If you like film, or you have a soul, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is worth paying attention to.
Opening tonight in London, and running through to 1st April, the festival is the most comprehensive and considerate platform for human rights documentaries and films. i-D Online talk to the festival’s director John Biaggi, a former documentary filmmaker himself, about the issues at hand and how documentary film can be a direct lifeline.
Is film an effective medium to raise awareness of human rights? It’s an excellent medium, it’s the dominant medium of our era. Most people get their information from visual media and film of course is at the centre of that. That’s a big reason why Human Rights Watch have a film festival, to reach a broader and younger audience.
Tell us something about the programme for this year? I’m very proud of our programme, we have just under 20 films showing, so it’s not huge but it’s very carefully thought out. We have an internal vetting process; the films have to be green-lighted by someone with direct knowledge of the subject matter at Human Rights Watch and since we deal with over 80 countries, we have someone who has worked on almost every issue that comes our way, so picking the programme takes a long time, longer than most festivals, but I think that makes it really strong and diverse.
What are your favourites films on the programme this year? Granito is one of them, it’s a film by Pamela Yates about Guatemala. Yates uses outtakes from a film she made 30 years ago, When the Mountains Tremble, which was a seminal human rights documentary in its time. So the new film uses footage from a Spanish court in its attempt to bring genocide charges against the former president. It’s a really interesting film because it shows how long the power of film can stretch in prosecuting a human rights tragedy. Then another to watch out for is The Team which is about Kenya, approaching the issue of tribal conflict, a huge problem that went under the radar until the 2007 conflict.
Are small documentary films a preferable medium to big ‘blockbuster’ dramas? Over the years, the craftsmanship of documentary films has really risen. As far as presenting the message of a human rights situation, I think documentaries have a greater impact because often you’re dealing with a first person’s account and that’s a very emotionally rich and strong way of presenting something. People relate to that in a stronger way than with a drama, where you know you are one step removed because it’s actors portraying it. However, that said, the other issue that we’re always grappling with is that dramas reach a much broader audience, so from a human rights perspective if you really want to get people’s attention, a big drama like The Whistleblower (showing this year) is certainly going to bring more attention to human trafficking than perhaps a documentary on the same subject.
There’s an argument that as Westerners we shouldn’t try to export our beliefs and democracies, do you think Westerners can really grasp what’s going on? How do think the subjects in these films feel about the films being made and viewed by Westerners? This is part of something I feel very strongly about. Most, if not all human rights films, are rather universal in their messages, there are very few human rights issues that people in other countries cannot relate to. Most people relate to situations that are faced by people from other countries, simply because for the vast majority of the world, many of these issues have occurred in their own country in some form or another in the past or presently. If you have a film on the struggle in Tebet, it’s not to say that someone in Iran can’t relate to that film. This idea that we in the West can’t relate, I don’t buy into it.
How do people watching the films react? Does it really make a difference, do they act on it or is it just a story to them? People are very moved, you see the full range of human emotion. They feel frustrated in a way that motivates them so they talk to the filmmakers afterwards – we have almost every filmmaker present at the festival so they can connect directly with their audience. In many cases the filmmaker can connect people up with the organisation or even the subject of the film. People in the audience often have a varied range of connections too that end up being of help in making a particular issue reach someone in power. The films do have an impact beyond just being screened in the theatre. There’s been a big change in the last five years as to how these films impact in the larger world, and it’s been very positive. I feel very hopeful about that.
The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs until 1st April at various cinemas in London.