "local advocacy work is human rights work." Films from the festival program travel to local universities, arts groups, and museums in 30 cities. Logistics play an important role in the programming since, as Holley notes, "because we aren’t on the ground managing everything, what works best is to have a coalition of groups" supporting the screening.

The festival has also made significant inroads into high schools in New York, Boston, and the Bay Area. Since it’s hard for teachers to find enough time within the school days for a screening and discussion, Burres notes that it’s particularly important that the screening coincide with class curricula. An appearance by the filmmakers or the subjects of a film is "worth a million dollars," by Burres’s tongue-in-cheek accounting.

Globally, films about children seem to be a trend when it comes to human rights-motivated filmmaking. This can be a tricky proposition for filmmakers, who run the risk of seeming simplistic or manipulative. In a flip side of this trend, the Human Rights Watch Film festival has collaborated with youth media advocacy and education group Educational Video Center to organize an advanced documentary filmmaking workshop for high school graduates. Participants in the six-month YO-TV program are paid a stipend and commissioned to make a film about a human rights issue. The films created through YO-TV are remarkable, both for their technical polish and their level of nuance.

As if the festival, online festival, travelling program, schools program, and partnership with YO-TV were not enough to dent the walls of public indifference, Human Rights Watch also assists the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights with its Witness program. In contrast to Burres’s avowed preference for "films" over straight documentation, Witness provides cameras and basic technical instruction to activists and NGOs working in crisis situations (see page 38). Burres says that "Witness is going in and making issues of hotspots."

As Holley articulates, what binds all these programs together is that, "at [their] core…a lot of human rights issues are about access to information." Those concerned with democracy and human rights seek a world of open access, with a market for information that is as open as the trade in, say, sneakers. No crime would go undocumented and no victim would remain faceless or nameless. Thus, the hidden moral judgements that guide our selection of footwear or our gas consumption, would become matters of active participation.

Of course, this is not the case. As Burres notes, "With the digital camera and the home computer, more people can make pieces." But without an active audience the effectiveness of these films remains marginal, which can lead to frustration with a lack of short-term results. Burres cites an example from the 1990s, of Bosnian Serbs "who were angry that people were coming in and making films that they thought would make a difference, and still nothing made a difference." Yet, ultimately, outside forces did intervene. As Holley states, "half the battle is making people aware that they’re unaware."

With Jung, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival undertook the task of distributing the film, believing in the film’s power to have an impact. But without a bigger staff distribution isn’t an ongoing option. With an array of outreach and education measures, however, the small staff is certainly getting the word out—beyond that, the burden of choosing to pay attention rests upon the audience.

About :

In addition to editing The Independent, Ken Miller makes short films and co-publishes the free quarterly arts magazine IN.