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Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was created in 1988 to advance public education on human rights issues and concerns using the unique medium of film. Each year, the festival exhibits the finest human rights films and videos in theaters and on cable television throughout the United States and elsewhere—a reflection of both the scope of the festival and the increasingly global appeal that the project has generated. The 1998 festival featured thirty-three films ( twenty-four of which were premieres), from nineteen countries.

In 1998, selections of the festival were presented in four countries in addition to the U.S., where selected films showcased in nine cities. Time Out magazine remains the principal sponsor of the festival in New York and London. New initiatives with television partners led to cable and public television airings of selected documentary films to a projected audience of more than seven million in the United States.

In selecting films for the festival, Human Rights Watch concentrates equally on artistic merit and human rights content. The festival encourages filmmakers around the world to address human rights subject matter in their work and presents films and videos from both new and established international filmmakers. Each year, the festival’s programming committee screens more than 600 films and videos to create a program that represents a range of countries and issues. Once a film is nominated for a place in the program, staff of the relevant division of Human Rights Watch also view the work to confirm its accuracy in the portrayal of human rights concerns. Though the festival rules out films that contain unacceptable inaccuracies of fact, we do not rule out any films on the basis of a particular point of view.

The 1998 festival was first presented over a two-week period in New York, as a collaborative venture with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then a selection of the festival was presented in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. A majority of the screenings were followed by discussions with the filmmakers and Human Rights Watch staff on the issues represented in each work. The festival included feature-length fiction films, documentaries and animated and experimental works. The 1998 festival further broadened its outreach and co-presented selected films with three important New York festivals: the African Film Festival, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and The New Festival/New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

The festival’s opening night centerpiece for 1998 was “Blind Faith”, by American cinematographer and director Ernest Dickerson. Set in New York in the 1950s, the film shows the disintegration of a thriving middle-class African-American family after a promising son is accused of murdering an Irish boy. In “Blind Faith,” Ernest Dickerson explores various kinds of bigotry, challenging assumptions about race, sexual identity and social injustice.

In conjunction with the opening night, the festival annually awards a prize in the name of the late cinematographer and director Nestor Almendros, who was a cherished friend of the festival. The award, which includes a cash prize of $5,000, goes to a deserving and courageous filmmaker in recognition of his or her contributions to human rights through film. The 1998 recipient of the Nestor Almendros Award was filmmaker Yuri Khashchevatsky from Belarus, for his daring satire “An Ordinary President.” Khashchevatsky shot this witty “political pamphlet” to document the dictatorship that President Alexander Lukaschenka, an admirer of Hitler, has imposed on his country. Immediately after this program aired on French television in 1997 Khashchevatsky was beaten unconscious by a group of unidentified men. To date the perpetrators have not been found. Despite this intimidating setback, the film has gone on to be screened around the world to much acclaim and Yuri Khashchevatsky continues toproduce films.

In 1995, in honor of Irene Diamond, a longtime board member and supporter of Human Rights Watch, the festival launched the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented annually to a director whose life’s work illuminates an outstanding commitment to human rights and film. The 1998 award went to two-time Oscar-winning American director Barbara Kopple, for her leadership in introducing mainstream audiences to controversial human rights issues through film. “Harlan County U.S.A.” and “American Dream,” two outstanding documentaries on labor organizing struggles in the United States, are among the films through which Kopple has demonstrated her lifelong dedication to the cause of human rights.

Highlights of the 1998 festival included a retrospective of the work of one of Iran’s most acclaimed directors, Darius Mehrjui. Mehrjui’s groundbreaking film “The Cow” signaled the emergence of the New Iranian Cinema in the late 1960s. “Leila”, Mehrjui’s most recent film, exposes the contradictions faced by a happily married woman who cannot bear a child in contemporary Iran. Each year the festival holds a series of special film screenings for high school students and their teachers in an effort to encourage dialogue about human rights in the classroom. Daytime screenings are followed by discussions among the students, their teachers, visiting filmmakers, and Human Rights Watch staff. In 1998 the program included collaborative screenings with the New York African Film Festival, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and the Center for Children and Technology.

In conjunction with the worldwide celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the festival co-curated an eighteen-hour documentary television series, “Just Solutions: Campaigning for Human Rights”, with Free Speech Television, a Colorado-based progressive cable network. Free Speech Television, which reaches seven million homes in the U.S., planned to air the series in December 1998 and January 1999. Four of the selected documentaries were to be highlighted and aired on Public Broadcasting System affiliates as well.

In an effort to reach the broadest possible constituency the festival expanded, in its entirety, to London in 1996 and also offers the Global Showcase, a touring program of selected films and videos to cities throughout the U.S. and abroad. The London festival will next run in February 1999 in a new partnership with the Ritzy Theater. Screenings will be held at both the Ritzy Theater in Brixton and the Phoenix Theater in North London with a gala opening night on February 25.

The Global Showcase package of film and video programs is presented annually in a growing number of sites and cities around the world. In 1998 the showcase traveled internationally to Minsk, Belarus; Moscow, Russia; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Global Showcase was also featured as part of the second annual Human Rights Film Festival held in Seoul, South Korea. The showcase was also presented in nine U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Columbus, Wilkes-Barre, Huntington, St. Louis, Portland, Baltimore, Austin, and Columbia. In previous years, the showcase has been featured in festivals in Bogotà, Colombia; San José, Costa Rica; and Gent, Belgium.

Human Rights Watch/Film Watch, an association of the film festival and a group of internationally known filmmakers, was created to monitor and protect the human rights of filmmakers who are threatened or censored or otherwise abused for their expression through film. This year Film Watch focused on securing the release of Korean film festival organizer and human rights activist Suh Joon-sik, who was arrested in Seoul for publicly screening the documentary “Red Hunt” as part of the Korean Human Rights Film Festival. “Red Hunt” details government collusion in a 1948 massacre of suspected pro-communist sympathizers on Cheju island, off South Korea. Mr. Suh was arrested under the National Security Law, which penalizes anyone who “benefits North Korea” by allegedly praising, encouraging, propagandizing for, or siding with the activities of an anti-state organization, or importing or disseminating materials in support of such an organization. Film Watch spearheaded an extensive letter-writing campaign on Suh Jooh-sik’s behalf to the South Korean government and secured the support of three major world film festivals—Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin—to come together and publicly demand his release. This effort was part of a letter-writing campaign from the filmmaking and festival communities worldwide. On February 5, 1998, Mr. Suh was released on bail, rarely an option for political prisoners. However, as of this writing the charges against him had not been dropped.


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