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  • Human Rights Watch 2007 Traveling Film Festival
  • Ken Betsalel (bio) and Mark Gibney (bio)

From a historical perspective, human rights were not at all self-evident by reason alone, but had to become so through an appeal to human emotions found in novels as well as in works of moral philosophy and legal theory. As Lynn Hunt wrote, "Human rights are difficult to pin down because their definition, indeed their very existence, depends on emotions as much as on reason. The claim of self-evidence relies ultimately on an emotional appeal; it is convincing if it strikes a chord within each person."1 It could be argued that what the novel did for human rights in the Age of Reason, film does today, by universalizing the particular experience of others different from ourselves the viewer.

One significant forum for these modern appeals is the Human Rights Watch 2007 International Film Festival, with screenings in London and New York. Fortunately for those not able to attend these sessions, HRW provides a "Traveling Film Festival" that provides easy and relatively inexpensive access to nearly all of these films, thereby allowing local communities to create their own human rights festival. Our community in Asheville, North Carolina will be hosting its fourth annual human rights film festival in early 2008, showing films from HRW's 2007 traveling film festival offerings.

What follows is a brief overview and commentary on these films. In making our assessments, we are essentially looking at three different criteria. The first is Illumination: did the film made us think significantly about human rights issues in a new and interesting way? The second is Truthfulness: did the film allow for the complexity of human rights to emerge—or was the film didactic or even propagandistic? The third is what we are terming Teachability: would the film work in a human rights course or would it resonate with a general audience that wants to get a better understanding of human rights issues? Note that we provide one of three rankings based on these criteria: recommend, strongly recommend and recommend with reservations. We begin with a most unusual category of human rights film: those that bring joy to the viewer.

We'll Never Meet Childhood Again (Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock, Romania/UK, 2007)is a movie about children who should not be alive. More particularly, it is about a group of Romanian teenagers who were infected with the HIV/AIDS virus [End Page 205] when they were infants and seemingly left to die. However, Health Aid Romania, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), intervened and placed these children with various health workers that would raise them. Not all survived, and these losses are never far removed from either the children themselves or their surrogate parents. But while these children have faced tragedy, they have also experienced—and have themselves brought about—enormous levels of happiness. And it is this, as much as anything else, that We'll Never Meet Children Again is all about. On one level these are "normal" teens. However, on another level, their social anxieties are much different in kind than that faced by others their age. What the viewer gets to see, then, is a glimpse of a group of unremarkable remarkable young people. Strongly Recommend

Suffering and Smiling (Dan Ollman, Nigeria/US, 2007) —like We'll Never Meet Childhood Again, finds and brings joy in the midst of great suffering and pain. The protagonist is the magnetic Nigerian pop star Femi, who has taken up the mantle of his famous father, Fela, who died in 1997. What Femi's music does, quite simply and quite magically, is to directly confront the corruption and the atrocities of the Nigerian government and the multinational oil companies that have worked in tandem to keep this resource-rich country destitute. Strongly Recommend

Sari's Mother (James Longley, USA, 2006) —deals with the issue of HIV/AIDS, although rather obliquely, in a spare and haunting manner. It concerns an Iraqi mother and her young son who is infected with the virus. Like all good human rights films, this story does not come out and hit the viewer over the head. Rather, even in a...


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