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 and on public and cable television throughout the United States. Highlights of the festival are also presented in various cities abroad, reflecting the increasingly global appeal that the project has generated.
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 700 films and videos to create a program that represents a wide 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 its 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 1995 festival season marked the beginning of new collaborative ventures between the festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center which now presents the series annually in New York and the Museum of Tolerance which will host the series each year in Los Angeles. Thirty films and videos (of which twenty-three were premieres) from more than twenty countries were presented over a two-week period. A majority of the screenings were followed by discussions with the filmmakers and Human Rights Watch staff on the human rights issues represented in each work. The festival included feature length fiction and documentary films as well as works-in-progress and experimental and animated films.
In 1992, Human Rights Watch created Film Watch, in association with the Film Festival and a group of American filmmakers to monitor and protect the human rights of filmmakers around the world. Over the years, Film Watch has written letters of protest to governments that have attempted to abuse the rights of filmmaker or to censor their films. Most recently, Film Watch publicized the Chinese government's blatant attempt at censorship when it "asked" the 33rd New York Film Festival not to include in its program the film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary that examines the events and the complex political process leading up to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The New York Film Festival did not submit to the Chinese government's request and the documentary was shown at the Festival.
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 new filmmaker in recognition of his or her contributions to human rights. The 1995 recipient was Chilean director Carmen Castillo whose outstanding work, La Flaca Alejandra (In a Time of Betrayal), re-examines the effects of Pinochet's dictatorship, during and after his reign. This very powerful, personal film also became the centerpiece of the festival's Women's Day Program_a day and night exclusively devoted to films and videos that address women's rights around the world.
In 1995, in honor of Irene Diamond, a longtime board member and supporter of Human Rights Watch, whose lifetime dedication to human rights and filmmaking has been invaluable to our work, the festival launched a new award, "The Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award," which will be presented annually to a director whose life's work illuminates an outstanding commitment to human rights and film. The 1995 award went to the renowned international director, Costa Gavras.
Highlights of the 1995 festival included a retrospective of the work of acclaimed Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea, whose latest film, Frese y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), was nominated for an Academy Award and, who is noted for his satirical critiques of government bureaucracy from "inside the Revolution." The High School Project, now in its third year, offers daytime screenings for students followed by interactive discussions between students, teachers, filmmakers and Human Rights Watch staff; it was expanded this year to include public and private schools in the Los Angeles area as well as in New York. Joining forces with the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project , a selection of the festival's program was also presented to young people at Spofford Detention Center and Riker's Island (both in New York).
In September, the festival exhibited works by and about women as part of the Non-Governmental Organization's Forum (NGO Forum) at the Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The films reached across borders and spoke about the universality of human rights. The festival plans to send highlights from the past six festivals, in a package entitled, "Archive Alive," to ten of the NGO groups that attended the conference. Also in September, segments from the festival program appeared in Bogota, Boston, Guatemala City and Florence (Italy). Showcases of the festival will appear in Seattle, North Carolina, London, Hong Kong and Port-au-Prince later in 1995 and in early 1996.