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  • Human Rights through Film:An Essay and Review of Selected Films from the Human Rights Watch 2009 Film Festival
  • Safia Swimelar (bio)

The fact that this journal reviews human rights films in addition to books illustrates what more and more human rights scholars and practitioners are realizing: images and films are today's central ways we learn about and understand international human rights. This is particularly true for students and young people. Film and video, whether it is feature film or documentary, can have political influence: some Western governments have taken an interest in viewing and promoting human rights related films and issues (e.g. Burma VJ, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, Lilya-4-Ever). Hollywood has also been more interested in making films that may have human rights as either a main or sub-theme (e.g. Lord of War, Blood Diamonds, Constant Gardener, and Rendition). Film is increasingly relied upon to document, explain, expose, or complicate global human rights issues.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is one of the central venues to showcase the latest human rights films. The 2010 festival kicked off in New York in June and will be traveling the rest of the year. The 2009 festival, of which four films are extensively reviewed here, featured thirty-two films from seventeen countries covering such contemporary issues as: the International Criminal Court, the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, limitations on democracy in Russia, and the on-going legal battle between big oil and indigenous peoples in the Amazon. To keep in line with the festival's goal of bringing relevant and current human rights issues to the public consciousness, the current festival features films about US immigration reform (Mountains and Clouds and Last Best Chance); abortion (12th and Delaware); stories of Cambodian genocide (Enemies of the People); the spate of murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (Backyard); secular movement in Iran (Iran: Voices of the Unheard); and farmer suicides in India (Nero's Guests).

Before reviewing a sampling of the films from the festival, this essay will briefly explore the history and purpose of the festival and the wider relationship between film and understanding human rights issues. On the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1988, Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world's foremost human rights organizations launched their first international film festival, realizing that the general public was not aware of the UDHR. HRW believed then and now that film was one of the best mediums to educate and activate people on human rights issues.

At the beginning of each screening, Festival Director John Biaggi informs the audience of the power of film to educate, galvanize, and empower. He believes that human rights films can have a direct impact on politics. For example, Lisa F. Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which was part of the 2008 HRW festival, has been successful in raising global awareness about mass rape, having been screened in over fifty countries. "It inspired a UN Security Counsel resolution, opened a US Senate hearing, and has been screened in the British House of Commons, the International Criminal Court and the US Department of State."1 In 2008, at the Kinshasha, Congo National Assembly [End Page 1069] Hall, over 500 people, including international diplomats, representatives from the UN and international NGOs, and Congolese government officials, had a chance to hear, many of them for the first time, the horrific stories of mass rape that had occurred.2 Another top film from an HRW festival, Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, attracted viewers from notable locations. Specifically, US Secretary of State Clinton viewed the film while visiting Prague with President Obama in spring 2009.3 Similarly, while holding the rotating presidency of the European Union, the Czech Republic leadership also viewed this important documentary.

However, what type of human rights films does HRW believe are the most effective in reaching and affecting a large audience? From looking at the films themselves and from conversations with director Biaggi, a few important unofficial criteria stand out. While HRW does not consciously try to avoid politics, they are not...


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