Human Rights Watch

By Sarah Harvey

The International Film Festival puts committed work centre-frame

In these times of supposedly easy answers and immediate information, we rely heavily on the news media to tell us how it is – a story makes headlines for a little while and then disappears as quickly as it arrived. Or so the news media would have us believe.

Many filmmakers, however, have a longer attention span and are prepared to move off the beaten track, to trace stories beyond the sound-bite. Unfortunately for them (and us), TV buyers aren’t that interested in documentaries that don’t fit a formula, and foreign-language feature film has all but disappeared from our television screens, whilst for the majority of theatrical distributors the bottomed line has to be the box-office £££. The festival circuit is often the best way for films to find an audience and for films looking at the injustices of the world, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is a natural home. Whilst other festivals, particularly post 9/11, have increasingly introduced human-rights themed sidebars to their programming, HRWIFF, which first came to London in 1996, (sister to New York HRWIFF, created in 1988) has consistently screened films with a human rights theme, not just to highlight situations but to demonstrate hope, to create space for dialogue and to inspire action.

The programme for the 9th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is looking as diverse and dynamic as ever. Among features so far confirmed are three from internationally known filmmakers, Goran Paskaljevic (The Powder Keg, aka Cabaret Balkan), Bertrand Tavernier and Randa Chahal Sabbag (A Civilised People; Souha: Surviving Hell). Paskaljevic’s powerful Midwinter Night’s Dream is set in post-war Serbia, a place of displaced people and difficult memories. Lazar (Lazar Ristovski) returns home after ten years in prison – to find his home occupied by Jasna (Jasna Zalica), a single mother who is raising her 12 year old autistic daughter Jovana (stunningly played by Jovana Mitic, who is herself severely autistic).

Mother and daughter have nowhere else to go and Lazar doesn’t have the heart to make them leave. Paskaljevic’s story is ultimately tragic, and yet the characters are so determinedly optimistic that you can’t but help find hope in these three people lost in their own worlds.

Meanwhile, Bertrand Tavernier’s beautifully crafted Holy Lola is a happier tale, but no less difficult in the making. A young French couple, Pierre (Jacques Gamblin) and Géraldine (Isabelle Carré) travel to Cambodia to adopt – the emotional and logistical process of which seems at times impossible, but the couple’s need is great. Tavernier pulls no punches as to the injustice of the process for everyone concerned, mainly for the child, whose passage to a new home is dictated by the dollar and the whim of bureaucrats, rather than the genuine motivation and love of the adopting family.

Love is the motivation behind Randa Chahal Sabbag’s The Kite, a poetic tale of disaster and desire. Lamia (Flavia Bechara) is 16 and lives in Southern Lebanon close to the Israeli border. A barbed wire fence separates her mountain village and villagers can only communicate by loudspeaker, under military supervision. They can never meet and they see each other’s faces only through binoculars. Despite these restrictions, Lamia manages to cross the border several times. An Israeli soldier watches her and they fall in love, but Lamia has been given in marriage to a cousin she’s never met who lives on the other side of the fence.

As ever the festival also has an enticing line-up of documentaries – especially strong titles include Mikael Wiström’s Compadre, which documents a Peruvian family who struggle to make ends meet, examining the dynamics and difficulties of the relationship between the filmmaker and the father Daniel Barrientos, who first came across each other in 1974; and Margaret Loescher’s Pulled from the Rubble, about her father Gil Loescher, who survived the bomb attack on the United Nations building in Iraq in 2003. Through poignantly honest narration and observational scenes of high emotion, his daughter records the family’s recovery during the months following the bomb. Few films carry such a sense of headline urgency and a deeper, more patient exploration of the issues that affect all of us today, but this is true of the work in the festival as a whole. Independent voices, independent images. What matters.

Sarah Harvey works with the Festival and with independent film in London.