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Watching Human Rights

Human Rights Watch Film Fest coverage

This article was originally published in the March 13 print issue.

Brandon Bastaldo, Contributor

Human Rights Watch is one of the most prominent independent human rights organizations, and it is dedicated to standing with victims and activists to prevent discrimination and uphold political justice. This is by no means an easy undertaking, and the 2012 HRW International Film Festival at the Bell TIFF LIghtbox was a testament to this organization’s drive for the emancipation of disadvantaged and tyrannized individuals worldwide.

Alex Rogalski, head programmer of the HRW festival alongside Helga Stephenson, explains that the partnership between HRW and TIFF is a natural choice for these films, which deal with issues of such a demanding nature. “TIFF’s mandate is to change the way people see the world through film,” says Rogalski. “HRW is an independent organization committed to protecting human rights…the film festival gives them the opportunity to put a real human face on the issues their researchers are putting importance on.”

Possibly one of the most fascinating things about HRW’s steadfast mission is their stance as an active agency who also uses films and media as a means of calling attention to oppression and injustice. When asked if there have been any notable developments that have come about as a result of the HRW festival, Rogalski mentions this year’s Granito: How to Nail a Dictator as a prominent example. Director Pamela Yates’s decade spanning documentary features the only known footage of the Guatemalan army’s genocide of the Mayan peoples, and was used as evidence in an international war crimes case. Still, the HRW festival’s central and irreplaceable value lies in its most base effort: to raise awareness of the issues that harrow societies and people, all in an effort to put an end to injustice on a worldwide scale.

The Price of Sex (2011)
Director: Mimi Charkova
Country: USA, United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey

Explaining that she left while still a youth, The Price of Sex director and human rights activist Mimi Charkova shows us grainy footage of her as a young girl dancing in the street her native Bulgaria. There is nothing joyous about these scenes, which quickly become eerie as Charkova’s sombre tone introduces the topic of her documentary. It is in this dark manner that Price grounds itself, the only mode that can be used to discuss the disturbingly bolstered world of human sex trafficking that exists today. Charkova connects with sex trade survivors, many of which describe the trickery used by traffickers in order to force victims to believe this archaic form of human bondage is their only chance to escape the conditions of extreme poverty. The director goes to great and daring lengths to give us candid access to the red light districts of countries like Turkey and Dubai, in which sex slaves, pimps, and even police officers engage in the trade. Charkova gives us unfathomable access to an underworld supported by the very people appointed to protect the general population, and risks her own life to meet face to face with the clients and pimps who enslave, exploit, and break the souls of unsuspecting women and girls. Price exists as a divine plea on behalf of thousands of untraceable women.

Color of the Ocean (2011)
Director: Maggie Peren
Country: Germany, Spain

A scene from "Color of the Ocean"

German writer/director Maggie Peren has a keen and intense eye, and it is through her passionate gaze that the troubling societal issues she weaves together in Color of the Ocean are illuminated. Color starts off with José (Álex González), a tense Spanish police officer who is morally conflicted on whether or not to give solace to his heroin addicted twin sister. Meanwhile, the vivacious Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo) and her controlling boyfriend Paul (Friedrich Mücke) take a lavish vacation on the Spanish coast, but Nathalie’s ignorant bliss is shattered when a group of dangerously dehydrated African refugees crash land on the beach she is sunbathing on. The borders that divide the characters in Color of the Ocean are obvious: societal status, money, and in the case of the two crash landed African refugees Zola (Hubert Koundé) and his young son Mamadou (Dami Adeeri), citizen status. Still, Peren’s persistence to transgress these divides enables Color as a tale about the alienation and relentless struggle for basic survival shared amongst refugees, amongst those who enforce the laws, and those who live within them. Impeccably well acted, the cast shows us that fighting for the life and rights of others is paramount to coming to terms with our own.

This is My Land… Hebron (2010)
Director: Guilia Amati and Stephen Natanson
Country: Italy, Israel

Scene from "This is My Land... Hebron"

After being annexed by Israel in the late 1960s, Hebron’s Jewish settlements now manage to almost completely occupy the largest city in the middle of the occupied West Bank. Arabs still live in Hebron in small numbers, and as documentarians Guilia Amati and Stephen Natanson show in This is My Land…Hebron, the utter hate and disrespect for life that Arabs experience on a daily basis is unfathomable. Caged behind protective wire, Amati and Natanson interview various Arab residents of Hebron’s Palestinian sector who show us the struggles they endure just to perform simple acts like going to school or the market. Amati and Natanson’s exposé becomes most distressful when it shows testimonies from local Israeli’s and Israeli veterans who speak about the injustices and chaos they have witnessed as a result of the occupation. These moments echo the loudest, as they show that Amati and Natanson’s documentary holds no moral high ground in this conflict that spans decades. Instead, the film stands a desperate mantra for action to be taken against the hate, brutality, and dehumanization in the streets of Hebron regardless of religion or race. As a television screen of rough images opens and closes This is My Land, it’s clear that Amati and Natanson’s message far exceeds just the issues in Hebron, but also speaks to our removal and great indifference to the injustice we see on the television, and our lack of action.


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