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 its increasingly global appeal. The 1999 festival featured thirty-five films (seventeen of which were premieres), from fifteen countries. The festival included feature-length fiction films,documentaries, animation and experimental works. In 1999, selections of the festival were presented in four countries and within the U.S. selected films showcased in seven cities. Time Out magazine remains the principal sponsor of the festival in New York and London.
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 500 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 bar any films on the basis of a particular point of view.
The 1999 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. The 1999 festival reached out to a broader audience by co-presenting selected films with four important New York festivals: the African Film Festival, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, the Urban World Film Festival, and The New Festival/New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. A majority of the screenings were followed by discussions with the filmmakers and Human Rights Watch staff on the issues represented in each work.
Two documentaries featured in this year's festival had dramatic effects on their protagonists. The Russian Supreme Court reviewed the case of Alexander Biryukov, the subject of Alexander Goutman's "Three Days and Never Again," following the international attention garnered by the film. The court then commuted Biryukov's sentence from life to fifteen years (of which he has already served nine). Filmmaker Maria Fuglevaag Warsinski successfully used her film, "Crime and Punishment," to lobby influential members of the U.S. government and the U.N. to bring pressure on the Serbian authorities concerning three men featured in her film who had been languishing without charges or trial in Serbian jails. At the festival's first screening of her film, Ms. Warsinski announced the release of all three men.
The 1999 opening night celebration and the entire festival were dedicated to film producer and director Alan J. Pakula. Mr. Pakula was a devoted friend of the festival and received the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 for his continuing contribution to human rights and social justice through film. The festival's opening night featured Mr. Pakula's 1974 ground breaking thriller, "The Parallex View," a probing study of political manipulation in the United States starring Warren Beatty.
As part of the opening night program, the festival annually awards a prize in the name of cinematographer and director Nestor Almendros, who was also a cherished friend of the festival and Human Rights Watch. 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. In an unusual break with tradition, the 1999 festival awarded two Nestor Almendros Prizes to acknowledge the extraordinary work of two emerging filmmakers: David Riker, for his compassionate fictional film, "La Ciudad," about the plight of Hispanic immigrants living in New York City, and Barbara Sonneborn, for her provocative Academy Award nominated documentary, "Regret to Inform," about the lives of Vietnam war widows from both sides of the conflict.
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 demonstrates an outstanding commitment to human rights and film. Previous recipients have included Costa Gavras, Ousmane Sembene, Barbara Kopple and Alan J. Pakula. This year, in honor of the festival tribute to Mr. Pakula the Lifetime Achievement award was not presented.
Highlights of the 1999 festival included a special screening of acclaimed Indian director Deepa Mehta's latest work, "Earth." Set in 1947, with India in the turmoil caused by independence, the film portrays a close group of friends caught on the dividing line between the new Pakistan and India. "Earth" is a powerful statement about the inherent fragility of social fabrics. Another highlight was "Odds Against Tomorrow," the 1959 film noir classic that featured the first black protagonist in a Hollywood film. A panel discussion following the screening included key artists involved in the making of this film: Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, and the film's blacklisted screenwriter, Abraham Polansky.
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 1999 the program included a special collaborative screening of "Blind Faith" with The New Festival.
In 1996 the festival expanded to London. The 1999 London festival produced with its new partner, the Ritzy Theater in Brixton, was extremely successful. The timely screenings of two searing documentaries by acclaimed Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, indicting General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, played to sold-out audiences and demanded additional showings. Mr. Guzman was on hand to answer questions about his film and to give his thoughts on the current situation in Chile. The next London festival will take place in early March 2000.
In a further effort to expand the festival's scope, the Global Showcase, a selected package of traveling films from the festival, was created in 1994. The Global Showcase is presented annually in a growing number of sites and cities around the world. The 1999 showcase traveled internationally to both Melbourne and Sidney, Australia; Moscow, Russia; Port au Prince, Haiti; and Edinburgh, Scotland. The Global Showcase was also featured as part of the first annual Human Rights Film Festival in Prague, Czechoslovakia and the third annual Human Rights Film Festival in Seoul, South Korea. The showcase was also presented in seven U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Houston, Norwalk, Hampshire, St. Louis, Columbia and Washington, D.C. In previous years, the showcase has been featured in festivals in Minsk, Belarus; Bogotá, Colombia; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Gent, Belgium.
Human Rights Watch/Film Watch, an association of the film festival and a group of
internationally renowned filmmakers, was created to monitor and protect the human rights of filmmakers and film programmers who are threatened or censored or otherwise abused for their expression through film. In November 1997, Korean film festival organizer and human rights activist Suh Joon-sik 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 the coast of South Korea. Mr. Suh was arrested under the National Security Law, under which penalties may be imposed upon anyone who "benefits North Korea" by praising, encouraging, propagandizing for, or siding with the activities of an anti-state organization, or by importing or disseminating materials in support of such an organization. A strong international outcry was followed by a letter-writing campaign, organizedby Film Watch, from the international filmmaking and festival community. On February 5, 1998, Mr. Suh was released on bail, rarely an option for political prisoners. However, the charges against Mr. Suh were not dropped, and in mid- June 1999 Mr. Suh's trial was set for September 7, leading Film Watch to organize a new letter-writing campaign. At trial, Mr. Suh was found not guilty of violating the National Security Law, but guilty of violating the Security Surveillance law, and was placed on probation. Mr. Suh plans to appeal the guilty verdict to the high court of justice.