SPECIAL FEATURE: Festival Review: Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

Wednesday, 23rd March – Friday, 1st April 2011

Human Rights Watch is a leading organisation for the protection of human rights around the world. This film festival constitutes an important part of its work, as it provides an insight into human rights violations, brings them to the attention of a wider audience and encourages the filmmakers, subjects and audience to fight against these injustices.

On the 23rd March, the 15th edition of the festival opened in London, bringing sixteen documentaries and five dramas to a UK audience. This ambitious and wide-ranging festival took place in three different cinemas over ten days, offering a packed schedule of high-impact films. Most of the films included a Q&A with the directors, film subjects or producers, giving the audience a chance to interact with the story they had just seen.

Due to the subject matter, many of the films are hard-hitting, powerful and disturbing, but above all, they aim to promote change in the world. For many of the films, the festival screening was their UK premiere and often the first high-profile exposure of a particular human rights violation. There was great geopolitical scope, with the films collectively covering a wide and varied range of countries and situations. The following four summaries give just a taste of what the festival had to offer…

One of the few dramas in the festival, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of an original play by Wajdi Mouawad was the official Opening Night Film. Based on the theme of a Greek Tragedy, it combines dark mythic elements with the more modern setting of a destructive Middle Eastern war. Past and present converge as twins Jeanne and Simon go in search of their family history, uncovering deeply disturbing truths about their mother’s life and their own heritage.

Lubna Azabal is brilliant and intense in the role of Nawal - the twins’ mother - and it is Nawal’s story which emerges as the main thread of the film, although it is presented only in flashbacks. The film becomes more harrowing with each new revelation that the twins uncover, and there was an audible, collective gasp from the audience as the different strands of the story collided to reveal a shocking complete picture. Villeneuve handles his complex subject with mastery and finds ways of introducing unconditional love in the midst of horror.

After the credits rolled, actress Lubna Azabal was joined on the stage by Nadim Houry, the Beirut Director for Human Rights Watch. Many of the questions were directed at him and, although the film is deliberately ambiguous regarding its Middle East setting, he was able to draw clear parallels between the themes dealt with in the film and the ongoing suffering of many Lebanese people who are searching for their missing relatives. For those people, as for the characters in the film, the truth may be painful, but not knowing is far worse.

Almost thirty years ago a young filmmaker, Pamela Yates, managed to get into Guatemala in the midst of its bloody civil war and make a documentary about it: When The Mountains Tremble. By building up trust with both the guerrilla soldiers and the army generals, she was able to capture unique footage of both sides of the war. Now, in an incredible demonstration of the power of documentary filmmaking, Granito shows how that first film is key evidence in the international trial of the army leader, Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity.

Granito is a film in three parts: the first gives contextual background and is a memoir of sorts as Yates explains how she made When The Mountains Tremble. We are introduced to some of the people she is meeting again some twenty-five years later as they come together to try and build a case against Rios Montt. The second part focuses on the judicial proceedings as witnesses come forward before a Spanish judge to give testimonies of the horror they suffered. In the final section, the emphasis takes us back to Guatemala and on the continuing fight of individuals for their own justice.

Yates is well-aware of how intertwined her two films are – Granito is not a straightforward sequel by any stretch of the imagination. The first section of the film suffers a little for this; explaining the context of When The Mountains Tremble takes time and the memoir nature of it is quite in-depth – it is easy to wonder where the film is going. However, in the second and third sections, Granito really comes into its own and finds its voice. Yates combines the story of the trial, in which she has a major part to play, with the personal stories of individuals in a very effective way. It is compelling viewing, if difficult, at times, which shows starkly that the passage of time has not relieved the grief of so many Mayan people who still do not know what happened to their loved ones and who are still being threatened by the leaders of Guatemala.

Granito does not leave the audience feeling pessimistic, however. Rigoberta Menchú, one of the key figures of the film, and the Mayan woman now running for presidency in Guatemala, explains that no one person can change everything, but everyone can contribute their granite (or ‘little grain of sand’). If nothing else, this film sums up the message of the festival; that film has a unique ability – maybe even responsibility – to bear witness to atrocities and violations of human rights and to contribute its own granito to change a situation.

With a theme which quickly became familiar within this festival, Impunity is a documentary which takes us to another country with a legacy of a brutal war – Colombia. Here, paramilitary groups had been quick to quash guerrilla uprisings by torturing and massacring the people of rural villages, making an example of anyone who could be vaguely linked to a guerrilla. Impunity begins in 2005, when a controversial law was introduced, allowing paramilitaries virtual amnesty in return for giving up their weapons and answering the questions of the victims.

Although many are evasive and non-committal in their answers, one senior paramilitary figure, ‘HH’, provides key information which begins to reveal the reality atrocities carried out by these groups and the extent to which their actions were linked to the very highest echelons of Colombian politics. As the files begin to pile up and mass graves are found, the testimonies strike close to the presidency and the little justice that there was in this trial begins to falter.

This is a hard-hitting documentary which confronts the viewer head-on; the first scene is of a woman describing the decapitation of her 12-year-old brother and this sets the tone for the rest of the film. With none of the hope which Granito and other films have, this is not an easy film to watch, but it is a story which needs to be told. It shows with stark reality the exchange of justice for peace which politicians will happily make – peace, that is, for them, not for the victims.

Within the festival, Impunity was the film which perhaps most blurred the lines between film and audience – it presented the situation in a very real way, and many of the audience members who were there had their own interests in Colombia, leading to a vehement expression of views in the Q&A. It is that kind of film – it causes shock, encourages questions and aims to get audiences around the world to take a stand against corruption of justice.

The First Grader
The festival closed with The First Grader, a drama based on real events, from director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl). It is the story of Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84-year-old man who turns up at a primary school on the day the Kenyan government announces free education for all. Headteacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) takes pity on him and squeezes him into her already packed classroom. As she gets to know him, she discovers that he is an ex-Mau Mau who fought the British to liberate Kenya. He never had a chance at education and even now, politicians, parents and other teachers are trying to stop him.

This triumphant film was a great way to end the festival on a high after some of the heavy documentaries. It by no means trivialised the events – Chadwick did not ignore the darker elements of Maruge’s story, working in haunting snippets of flashback and undertones of a brutality that left the audience uneasy in their seats. However, the luminous performances of Litondo and Harris and the warm relationship between their characters perfectly demonstrated that humanity is capable of good, as well as evil. The cast of children were completely believable as Maruge’s classmates, probably because they were rural Kenyan schoolchildren who had never acted before.

While the film is optimistic, this does ring a note of implausibility when you realise that the real story of Maruge did not have a happy ending. For many of the Mau Mau who suffered unspeakable torture at the hands of the British, their fight is only just beginning. However, producer David Thompson explained afterwards that Maruge had inspired an entire generation of Kenyans to get an education and that they hoped the Mau Mau would soon have the justice they deserved.

In another example of the blurred lines between film and reality, he was joined for the Q&A by Dan Leader, a barrister who is bringing a case against the British government on behalf of four elderly ex-Mau Mau fighters in order to try and get the government to take the responsibility for its actions that it has so long denied. This is set to be a dramatic moment in history and The First Grader is a film standing on the brink of it, imagining an outcome in which justice prevails.

Overall, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was a showcase not only of current human rights issues, but also of the power of film and the determination of filmmakers to put themselves in dangerous situations in order to bear witness to such issues around the world. It takes real talent to make heavy and often complex subjects into good film and that talent abounded. Furthermore, the festival unites audiences, filmmakers and human rights workers in a celebration of their collective power to uphold human rights and to bring about justice in situations where they are violated. Above all, it reaffirms the real ability we all have to promote change in the world. KS

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