A week-long film festival has just concluded (March 28-April 3) in Geneva, Switzerland, a festival of films on the theme of human rights that is timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello and British filmmaker Ken Loach were among the sponsors of the Human Rights Film Festival.
Nine documentaries, from a field of 120, were shown at the festival. Each dealt with one theme, as festival coordinator Isabelle Gattiker explains. "We have, for instance, a film about rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia-Herzogovina. Of course we have a film about Iraq," she says. "The debate will focus on the role and responsibility of the international community in the situation in Iraq. Not on the war, but on the attempts and the violation of human rights in Iraq."
After each film, the audience participates in a discussion with the filmmakers, human rights experts and, when possible, the victims whose story is portrayed.
One of the films, Against My Will, is set in Pakistan and tells the story of three women who allegedly have dishonored their families by running away from brutal marriages. The film is dedicated to a woman named Kubra, one of those whose story it tells. Kubra was forced into a marriage with a much older man who beat her. After years of abuse, she ran away to a women's shelter in the city of Lahore, which is where the director of the film, Ayfer Ergun, first met her.
Ms. Ergun says Kubra's family, her parents, sister and cousins frequently went to the shelter and pleaded with her to return home, promising she would be safe. Kubra believed the promises and returned home. Ms. Ergun says she also thought she would be safe. "I really believed the sister," she says. "I thought a sister couldn't be involved in this. So when I heard that she was killed, it was really shocking for me. I couldn't sleep too many weeks."
Ms. Ergun says three weeks after Kubra went back to her family, a male cousin came to her home in the middle of the night and fatally shot her. When brought to trial, his defense was that he acted to preserve the honor of the family. The court ruled in his favor and he was set free.
Thousands of these so-called honor killings are committed in Pakistan and other parts of the world every year. The killers, usually male, are rarely punished. Kubra's father, Ms. Ergun says, forgave her killer.
Another of the films, Jogini, tells the story of a sect of women that can be found in rural areas throughout India. The women, from the lower castes, are dedicated to the Temple goddess. The director of the film, Sejal Shah, says the women, the Jogini, were once considered divine, but they are viewed far differently now. "When the system was started earlier, maybe 100, 200 years ago, they were supposed to be divine because when they were dedicated to the to the temple goddesses, these women became goddesses themselves. But what has happened over the years, because every tradition, I think has been changed and modernized and used for the subjugation of women. These women now are forced to become prostitutes and they have no rights whatsoever. And once you are a Jogini, they cannot get married."
Although the government banned the Jogini system in 1988, it still persists. There are said to be tens of thousands of Joginis in India today.
A range of human rights issues were dealt with in the other films shown at the festival. For example, one film, HIV/AIDS and Access to Drugs, documented how the AIDS crisis in Africa is worsened because its victims do not have access to life-prolonging drugs. Another film, called Bloody Sunday, recounted the events surrounding the killing of demonstrators by British paratroopers during a peace march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Festival coordinator Isabelle Gattiker believes a festival of this kind is particularly needed now. "Now since the war has begun, even more than ever, we do need to speak of human rights because I think now more than ever there are attempts not only in the south but even in the north too against human rights," she says. "We really couldn't say that everything is going well in the world."
But Ms. Gattiker also believes that the fact that these films are being made, films that make powerful statements in defense of human rights, shows that there are people in the world who are determined that human rights will be respected.