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Human Rights Watch Opens 18th International Film Festival

The 18th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, now underway in New York, is a collection of often harrowing films, both fictional and documentary. They run the gamut of subjects, from environmental destruction to voting rights, to genocide and sexual assault as a weapon in war.

The 20 feature-length films and several shorts now playing at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater were culled from a field of more than 500, festival director Bruni Burres said in a recent interview. She said the festival looks for films with wide relevance, “that we hope really give a breadth of looking at some of the most important contemporary human rights issues of a particular year -- as well as the strongest, artistically-made documentary and fiction films. Because we think that's the strongest way to get a strong human rights message out."

This year’s festival opened with a French/Belgian film, Mon Colonel, directed by Laurent Herbiet, and co-written by famed filmmaker Costa-Gavras. It’s a drama set against the brutal history of France's 1950s war with pro-independence Algerian insurgents.

"The issue that it deals with,” said Burres, “a colonel who is asking those underneath his leadership, to use any means, [even] to torture, to get information from their captives, is really a universal issue that is quite important for everything that's happening in the world today. So, we thought that was very resonant.”

The other opening night film also looked at government power. Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture uses cartoons, documentary footage, and dramatized re-creations to tell the not-yet-concluded saga of a Buffalo, New York political artist. When Steve Kurtz's wife died at home of a heart ailment in 2004, emergency workers saw scientific equipment that the Kurtzes had been using for an art exhibit about genetically-modified food. They called the FBI. Terrorism charges were not filed, but Steve Kurtz still faces 20 years in prison if convicted on federal fraud charges stemming from how he obtained the supplies.

The festival features several other films set in the United States, including Election Day, a glimpse of 12 ordinary citizens around the country set to cast their votes for president on November 2nd, 2004. Another documentary, Everything's Cool, styles itself as a "toxic comedy," taking on the issue of global warming. Films from Africa include Lumo, a portrait of one of the thousands of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose bodies and lives were devastated by the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Carla's List, by Marcel Schupbach, is about the obstacles facing chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Her work must be concluded by September of this year, but some of its main targets, including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, have not been apprehended. The film suggests that is primarily because the Hague tribunal has no police power and depends on Serbia, Croatia and other members of the international community to make arrests.

Danish director Eva Mulvad's Enemies of Happiness tells the story of 28-year-old Afghan feminist Malalai Joya. She is a member of Afghanistan's parliament and has been the target of four separate assassination attempts. She became famous in 2003 when she spoke up in Afghanistan's constitutional assembly to condemn the power of those she termed warlords. Enemies of Happiness, whose director and cinematographer are both female, shows Joya's life both at home and in the public sphere over many months.

Enemies of Happiness won the Human Rights Watch film festival's annual Nestor Almendros prize for courage and commitment in human rights filmmaking. "To travel and film Malalai Joya for that amount of time in Afghanistan, deciding not to have any bodyguards, so they would have freedom to travel wherever she went, took incredible courage,” said festival director Bruni Burres.