A report from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival


As I write this report, oil continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, despite the many highly qualified scientists, environmentalists, engineers, technicians, politicians, activists, and volunteers all trying to control this catastrophe. Add numerous other human emergencies going on day-after-day around the world to this major environmental disaster and you can start feeling helpless and hopeless.

But, turn around and take a look at some of the entries of this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, and there is actually some light at the end of the tunnel. A plethora of dedicated and talented filmmakers display their work, addressing hot button issues that shed light, make you think, talk and maybe even motivate you to respond.

With the aim to educate and activate the public, the annual HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Festival is a most valuable pillar in the packed NY film calendar.

This year’s 21st edition featured 30 films from 25 countries, all dealing with pressing problems. Some of the featured films already secured broadcasts at major networks prior to the festival – an encouraging sign that programmers trust their audiences to tune in to these demanding yet worthy and well made films.

The opening night film, 12th AND DELAWARE by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady juxtaposes the day-to-day dealings of two institutions: a pro-life clinic and an abortion clinic. They are on separate sides of the issue not only ideologically but also physically; they are located across the street from each other.

Observant without any obvious interference and intervention, Ewing and Grady smoothly move back and forth between the two clinics, spending time in each location with staff and patients. The audience is left to decide which side of the fence it wants to be on, although the harassment, humiliation and hate the abortion clinic staff and their patients have to endure from the other side is shocking and scary. It is alarming to see what methods the pro-life clinic employs to influence its patients; cruelty is one word that comes to mind. A HBO Documentary Film, 12TH AND DELAWARE will premier on HBO August 2nd.

Since 1982, when he first started his production company PUBLIC POLICY, Roger Weisberg has around 30 documentaries to his credit, mostly focusing on public policies issues, and drawing attention to the struggles of every-day-people facing issues like immigration, health care, the justice system, as well as simply growing up or old in today’s American society. A few years ago, Weisberg together with filmmaker Vanessa Roth made a documentary titled AGING OUT, about children who grew up in the foster care system, graduated and were about to leave their foster home to start living independently. Risa Bejarano was one of five youngsters—Roth and Weisberg followed over a period of time and stayed in touch after filming was completed. An energetic, optimistic, young woman with plans and ambitions in her life, Risa was a protagonist the audience roots for; they want her to succeed in life, despite all her earlier obstacles.

Unfortunately, just shortly after completion of production, Risa was the victim of a viscous murder, ending her life before she even had a chance to get it started. During the death penalty trial of her murderer, footage of AGING OUT was used to provide the jury with a chance to learn more about the victim Risa Bejarano. The filmmakers who had previously consented to the use of the footage started to question the use as the trail continued. So, they decided to make this follow up documentary NO TOMORROW. Besides documenting the tragic story of Risa’s premature death, the filmmakers also address the use of their previous film as a piece of evidence in a capital punishment trial—a highly contested punishment that both filmmakers do not support.

Addressing these different layers, the film offers a timely and topical debate about the need and use of capital punishment in the US, when all of Europe, Canada and South America have long since abolished it. Roth and Weisberg’s work will first be broadcast on the new Discovery Investigation channel and later roll out on PBS.

For nearly a decade, Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini have filmed on Capitol Hill, in the Senate, as well as all around Washington and the country, focusing on the fate of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The result of their long-term project is a fascinating, 12-part series entitled HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS NOW –TWELVE STORIES. This year’s festival showed two of the 12 documentaries, centering on the work of late-Senator Edward Kennedy and his dedicated office, lead by Esther Olavarria, the Senator’s highly respected and considerate chief counsel on immigration, followed by equally committed staffers, activists and advocates. With unprecedented access to Senator Kennedy, the filmmakers captured this charismatic politician up close and personal over the years, and, besides teaching us valuable lessons in democracy, also honor and pay homage to this truly devoted politician and public servant.

The two films presented at the festival MOUNTAINS AND CLOUDS, part 2 and LAST BEST CHANCE, the finale of the collection, offer an insight into politics in action. Robertson and Camerini’s films make one understand and appreciate how much patience, diplomacy, tactics, compromising, wheeling-and-dealing but also passion and compassion is needed to get a bill to the floor, and eventually signed. Plus, these films achieve the near impossible: turning a drawn-out, slow moving bureaucratic nightmare into dramatic, energizing and extremely engaging encounters. Thanks to HBO, this impressive collection will be available on the air shortly.

One more film needs to be listed to round up this review: the raw and real RESTREPO, by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. The two filmmakers accompanied and filmed one platoon over the course of their deployment in the Afghan Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous places to be posted. Observing the day-to-day activities of the soldiers and their fruitless battles against invisible enemies who can strike at any moment from any direction, the film shows the pointlessness of this deployment and its traumatic aftermath.
Breaking up the chronology of events in Afghanistan are interviews of the same soldiers upon their return. Filmed in extreme-close-ups, one is alarmed by the loss these men suffer. Even if they return physically unharmed, the psychological tolls on their lives are severe. After being honored with the Best Documentary Award at this years’ Sundance Film Festival, National Geographic Entertainment just released the documentary theatrically. RESTREPO is an essential film that at times feels like a sequel to Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award winner THE HURT LOCKER—only this time it is for real!

For more information on the above films and the rest of the program, plus to check out additional locations and screenings of this traveling festival, please visit: www.hrw.org/en/iff


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 www.reframecollection.org. 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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