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New York: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2011

Running its 22nd edition in cooperation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center the Human Rights Watch Film Festival presented from June 16 – 30
19 films from 12 countries and premiered 17. As in past editions, most productions selected were first rate prompting animated debates reinforcing the audience commitment to human rights issues.
Thus the viewers enjoyed again reflexive cinema at its best. Most filmmakers were present to discuss their productions and to provide additional insights into the fest’s themes of justice and accountability, responses to terrorism, discrimination, and migrant’s and women’s rights.

Undisputed highlights of the program were two films by Pamela Yates. These films documented genocides in Guatemala, the 2011 production
GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR and her 1983 documentary WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE. They set the stage for the current prosecution of a genocide case against a military commander. Her
1982 footage of a mass killing by the army authorized by this commander has become evidence in the case. Similar to the eventual use of footage in the 2011 Cambodian trials ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin from last year’s festival, the Yates productions are rare examples of a direct impact of a documentary. Her productions transcend the traditional roles of empowering the audience
through new knowledge. The closely related film
IMPUNITY by Hollman Morris and Juan J. Lozano covers paramilitary atrocities against rural populations in Columbia. As the testimony of paramilitary officers clearly reveals these groups were established by political and economic interest groups who used the fight against leftists and guerillas as an excuse to systematically murder and displace peasant populations for economic gain. As the films shows current governmental attempts of reconciliation scratch the surface only since most perpetrators are left unpunished. Columbian officials have precluded a thorough investigation by extraditing paramilitary commanders to the United States where they are held incommunicado on drug charges.

THIS IS MY LAND …HEBRON is a superb Israeli Italian coproduction by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson. It focuses on systematic human rights violations Palestinians of Hebron are subjected to and provides an extraordinary insight into the mindsets of the warring parties; the contradictions of Israeli fundamentalist religious perspectives and the Israeli secular human rights positions. The 600 settlers include a significant number of US origins and live in the center of Hebron under the protection of the Israeli army. They are surrounded by 160 000 Palestinians and create conditions coming close to ‘a place of evil’ as put by the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. The settlers are driven
by what they perceive as a messianic command;
to claim and settle the areas captured by Israel in 1967 with the belief that God serves as their real estate agent.

Several productions focused on women’s
rights. Characterized by an extraordinary feat in immersive ethnographic film making the HBO documentary LOVE CRIMES OF KABUL by Tanaz Eshaghian investigates through interviews and non-directive recording traditional notions of Muslim justice as applied to woman jailed for moral crimes. This justice is guided by notions of family honor, female submission to age old codes and the total absence of self-determination. These practices are reinforced by the spread of fundamentalism in rural Afghanistan. Mimi Chakarova’s THE PRICE OF SEX derives its strength from the undercover work of the filmmaker portraying the seedy sex underworld of Istanbul, Greece and Dubai, a feat for which Chakarova received the festival’s Nestor Almendros award. Most women in that milieu have been sex trafficked from Eastern Europe as part of a mufti million dollar business carried out with the tacit knowledge of the authorities. Sex trafficking is also a theme central to THE WHISTLE BLOWER by Larysa Kondracki, an action oriented feature film set in Bosnia. The trafficking and the sex trade are carried out here by private contractors working for UN agencies though their official mission is to protect civilians. The feature is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovia a Nebraska police officer. After becoming a peace maker in Bosnia she unravels there the involvement of foreign contractors employed by the UN in the sex trade and exposes the UN and US State Department when they tried to cover up her investigation of these criminal activities. There were few if any consequences of her action. Foreign contractors working in Bosnia have immunity thus cannot be prosecuted there. Some were sent back to the United States and other countries but they were not tried. Kathryn never found employment again
in an international agency. Rachel Weisz stars
as Kathryn and offers a convincing and strong performance. The film is powerful yet has too many melodramatic spikes of sexual abuse and not enough material about the mechanism of the cover-up and its causes.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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