Human Rights Watch Has a Film Festival for People Who Care

Now playing: 20 movies with beating hearts that leap off the screen.

Doctors take care of a patient in a scene from Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care is just one of 20 films screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from June 14 to 28. (Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

The spotlight at the New York-based Human Rights Watch Film Festival, now in its 23rd year, has always been pointed beyond the celebrities who so often traverse the red carpet to the issues at the heart of the films.

“It’s not like programming a broader festival where you can take more liberties,” the festival’s director John Biaggi tells TakePart. “With human rights, you’ve got to be much more vigilant about the films you’re programming.”

“With a program of 20 films, you really have to decide what’s the most important thing from a human rights perspective, and the answer is show films on current human rights subjects.”

To that end, Biaggi and his staff have selected a group of 20 films of impact and insight for the festival’s 23rd edition, beginning this week in New York at the Walter Reade Theater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The festival program reflects the mission of Human Rights Watch to defend and protect against violations and conditions that people should never be forced to endure.

Presentations center on five themes: “Health, Development, and the Environment,” “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender and Migrants’ Rights,” “Personal Testimony and Witnessing,” “Reporting in Crises” and “Women’s Rights.”

This year’s films range from the recent Sundance Film Fest Special Jury Prize winner Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese dissident artist, to the Gaza Strip romance Habibi.

Biaggi notes that the lineup is considerably different from what the festival compiled when he started out as a part-timer 17 years ago. As technology has democratized filmmaking, it has allowed amateurs to share their stories and veteran filmmakers to get into places and situations they never thought possible, positioning the festival to shape the conversation around some of the most pressing social justice issues of the day.

“It has a downside, which is that you see a lot more poorly made films,” says Biaggi. “But because there’s so many more films made, there just are some better films. We [also] don’t show very many historical films any more. With a program of 20 films, you really have to decide what’s the most important thing from a human rights perspective, and the answer is show films on current human rights subjects.”

Beyond showing brain-tweaking fare like Little Heaven, a visit inside an Ethiopian orphanage for HIV-positive children, and the Iraqi ladies’ basketball documentary Salaam Dunk, this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival offers the chance to discuss the work afterward. Nearly all the filmmakers will be on-hand for Q & As and panel discussions moderated by a representative from Human Rights Watch.

Talks with the filmmaking teams and some of the subjects of Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care (June 24) and the Mexican journalism profile Reportero (June 21) are both highly anticipated and expected to draw emotionally charged crowds, though Biaggi is careful not to single out any event as more important than another.

“We wanted to give people a different level of involvement in the program, but not at the detriment of other films in the festival,” says Biaggi. “We want to make sure that every film is seen and appreciated and has an equal weight within the program.”

Of course, equality is in the very DNA of a Human Rights Watch festival, which reaches out to audiences beyond New York with a compact version that travels across the U.S. during the spring. Portions of the festival will also pop up in places like Beirut and Nairobi.

Biaggi is well aware that television has become a haven for high-minded films in recent years, but he believes the big screen is still the best place to see them.  

“Emotions are stronger and they leap off the screen in a way that never happens on a TV set,” he says. “That’s an important difference that will always make a place for film festivals. They do provide that kind of impact that only a bigger screen can accomplish.”

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