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--African Diaspora Film Festival
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--Explorers Club Documentary Film Festival
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FEBRUARY

--NY Arab and South Asian Film Festival
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MARCH

--Craic Film Fleadh
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--Bicycle Film Festival
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ONGOING --Animation Block
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NYC Film Festivals

Human Rights Watch on the Lookout

By Jessica Freeman-Slade

Launching Friday at the Walter Reade Theater, the 18th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival unites the efforts of Human Rights Watch and the Film Society of Lincoln Center to feature 24 titles promoting global activism through short and long-form film. The selections in this year's festival examine a range of issues from the AIDS crisis in Africa and the Middle East to the ongoing debate over global warming to the 2004 presidential election, with filmmakers coming from all over the world to promote their films in Manhattan.


Robinson Stévenin in Mon Colonel, one of the opening-night selections of this year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (Photo: HRWIFF)

Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture and Laurent Herbiet's Mon Colonel open the festival with films concerned with the roles of corruption and censorship in the era of wartime and national vulnerability. Hershman's film, a hybrid of documentary and fiction filmmaking, details the experience of artist and professor Steve Kurtz, whose exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was censored when the FBI designated his work a bioterrorist threat. Hershman uses dramatic reenactments (with actors Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton) to explore Kurtz's experience of post-9/11 paranoia. "Someone told me about [Kurtz' imprisonment], and I was horrified," Hershman Leeson told The Reeler via e-mail. "I felt I had to do something. Then people from around the world started sending me footage, so it all invented itself."

This year's festival also presents the Nestor Almendros Prize (named after the late Spanish cinematographer and filmmaker) for courage and commitment in filmmaking to Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad, whose film Enemies of Happiness follows the life of Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya, a young woman who ran in Afghanistan's 2005 democratic election. (Joya will be in attendance at the screening.) Closing the festival June 28 are Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's acclaimed The Devil Came on Horseback -- following a former U.S. Marine who uses photography to intervene in Darfur when he lacks military means -- and Katy Chevigny's extraordinary Election Day, chronicling multiple districts across the United States on the night of the 2004 election. "Our intent was to leave politics with a capital P out of it," Chevigny said. "I thought it would be an interesting approach to go very micro, very specific and very real -- get away from the statistics about who voters are, and instead look at the nuances of what real people are like on this critical day."

The films in this year's festival all operate on the level of pure activism and often explore how art becomes a tool of political and social change. Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Moreno Mardones' film The City of Photographers is a prime example: Mardones' father, a photojournalist who documented Augusto Pinochet's regime, captured images that would become the basis of his son's future work. "I grew up watching my father and his friends' pictures," Mardones said. "To me, it was a way to get into worlds that were not accessible for a kid at the time. It was a way to get to know my country and what was happening in it." The photojournalists and their subjects were surrounded by violence, he added, and so their work became an act of survival and subversion. "They had the need to make a testimony," Mardones told The Reeler. "They started as photojournalists, but they began turning into artists as they got involved with what they were photographing. They start putting their hearts into what they did. They start making metaphors of this violence, and explicit violence was left behind.”

In addition to Mardones' film, Laura Dunn and Jennifer Baichwal's films use photographic images as documentation of global change. Dunn's The Unforeseen considers how real estate development in Austin, Texas devastated a swimming hole, while Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes provides photographic documentation of China's industrial development. This year's HRWIFF also includes a photojournalism exhibition of work by Robert Nickelsberg, Marcus Bleasdale and Susan Meiselas. Additionally the festival includes works-in-progress A Jihad for Love (on the intersection of Islam and homosexuality) and Project Kashmir (friendships tested over regional conflict), while Marco Williams' Banished, about the eradication of African-Americans from three Southern and Midwestern towns reinforces the festival's tradition of focusing on film as a means of activism and tangible protest.

"(G)reat art is always political on some level," Hershman Leeson argued. "It is all about encryption -- using images in a way that provokes thought and action and critiques the deepest elements of a culture is what can make poetic art great."

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs June 15 - 28 at Lincoln Center. Visit the festival's Web site for more program and ticket information.

Posted at June 14, 2007 12:47 PM

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