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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


New York: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2018


            Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an independent international organization headquartered in New York with a global staff of more than 400 professionals including 80 researchers and a large number of human rights experts, lawyers, academics and media professionals. Main HRW offices are located in major Western cities but also in Nairobi, Tokyo and Moscow supported by field offices in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and other regions. Temporary experts are hired for specific projects as wells as volunteer and as pro-bono legal counsel. HRW does not accept governmental funding and receives its support from foundations, individuals, and corporate sources provided its objectivity is not compromised.

            Fact-based empirical research is published each year in more than 100 reports and hundreds of news dispatches on human rights conditions in about 90 countries. HRW organizes conferences and annual film festivals working closely with organizations sharing their goals. Known for effective lobbying and dissemination of strategic information HRW has been covering new and emerging human rights problems. The impact of HRW is demonstrated by policy and decision makers using and quoting its reports and responses to thousands of inquiries by the media and other interested parties contacting HWR each year. HRW's partnership with local human rights groups and its excellent reputation for factual findings has resulted in wide coverage in international and local media. Among the principal goals of HRW is achieving transparency and accountability for the violation of human rights and advocacy of steps to solve the demonstrated human rights violations. The range of human rights abuses and problems monitored and disclosed by HRW is vast and expanding. It includes, to name but a few, arms issues, disability and, gender discrimination, problems of refugees, failure to provide legal assistance, restriction of information and media, violation of civil and political rights, terrorist and counter terrorists crimes, children’s rights, environmental and health issues, and failures of the democratic process. HRW reports about addressing freedom of the press have covered Vietnam, Kenya, Morocco, Turkey and Bangladesh over the last three years. Among the dispatches filed from 27 – 29 of June 2018 were briefs about a HRW lawsuit against a US Federal Law Targeting Sex Workers, a request that Myanmar prosecute dismissed officers for atrocities, a report about Nigeria’s rising toll of middle-belt violence, a statement about Turkey having no right to ban the Istanbul gay pride parade, and the report about 12 senior security officers working for the Cambodian Hun Sen government who have become wealthy despite their small salaries. Among the direct effects of HRW reports are the abandonment of extreme vetting of migrants by the U.S. government, the deletion of gender discrimination in media and advertising by Chinese corporations, a California court decision forcing a revision of bail policies, and the success of the Yugoslav criminal court prosecuting war crimes. Many of the HRW documents are translated for its Arabic, French, and Spanish websites with some content also made available in other major and/or relevant languages.

Of equal importance of spreading the human rights message is the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival which was held in New York from June 14-21 enjoying its 29th edition. Given the technical and substantive quality of the productions shown, their clear focus on international thematic issues and the empirical objective approach of the documentaries, this festival is considered one of the best annual film festivals among the many held in New York City. By limiting the festival to 15 productions and screenings to one week, the festival tightened its program and provided more time for panel discussions. Held again in cooperation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC, the productions selected and its panels placed a human face on the victims of human rights abuses, emphasized the global nature of violations, addressed responses to massive human rights crimes, and forced viewers to look again at problems such as the sea engulfing Pacific nations. The new burning issue of our perception being shaped by the content censorship of large media corporations was placed into focus, in particular the threat this interference poses to our right to a free flow of information. The festival does not allow the audience to disregard the status of past, present, and new human rights abuses and the response to them. It forces reflections about the issues presented and provides no entertainment. 

In New York, the Human Rights Watch Film festival has been growing. It reached over 3700 individuals this year thanks in great part to its expansion after the IFC Center was added as a second venue in 2013. The festival is also screened worldwide in 20 other cities with individualized screenings in each city contextualizing size and format. For example, London features the festival in three cinemas; Amsterdam has a weekend of screenings, Nairobi has a four day film festival free to the public and Los Angeles has quarterly screenings. Co-presentations are organized in Beirut, Sydney and Sao Paolo. The films are often combined with impact campaigns and screenings for politicians and policy makers. Invisible War by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, documenting sexual abuse in the US armed forces, was responsible for the U.S. military revising its procedures on handling reported abuse.  

The empirically based advocacy work of Human Rights Watch in reports and film festivals has become crucial in the current political climate because of the federal governmental undermining of democratic and judicial processes and disregard of the basic tenets of human rights. The process towards more authoritarian systems in other countries is also tracked by HRW. 


Anote’s Ark, Mattieu Rytz, 2018.     While conferences are held and well intentioned resolutions are passed, small island nations such as the low-lying Pacific nation of Kiribati are swallowed by rising sea levels. Aggravated by stronger hurricanes which destroy habitats, agricultural areas, and fishing grounds, living space disappears. Population groups are forced to relocate from Kiribati and its government has acquired thousands of acres on other island countries and negotiated settlement agreements with Australia and New Zealand to assure survival of its people, though their 4000 year old culture will disappear.  What is happening here is an indicator of the looming massive dislocation of populations living near the sea level from US coastal areas to Bangladesh.  The destruction of this island nation, the fruitless climate negotiations and personal reflections of people affected are carefully recorded in this outstanding documentary and complemented by superb cinematography of the island.  

The Distant Barking of Dogs, Simon Lereng Wilment, 2017.    Growing up in war torn Eastern Ukraine in a small village Hnutovo, one mile from the front line in Donbass, three boys experience the armed conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces on a daily basis. Oleg lives with his grandmother and cousin Yarik. Both spend time with an older teenage boy. Their daily life is embedded in the chaos created by warring factions. They seek shelter in the basement of their fragile home, attend evacuation drills run by the school teacher, and horse around in abandoned buildings. The noise of guns and cannons surrounds them during days and nights, not allowing for escape. The war slowly becomes part of their reality from a change of the vocabulary, to playing with guns, and considering war as part of growing up. There is little communication in the film but the perspectives of the children and the grandmother and their impotence over forces governing their lives is apparent from their comments. Armed conflict reproduces itself through the children and only a modicum of innocence can be retained. 

Among the most important films screened this year is the 2018 production The Cleaners by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewick. It forces discussion of an issue rarely touched upon outside academic research. How is our construction of reality shaped by the overt and covert content censorship of the media we consume as programmed by media giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Using “Cleaners” these corporations remove millions of images and events from the digital platforms on a daily basis and follow censorship commands of foreign governments like Turkey and China. The visual reality we are exposed to is not an objective one but follows the profit driven marketing guidelines of these huge corporations, constraints which are not controlled by the legal and political systems as recent obfuscating debates in Congress show. Sophisticated information technologies have so rapidly developed that they are no longer harnessed by gate keepers as in earlier media periods and free speech and open access to information has become a victim. The primary concern of media corporations is to keep and enlarge their audience and informational content challenging the audience has become secondary. The content conveyed reinforces prior convictions and contributes to conflict. The documentary portrays five individuals in the Philippines who are hired by social media corporations to remove visual images from online platforms each day; thousands of other cleaners are working in virtually all countries.  These cleaners going through 20,000 images a day have to make rapid decisions about photos and videos in categories such as terrorism and child pornography, and must ignore or delete them. Eventually we may have visual algorithms automatically cleaning the content facing us. This information technology has been most refined in China and is increasingly applied without facing much opposition by the population.

Naila and the Uprising, Julia Bacha, 2017.     It is rare to come across a documentary that appears flawless in handling a critical issue with a production totally in sync with the topic. The film emancipates the audience with groundbreaking insights and articulates a reflexive vision of political events. Using excellent animation, archival footage, personal images and home videos spanning two generation we learn through the portrait of Naila Ayesh, the hidden history of the Palestinian First Intifada, the non-violent Palestinian movement, and the crucial political role Naila and other women played in and after the uprising. The documentary also provides crucial insights into the establishment of a woman’s movement, the Israeli response to the Intifada, and the peace negotiations leading to the international recognition of Palestine. Israel’s domination and oppression in the occupied Palestinian territories and the lasting conflicts with the Palestinians are well documented but the role of Palestinian women during the Intifada and afterwards has not been revealed. When most male Palestinian activists were imprisoned by the Israeli army, disappeared or deported, a political vacuum was created which was filled by women who Naila helped to organize. After the uprising broke out in 1987 she joined an underground network of women which asserted the right to self-determination, engaged in widespread agitation and demonstrations, the education of children as well as skills training for women. With the help of Naila, who became Director of the Women’s Affairs Center in Gaza in the 80s, Palestinian women emancipated themselves from the patriarchal society, embraced self-sufficiency, and boycotted Israeli products. When arrested and tortured by the Israeli army she had a miscarriage in prison and was denied access to doctor.   Naila became a cause celebre when her case was embraced by the Israeli press revealing that she had been held by the secret service Shin Beth. She was detained a second time when organizing in the occupied territories.  The struggle continued until peace negotiations took place and three female grassroots activists became part of the Palestinian delegation. However, secret talks between Palestinians and Israelis took place without the presence of women who had been responsible for sustaining the Intifada. The resulting accord did not reflect their interests. When peace set in, Palestinian women lost their leadership positions and were required to secure backing by a male if they wanted to apply for a passport. Gender equality was questioned again. Ironically, Algerian women who fought during the war of liberation against the French army lost some of their equal status after the military victory of the FLN in which women played an important role.


Claus Mueller


About Claus Mueller