How to put the world to shame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am


There are many ways to describe the scope and significance of the International Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which begins in London on Wednesday. Facts and statistics, for example, go some of the way.

Now in its 12th year as an international event, the festival actually began 19 years ago in New York. The 2008 incarnation will run for 10 days across six cinemas and will show 25 films from 19 countries.

In addition to human rights hot spots such as Iraq, Israel and Palestine, contributions originate everywhere from Afghanistan, Chad, Iraq and Liberia to Nepal, Sudan, Uganda and the US. There are features, animations and documentaries which tackle impressively diverse subject matter: environmentalism in America, judicial corruption in Brazil, genocide in Darfur, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

John Biaggi, the festival's acting director, prefers to describe how film broadens both the message and the audience of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation as a whole. Created almost three decades ago, HRW conducts on-site investigations of human rights abuses in more than 70 countries, producing reports that aim to shape the public agenda, shame the abusers and influence international policy.

'The idea was that a film festival would allow HRW to get their message out in a different medium than printed matter,' he says. 'Films bring an immediacy and an emotional level that reports do not. The visual medium is the arena where human rights can really be detailed and brought to an audience who can understand it on a personal level.'

Biaggi believes films can change the world if they reach the right audience. He cites Lisa Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo as the perfect example of what a human rights film can achieve. Awarded the Special Jury Prize at 2008's Sundance Festival, it is a powerful, sometimes harrowing documentary that exposes the extent to which rape is endemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

'It's a remarkable piece, which has gone to the Congo and was shown in front of all the major politicians who are the movers and shakers in that country. Lisa Jackson is screening it for the British Parliament, for the US Senate and the United Nations as well.'

Biaggi holds similar hopes for two documentaries made about China: Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes and Up the Yangtze by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang.

'Often what's called progress is just a different form of enslavement,' Biaggi says. 'It happens all over the world. In these films, it is beautifully shown. They are both films about economic and environmental human rights, showing people who don't have many options.'

Baichwal and Chang take different approaches, although there are common themes: the construction of the Three Gorges Dam; the effects of man on the environment; the impact of the west on China's booming economy; and a society increasingly split into extremes of ancient and modern, young and old, rich and poor.

Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes doubles as a portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who travels to China and Bangladesh to capture the aesthetics and social impact of Asia's industrial revolution.

There are many arresting moments. Rows of brightly-clothed factory workers sitting in near-silence. Later, as the narrator informs us that more than half of the world's computers end up in China, we are see images of the vast mounds of 'E-recycling': monitors, washing machines, irons, all packed into cubes that parody old-fashioned bales of hay. In another scene, workers strip machines of their re-usable parts, discarding what is surplus to requirements. There is so much toxicity in the soil that the water table has been permanently polluted.

Chang, by contrast, concentrates his camera on the Yangtze itself to show how the Three Gorges Dam has transformed centuries of life in a matter of decades. We follow the Yu family, a fraction of the two million people who have depended upon the river for their livelihood. Poor, illiterate and uninformed, they struggle to come to terms with the seismic changes of the culture and landscape around them. In desperate need of money, they send their eldest daughter, Yu Shui, to work on the cruise liners that transport increasing numbers of western tourists keen to see the 'real China'.

Chang's depiction of a vanishing country and culture is even-handed, but also frequently moving: there are heart-breaking scenes where Shui's mother apologises for 'exploiting' her daughter, and a shopkeeper weeps as his birthplace is demolished. 'Chang brings it down to the personal level of these young people's stories,' Biaggi says. 'It allows the viewer to really feel for the position they've been put in.'

Biaggi says the two films fit into HRW's broader campaign that coincides with the Beijing Olympics. 'The Chinese government has professed that they were going to make a lot of changes - media freedom was going to be allowed, labour rights, HIV. They were going to do all these things, and didn't really do any of them. They have dragged their feet on the issue of their ties with human rights violators like Sudan and Burma. They could do a lot to make a difference - economically and politically. '

While Biaggi admires Steven Spielberg for the stand he took over China's inaction over Darfur, he adds that he has yet to see a significant response. But he remains optimistic that the HRW Film Festival's rather less famous directors can exert their own kind of influence and inspire audiences to make a difference.

'I see people coming out of the screenings, whether in New York and London, and they want to know what they can do to help,' Biaggi says. 'They want some kind of action they can take. I see it every year.'