Jun 20, 2013

Human Rights Watch Film Festival

I have just posted a link to my feature article (to the left of this column) in Film Journal International about HRWFF in New York City. It includes interviews with four outstanding documentary filmmakers: Harry Freeland, Nagieb Khaja, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Raoul Peck.

A still of Shukrullah, one of Nagieb Khaja's subjects in "My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone." (Courtesy of HRWFF)

Freeland’s film, In the Shadow of the Sun, chronicles the struggle of albino men and women in several southern African countries where they are subject to hate crimes. Albinos suffer dismemberment, and are hunted and killed as a result of the claims of witch doctors that their body parts can cure disease. Freeland’s documentary focuses on a charismatic albino activist, and a young albino man who finally escapes the “shadows” to realize his dream of completing his education. In my interview with the British filmmaker, he discusses the genesis of his documentary, and his upcoming plans for screening the movie in the Tanzanian bush, in villages where many albinos were murdered.

Nagieb Khaja, a Danish-Afghani filmmaker, spoke with me about his documentary, My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, from the mountains of war-torn Syria where he was shooting footage for a new project. Khaja recruited residents of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, gave them cameras, and asked them to film their everyday existence. He then skillfully edited the resulting footage to produce a documentary that will alter every viewer’s preconceived notions of that country and its people. In our interview, Khaja speaks about the courage of his co-filmmakers who often risked their lives simply being seen with him.

A painting by Akram, the subject of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's documentary, Going Up the Stairs. (Courtesy of HRWFF)

 Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Going Up the Stairs is about Akram, a woman who discovered her talent for painting at age 50. When the documentary short opens, Akram is to have her first exhibition abroad, but as an observant Muslim woman, she will not travel to France without her husband’s permission. During the course of the film, the audience will find itself enchanted by the artist’s delightful work—and in suspense as her mean-spirited husband delays his decision until a few days before the show’s opening. In my interview with Maghami, she speaks about the lives of Iranian women of Akram’s generation, and of the challenges confronted by anyone doing creative work in contemporary Iran.

Raoul Peck’s documentary, Fatal Assistance, is an investigation into the aid debacle that followed Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. In my interview with him, the Haitian filmmaker explains that he traveled to his homeland after the disaster without his camera in hand. After a few weeks of aid work, Peck, who had once served as cultural minister of Haiti, fell into despair observing the slow course of the country’s recovery. Best-known for his biopic Lumumba (2000), about the eponymous prime minister of Congo, Peck turns a critical eye in Fatal Assistance on the foreign aid organizations and NGOs, led by former President Clinton, who failed to consult with the Haitian government or the Haitian people.