Ai Weiwei

New York

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


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John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, has a responsibility most festival heads don't have. After a film has passed the first stage of selection for the programme, Biaggi sends it to his activist colleagues in Human Rights Watch for fact-checking.

'We're the only human rights festival that has experts in the subject matters of the films. They go through it and check it,' Biaggi says. 'It happens more than seldom that we will not invite the film, even though it might be an interesting and well-made movie. We will not show it if there are major factual errors, or if the way it depicts the issue deviates too strongly from what you would see on the ground.'

The festival, in its 23rd edition this year and on until Thursday, grew out of a US-headquartered NGO which monitors human rights abuses around the globe. Founded in 1978, the group produces reports on the issue. The film festival, which travels to other cities, was founded as another way to bring abuses to the attention of the public.

Each year, Biaggi finds a salient thread that runs through the films on the programme. This year, the theme is how individuals can make a stand on human rights issues and initiate change.

The opening film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, best represents this theme. The documentary, directed by Alison Klayman, looks at how the artist has leveraged the internet to bring attention to human rights abuses on the mainland.

'Ai Weiwei is the ultimate example of an individual who makes a difference,' says Biaggi. 'He is a well-known individual who has had enough of the human rights abuses in China. He stands up to his government, which is repressive.'

Other movies on show this year include the feature-length War Witch. Directed by Kim Nguyen, it tells the story of a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human Rights Watch has authored reports on the use of children as soldiers. But the festival will not show documentaries on the subject, as they have discovered that children are easily manipulated in such works. They can also be exposed to greater danger after appearing on film.

Biaggi says a film festival can have a positive effect on human rights issues. Film is a medium that provokes emotions, he says. Viewers sometimes get so worked up by what they have seen, they come out of the cinema and write a cheque for a foundation that is helping the people in the film.

'I have seen a lot of people who were deeply changed by watching the films,' he notes. 'Movies can do that in a way that a report cannot.'