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The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was created to advance public education on human rights issues and concerns using the unique medium of film. Each year, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival exhibits the finest human rights films and videos in commercial and archival theaters in the U.S. and on television and in film festivals in cities around the world in an attempt to promote expanded public awareness about human rights issues.

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 human rights filmmakers. Each year, the festival's programming committee screens more than 600 films and videos to create a program which represents the widest number 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 it to confirm accuracy in the portrayal of human rights concerns.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was established in 1988, in part to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of what has become Human Rights Watch. After a hiatus of three years, it was resumed in 1991 and has since been presented annually. The festival's full run opens each year in New York, but increasingly portions of the festival have been presented elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, a reflection of both the national scope of the festival and the increasingly global appeal that the project has generated.

The 1994 festival season opened in New York in May. Seventy films and videos (of which forty-eight were premieres) from more than thirty countries were presented over a two-week period, on two screens in a Manhattan theater. The festival presented both feature films and documentaries as well as works-in-progress, short films and animation.

Each year the festival opens its New York run with an opening night fundraising celebration. In conjunction with the opening night festivities the festival annually awards a prize in the name of 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 filmmaker in recognition of his or her contributions to human rights. The 1994 recipient was Haitian director Raoul Peck whose work over the years has included "Lumumba" and "The Man By the Shore", a feature film about oppression in Papa Doc's Haiti.

Highlights of the 1994 festival program schedule included a retrospective of the work of renowned feminist director Margarethe von Trotta, customized daytime programming for high-school audiences accompanied by panel discussions on related human rights themes, a weekend of films from and about Sarajevo, and the complete works of Britain's Black Audio Film Collective . Filmmakers and representatives from Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations attended the screenings and held question and answer sessions following each show.

After its successful two-week run in New York, the festival traveled on to Los Angeles where, following the opening night gala, the festival ran for seven days featuring over thirty films from around the world. As of mid-November, segments from the festival program had appeared in film festivals in Boston, Seattle, Olympia, Portland, East Hampton, Berkeley and Palm Springs in the U.S. and overseas in Vienna, Venice, Hong Kong and Sarajevo. For the first time, the festival was invited to participate in the Bogotá Film Festival, and plans were currently underway for showcases in Florence, Sienna and Lucca in the spring of 1995. Selected Human Rights Watch films would also travel to thirteen cities in Eastern Europe including Warsaw, Sophia, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Bucharest, Prague, Tirana and Vilnius as part of a collaborative project with The Open Society Institute over the winter months of 1994 and 1995.

In October, the Film Society of Lincoln Center agreed to present the New York run of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival for 1995.

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