Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008


Now in its 19th year, the HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL is an important annual event for the NY community. Since 1994 it has been co-presented and hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This year’s festival featured 23 films including feature length documentaries, fiction films, and shorts, as well as a special program of 9 shorts by young international filmmakers.

Produced and curated by the independent organization HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, the festival’s mission is to draw attention to the violation of human rights issues. The themes range from the fight for freedom of speech, to war stories, reconciliation efforts with regards to health care and lack thereof, environmental issues, the negative impact of globalization, problems of immigration and the fight for equality. Many of the film screenings are co-presented with other activist organizations to increase audience outreach, awareness and impact. I attended a number of early afternoon screenings, and even at 1 pm they were well-attended, proving their wide appeal.

This year’s opening film was Peter Raymont’s documentary portrait of writer and political activist Ariel Dorfman, who was cultural adviser to Chile’s president Salvador Allende. Dorfman was the only one of Allende’s inner political circle spared in the 1973 coup and consequently he lived to tell his story. A PROMISE TO THE DEAD is a careful meditation that examines the responsibility of the survivor to tell the world about the atrocities that happened that September 11 in 1973 in Santiago.

Raymont’s documentary was accompanied by PRISONER IN TIME (directed by Stephen Walker) and DEAD LINE (directed by Alex Marengo), two fiction films scripted by Ariel Dorfman together with his son Rodrigo.

Another featured documentary at the festival was THE BETRAYAL, by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as well as the Berlinale, and is famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ first directorial work. Beautifully filmed and well-paced, it tells the life story of co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath with sensitivity and grace. Phrasavath fled war-torn Laos with his family as a small boy, only to continue his struggles to keep his family together and establish a new life in the US.

Prolific filmmaker and producer Roger Weisberg (producer of the 2000 Academy Award nominated documentary SOUND AND FURY) presented his latest work titled CRITICAL CONDITION. The film follows four ordinary American working people, who happen to be sick but lack heath insurance. A good companion piece to Michael Moore’s SICKO, CRITICAL CONDITION stays close to its protagonists as they narrate their stories. During the Q&A;, Roger Weisberg told us that he and his team followed 15 individuals over the course of 2 years, and then selected four strong cases in the editing room that became the final film.

However, because of the richness in material, Weisberg has created a website with more in-depth information, and will also distribute a DVD that will include the additional cases. He proudly told us that they are hoping to show this film in Washington and reminded everyone in the audience to listen closely to the presidential candidate’s statements regarding health care plans. Currently, there are over 47 Million US citizens without proper health care.Weisberg’s film brings this reality home again and again while building a strong case for ehy a comprehensive universal health care plan is desperately needed in this country.

Both of the above films are part of the upcoming POINT OF VIEW series on Public Television and can be viewed on local public television stations in the upcoming weeks. For more information, please visit

Another film that caught my attention was the documentary US VS AL-ARIAN by Norwegian filmmaker Line Halvorsen. Halvorsen’s film is an intimate portrait of the Al-Arian family who to this day continues to fight for the release of their husband and father, Palestinian activist and US university professor Sami Al-Arian. Back in 2003 Sami Al-Arian was accused of conspiracy and supporting a Palestinian terrorist group. Even though acquitted by the jury, he was not released after more than 2.5 yeas in prison, and is currently awaiting another trial more than 5 years after his first charge. Halvorsen gives us firsthand insight into the nightmare this family has to live through as they try to remain strong, united and hopeful. It was upsetting to see how Kafkaesque this case played out – and how a prominent, popular activist who regularly spoke before Congress and was highly regarded by politicians and scholars alike became a terror suspect, and was stripped of his freedom. Learning that the entire Al-Arian family had been wiretapped for years prior to his imprisonment adds fire to the flame.

After the screening, Halvorsen told us that her film has been sold and been broadcast in numerous countries in Europe, but that she is still looking for distribution in the US.

LETTER TO ANNA by Swiss filmmaker Eric Bergkraut, was the closing film of the festival, and addressed yet another freedom of speech issue. Bergkraut interviewed the outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya back in 2003-2004 for a documentary about a group of brave women in Chechnya, who filmed the atrocities inflicted upon their people. Politkovskaya had been and continued to report on Chechnya – and published her writings in one of the only independent Russian journals, Novaya Gazeta. Those close to her worried about the consequences of her critical anti-establishment writings. These fears came to fruition on October 7, 2006 when Politkovskaya was shot in the elevator of her apartment building. Bergkraut refrained from producing a who-did-it-investigative documentary, but rather wove together his archival footage of Politkovskaya with contemporary interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues to paint a picture of a courageous woman committed to exposing the truth.

Apart from presenting a showcase of important films by established filmmakers, this year, for the first time, the festival also included a screening of short films by young filmmakers, sponsored by the Adobe Foundation. Titled YOUTH PRODUCING CHANGE, with the subheading YOUTH VOICES, it was an evening of 9 short films that addressed important issues that touch young filmmaker’s lives. There were short films about the need to preserve one’s cultural heritage, personal reflections of 9/11, the negative impact on society and nature by corporations, the destruction of families due to deportation, the adverse environmental effects of consumerism, and modern day slavery.

The program closed with Zachary Lennon-Simon’s heartfelt short PLAYING WITH THE OTHER TIGERS, in which the filmmaker discusses with his best friend Amir, a Muslim, how his life has changed since September 11.

This well conducted program of shorts was an excellent addition to the festival as it offered the first glimpse into the minds of the next generation of activists and filmmakers.

Following the showcase at the Walter Reade Theater, a selection of the films will travel around the US and Canada and screen in 40 cities, starting September 1, 2008. For more information on all the films in the festival as well as the Human Rights Watch Traveling Festival schedule, please visit


About Author

Tanja Meding

Tanja Meding :Since moving to New York from Germany in 2003, Tanja Meding has worked as a producer for Maysles Films and other independent production companies. Amongst others, she produced SALLY GROSS-THE PLEASURE OF STILLNESS by Albert Maysles and Kristen Nutile which aired on WNET/Thirteen and Channel 25 and is now available on DVD from Since 2007, Tanja has been producing short films by Rosane Chamecki, Andrea Lerner and Phil Harder: JACKIE & JUDY premiered at DANCE ON CAMERA at LINCOLN CENTER was awarded with a PEARL at the POOL 2010 Festival in Berlin. Upcoming this September is a video installation of two new shorts: BOXING and THE COLLECTION at NY's newly opened New York Live Arts building in Chelsea. In addition, Tanja is the co-producer of Gabriella Bier's LOVE DURING WARTIME, a documentary about an Israeli dancer and her Palestinian husband. The film had its US premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and is distributed in the US through 7th Art Releasing. Furthermore, she is the US co-producer of Pascale Obolo's documentary CALYPSO ROSE, LIONESS OF THE JUNGLE. Currently in development with Claudia Brazzale is RETRACING STEPS, a portrait documentary about a group of international dancers and choreographers and their lives 20 years after they first met in NYC.

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