NEW YORK — The international human rights organization Human Rights Watch sponsors an annual film festival in London, Toronto and several American cities. Its goal is to call attention to oppression and injustice in the world.
Twenty of the last 23 annual Human Rights Watch film festivals in New York have been held in the Walter Reade Theatre at the prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Brother Number One was among 16 entries from 12 countries this year. It tells the story of New Zealander Kerry Hamill and two friends killed in Cambodia after accidentally sailing there in 1978.
The film raises awareness of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime and its leader, Pol Pot. Hamill’s brother Rob said that until recently, few of his countrymen were aware of the madness that gripped Cambodia in the late 1970s.
“If I’d ask them if they knew who Pol Pot or who the Khmer Rouge were, a lot of them wouldn’t have known,” Hamill said.
Festival showings are typically followed by a discussion involving the audience, activists and film directors. Former Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda appeared in Call Me Kuchu, a movie about repression of homosexuals in his country. He said that lack of compassion underpins the abuse of human rights.
“When people don’t regard others as real human beings, they have no compassion for other people. They do anything they want to them, as if they were not human beings,” Senyonjo said.
The film festival bears witness to the inhumanity.
Reportero documents the dangers that journalists face covering Mexico’s drug war. The Invisible War focuses on the problem of rape in the U.S. military. Little Heaven highlights the tribulations of a young Ethiopian orphan who lost her parents to HIV-AIDS. The film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese sculptor and dissident, is timely. Ai's bail restrictions were lifted recently but he says he still can't leave China.
The festival highlighted women’s rights with an entertaining twist: Iraqi women who play basketball.
“From the religious point of view, sports are for men, not women. Because the role of women is inside the house,” said an Iraqi man.
Is it really? The film Salaam Dunk examines that question.
“When I play basketball, I forget everything, all of my problems and my troubles. I feel like a butterfly, flying and playing. This is why basketball gives me something that nothing else in this life can give me,” said an Iraqi woman.
The festival implicitly calls on viewers to help remedy situations depicted on the screen.
“Many filmmakers themselves have set up take action type campaigns for different people, either to help particular subjects in their film or to help a particular place where the film is set,” said Andrea Holley, the festival's deputy director.
Visitors say the Human Rights Watch film festival provides information often neglected by the media.