A conversation with John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

John Biaggi has worked at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival for the past twelve years; in 2008 as Director, previously as Deputy Director of the festival. John works on every aspect of the festival’s many projects which include the two flagship festivals in New York and London, as well as festivals in Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, and a traveling festival that reaches over 40 sites in the United States and Canada. He screens upwards of 300 films each year both at festivals worldwide and through the festival’s extensive submissions. John also helps organize the many co-presentations the festival presents with other organizations and festivals worldwide.

Prior to his work at Human Rights Watch, John was a festival coordinator for the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He also enjoyed a successful career both as a director and producer of independent films and as a director of photography on numerous films and videos for television. John graduated with a Bachelors degree in Anthropology/Archaeology from Stanford University in 1985. He lives in Irvington, NY.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us a little bit about your own background. When did you get involved with the festival? Also, please tell us a little about the history of this festival.
John Biaggi: I was a filmmaker before I joined Human Rights Watch; I made some independent films myself and realized how hard it is to do that and how hard it is to find the funding for that, particularly here in the United States. Then, in 1996, I came to Human Rights Watch for a job as a programmer for the festival. A few years later I became the Deputy Director, and for the past almost-two-years I have been the Director of the film festival in New York. The festival was founded in 1988 here in New York, and it took a one year hiatus in 1990; hence the 20th anniversary is this year, 2009. It was founded because that was the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. It was felt here at Human Rights Watch that not enough people knew about the declaration, and that human rights as a concept was not well known to the general public, and we as an organization wanted to do something to change that. The feeling was that film was the most powerful tool to get a message across in the modern world, so they thought to do a film festival. It started downtown at the public theater in New York, and it has become quite large now and has played for the last 13 years at the Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater. We have also expanded to London, which is now in its 13th year, and we have a large traveling film festival as well that hits over 40 sites in North America each year.

BT: How are the movies selected for the festival, understanding that it can sometimes be hard to find films that relate to this topic, or it can be hard for the filmmakers to reach the festival.
JB: It’s interesting because the films are selected from quite a large submission process. In fact, it is quite the opposite; there are thousands of films made in a year, and hundreds of films made on human rights issues each year. We used to get inundated with submissions when we had a broad open call for films, so now we have screened it a little and we still get hundreds of submissions. There are a lot of films made on the human rights topic each year, and it is our job to go through these films and find the ones that are the strongest visually, cinematographically, structurally, as well as the most factually (the most accurate) and also current—current issues are very important to us. We want to show films that are dealing with what is happening now.

BT: How have audiences received this festival in New York?
JB: The festival in New York is very popular. In fact, this year the opening night sold out three weeks ago, which amounts to a month before the festival even begins. We see a large number of our films sell out, and it is something that has been a fixture in New York in the calendar for years. We are also well known for bringing in most of the filmmakers for the films. Most of the films we show are documentaries—we show a few dramas but we concentrate on documentaries—and they are greatly enhanced by having the filmmaker present for a Q&A;, and audiences really appreciate that. I think that has been part of the great success of the festival. It is a way of actually tying the audience directly into the message of the film, and also giving them an opportunity to actually do something concretely to help with that particular issue, because the filmmakers are often coming armed with how you can help with the situation. That really is a big part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

BT: How can people get tickets for the films of this festival?
JB: Well, it is quite well-organized; we partner with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and people can buy tickets on their website, which is filmlinc.com. Or they can go to the box office at the Walter Reade Theater and buy tickets there. One of the things that has made the festival so successful in London and New York is that we partner with a theater, or a theater chain in the case of London. That really makes a big difference because the theaters have a whole structure and ability to sell tickets which we wouldn’t normally have.

BT: Do you think the Human Rights Film Festival has any effect on the way that politicians, or society as a whole, look at the issues that are being dealt with at the festival?
JB: A good question; at the festival each year we have a number films that have a direct impact on the situation that is portrayed in the film. A good example of the last festival would be “The Great Silence: Rape in the Congo” by Lisa Jackson. The filmmaker did a superb job of out-reaching that film directly to different political bodies. For instance she screened it for the British Parliament, the UN, the US Senate, and she also took it back to the Congo and screened it at important conferences. She has really done something that we really like to see at the festival, which is to take the film and use it as a tool for change. I would say that was one of the best examples from last year.

BT: What are the highlights of this year’s festival?
JB: [laughs]. Highlights are always tricky, because any time you do highlights you leave out some people. But, well, generally I would say that one of the big highlights and one of the things that makes the 20th anniversary particularly nice is that we have, of the 32 films we are showing, six filmmakers who are returning to the festival multiple times. That starts with our benefit gala, which starts with Costa-Gavras, the renowned human rights filmmaker. It is his third film in the festival that we are showing on June 11. The following evening is our opening night with the film “The Reckoning”, on the International Criminal Court, by Pamela Yates; that is her fourth film in the festival over the last 20 years. Every year we give one filmmaker a prize at the festival for courage in filmmaking, and this year it is Anne Aghion and her film “My Neighbor, My Killer”, and this is Ann’s third film at the festival. So there’s quite a bit of returning filmmakers this year, and it really speaks to the strength of human rights filmmaking. The fact that these filmmakers wish to return and bring their films here for their New York premieres says something very nice about the festival. Those are some of the highlights. And, of course, our closing night, which brings the screening of “The Yes Men Fix the World“.

BT: Does the younger audience come out to the festival? I think that is the generation that really needs to see these films.
JB: I think that we actually get a significant number of younger audience members each year; human rights something that appeals to the younger generation. Additionally we have, for the second year, a program called Youth Producing Change, which is a series of short films made by youths, 19 years old and younger. Last year, it sold out and it was quite remarkable. We had a majority of the filmmakers on stage for a Q&A;, and it was wonderful. It will be, I believe, another wonderful evening, and it is a chance for younger people to see work by their peers.

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