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Human Rights Film Fest Highlights Abuses, Conflicts in US and Abroad

  • Carolyn Weaver

A portrait of the protest movement that began in 2011 in New York’s financial district, 99% -- The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, is one of the more unusual of 20 new offerings at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. It was shot by teams around the United States, and anyone who wanted to participate could do so.

“We thought it was important to have as many viewpoints as possible,” said Nina Krstic, one of four co-directors with Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell and Lucian Read. “There are veterans from Pittsburgh, students from Philadelphia, media people in New York, the San Francisco Occupation, Zuccotti Park, obviously. These are regular people who have been affected by political, social and economic inequality. One goal of the film is to paint them as real people.”

Women’s rights, gay rights and disability rights are the subjects of more than half the films in the festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center.

In Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree, one of two feature films at the Festival, a young girl in Senegal tries to save her 11-year-old sister from being sold into marriage.

Salma, by British documentarian Kim Longinotto, is about the well-known Tamil writer of poetry and fiction who spent 25 years as a virtual prisoner - first in her parents’ home, and then in her husband’s. Her poems, smuggled to publishers with the aid of her mother, eventually led to her independence.

Born This Way, by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, explores the difficult lives of four young gay people in Cameroon, where there are more arrests for homosexuality than in any other country in the world.

In the Shadow of the Sun, by Harry Freeland, tells the stories of two Tanzanian men who face prejudice and even violence because of their albinism.

Two films from East Asia portray almost unimaginable horrors. Camp 14 - Total Control Zone, by German documentarian Marc Wiese, is the story of Shin Dong Huyk, who was born and grew up inside a North Korean prison camp, where cruelty and near-starvation led even children and parents to betray each other. The film, which mixes a single long interview with animated scenes of Shin's life, garnered Wiese the Festival’s Nestor Almendros award for courage in filmmaking.

The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer, revisits the never-prosecuted murders of up to one million leftists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in Indonesia in 1965-1967 by death squads operating at the behest of then-General Suharto. Oppenheimer invited several of the killers, who still live openly in Indonesian society and call themselves “gangsters” after their Hollywood heroes, to reenact their crimes for the camera. This they proudly do, costuming themselves as drag queens, gangsters and cowboys in scenes of breathtaking surreality.

The 2013 Festival’s centerpiece film is Haitian-born director Raoul Peck’s Fatal Assistance, about the failure of international aid in rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“It is an absolutely devastating film,” says Festival director John Biaggi, that shows “how NGO money and money from the world community that go to all these different disasters are really the money is spent in a very haphazard, very unstructured way, and in some cases actually damaging to the population.”

Not all the films are bleak. A feature film from Serbia, The Parade, by Srdjan Dragojevic, is a comedy about a group’s effort to hold a Gay Pride march in Belgrade - where authorities have previously banned such parades and participants are frequently attacked.

Additional reporting and camera by Michael Gutkin and Sergey Gusev