This year marked the 11th year of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. The schedule offered 22 films from 19 countries. After much deliberation over what to see, I chose four films, really the most one can schedule in one week. From the outset, I was surprisingly impressed with this year’s line-up. The City of Photographers, a Chilean film, was the first one up and its relevance for both the concerns of this magazine and, by chance, its theme of Mind was striking.
This documentary tracked down the remaining photographers who formed a collective, Agrupacion de Fotografia Independientes (AFI), during the Pinochet regime to document the atrocities that the government was instigating against its people. The group came together not only to form a photographic system of sharing and representing, as we understand photo agencies today, but also for the need to protect one another from being arrested and singled out by the police. Their devotion to each other and also to the cause of exposing the horror of the dictatorship are authentically depicted here. The archival footage of protests presented along with the black and white images taken by the photographers in the 1970s provides for a visually rich journey through the history of protest against Pinochet’s rule. The recent footage of interviews with the photographers today is, it has to be said, not the best quality and detracts from the film as a whole, visually at least. Perhaps the most intriguing and poignant feature touched upon by the film is when the photographers, almost simultaneously, realise that their role, which had deviated from documenting to searching for crimes, almost as “bloodthirsty vultures”, must come to an end. They all “disarm” and quit their roles as photojournalists. I was immediately curious if photojournalists would feel similarly enlightened today. The subject matter and archival footage is what has made this film; as for the documentarist himself, who has a vested interest in this topic (his father was one of the photographers in the original group), I can’t image him swaying too far from this subject successfully in later films.
Lumo was set in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at a clinic that takes in victims of rape, most usually gang rape committed by rebel soldiers, to provide counselling and surgery for those who have developed a fistula (which causes incontinence and inability to give birth) as a result of the assault. The two filmmakers, both male, heard about the clinic and travelled there to see how these women were dealing with their newfound situations; in most cases, women who have been raped are disowned by their families. In the case of Lumo (the main character), her fiancé rejected her and the hospital was the only place she had to turn to. The film, although quite slow-moving, was able to capture, in the quieter and more introspective moments with the patients, the full depth of their ordeals and the pain they were experiencing. Although undoubtedly heart-wrenching, the film’s main aim – to bring light to the situation in the DRC and also the work of the clinic – is made obvious. The women are given a second chance at life through the work of these doctors. Lumo was finally able to return home, after two years and many failed operations, where she was accepted again by her fiancé. The point here, made by the filmmakers, is that perceptions of these women, once they have been tainted by crimes of war, are in dire need of change. What really made this screening unique was the Q&A following the film. The directors were present along with a doctor from the clinic. To hear these stories first-hand was a humbling experience that put the events of the film into context.
The third film, Hot House, set in both women’s and men’s jails in Israel, examines the situation of the Palestinian prisoners in both. It’s certainly an eye-opener, especially for those, like myself, who have little clue to what this world would be like. Interestingly it was the women who were the most extreme; unrepentant for aiding suicide bombers or even for the subsequent loss of contact with their own families, as they serve their multiple life sentences.
Total Denial was the final film of the week for me, and did not fare as well as the others. Despite its compelling subject – the near-genocide of the Karen indigenous population in Burma due to the construction of an oil pipeline by a huge US conglomerate (they outsourced their security services to the unpredictable and violent Burmese Army) – this film focused much of its attention on a Burmese human rights activist, albeit a very dedicated one. But not a fascinating enough character to justify the clips from his wedding or his tendency to break into song.
Overall, I found this year’s line-up to be superior to last’s. The festival shows a concentrated commitment by Human Rights Watch to educate people about their work through an approachable and popular format. The organisers might be limiting its success by cramming all the films into one week; TimeOut continues to support the event, and therefore it should be able to sustain, or indeed, increase its audience.