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No “Free Pass” for U.S. in Human Rights Film Festival

Over 700 people were arrested in a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. Credit: Paul Stein/CC by 2.0

Over 700 people were arrested in a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. Credit: Paul Stein/CC by 2.0

NEW YORK, Jun 17 2013 (IPS) - Stories of struggle can be found all over the world, from a law classroom in Oklahoma and the brutal borderlands between the United States and Mexico to a Bedouin village in Jordan and wedding parties in Morocco, as the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival is showcasing.

Some films cover subjects that have been widely reported, such as the Occupy movement and Anita Hill’s sexual harassment case against Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas, but they nevertheless delve beneath the surface, bringing fresh perspectives to well-known events.

In New York, the festival runs through the end of the week in two Manhattan cinemas. The festival revolves around themes such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, disability rights and migration. It has a separate category this year for U.S. human rights issues.

"The audience was really upset and moved by how far this country has gone in suppressing protests."
-- John Biaggi

“We don’t want anyone to ever think that we’re giving our country a pass,” John Biaggi, director of the festival, told IPS.

“99 Percent – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film” (Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, Nina Krstic, 2012), which presents the story of the Occupy movement, is part of this theme and has been of particular interest to moviegoers, Biaggi said.

“People have reacted very strongly to [the] film in a positive way…the audience was really upset and moved by how far this country has gone in suppressing protests,” he said.

Remembering Occupy

Kindled by the Arab Spring and a summer of European unrest, the Occupy movement began in downtown New York City on Sep. 17, 2011 as Americans felt the rush of revolution take hold in Zuccotti Park.

Filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites told IPS that the film was set up as an experiment with 100 collaborators.

“We went to Zuccotti Park and saw how everyone congregated; [there was] a pastiche quality, a collage-like element, with people talking about a patchwork of issues,” Ewell said.

The filmmakers issued press releases and created a web site asking for collaborators on their project, with a large response. While some people who signed up were inexperienced, Ewell and Aites ensured that an experienced filmmaker always led shoots.

It wasn’t a “free-for-all”, Ewell said; rather, it was a highly coordinated and organised process between coasts.

“A lot of people just wanted to go and film a rally or a march and that was fine,” Ewell said. The filmmakers wanted collaborators to be able to choose the extent of their contributions.

Ewell and Aites became interested in the Occupy movement on Oct. 1, 2011, the day 740 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. They noticed that the mainstream media wasn’t covering the event at all.

“I was so disturbed by that…I grabbed my camera and went down,” Ewell said. After the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, the media switched from a blackout to a circus, Aites added.

“Now the media writes history,” Ewell said.

The primary goal of “99 Percent”, the filmmakers said, was to present an accurate history of what really happened with Occupy, especially for those who didn’t have access to footage of the movement, whether on television or the Internet, at the time protests and demonstrations were taking place.

Invisible tales of hardship

South of the U.S. border, “The Undocumented” (Marco Williams, 2013) examined the lives of those working on the border, watching hawk-eyed for migrants and tracking the patterns of soles in the sand.

Deaths of border-crossing migrants have increased since the 1990s, with hundreds of bodies found in the scorching Arizona desert every year.

As the immigration reform debate continues in the U.S. senate, “The Undocumented” shows the lengths some migrants will go to achieve their dream of coming to America, even to the extent of ultimately losing their lives.

“Fatal Assistance” (Raoul Peck, 2012) revealed the complications of humanitarian aid following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, uncovering the destructive decisions made by foreign governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Haiti received 5 billion dollars of aid money in 18 months, but the funds were not allocated rationally, Peck, former minister of culture in Haiti, argued. Two years after the devastation, by which time many outside Haiti cease to remember the earthquake, the rebuilding continues.

On the other side of the world, “Camp 14 – Total Control Zone” (Mark Wiese, 2012) followed a former North Korean labour camp inmate, Shin Don-Hyuk, as he adjusts to a new and normal life in South Korea.

Two hundred thousand people live in North Korean camps. Shin was born in one, his first memory of a public execution he watched with his mother.

Shin’s story of escape, which he now travels the world to tell, seem almost unbelievable, but footage smuggled out of North Korea by activists of a violent interrogation show that the horror is indeed real.

“Energising people who come and see the films, to get involved and to take action, that’s really what the festival is about,” Biaggi said.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs until Jun. 23. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Centre and the IFC Centre, the festival has included a number of New York premieres.

Human Rights Watch recently established a disability rights division, which accompanies the festival’s dedication to screening films that focus on the issue of disability. The group estimates that there are around 1 billion disabled people across the world.

More films showing this week include “The Act of Killing”, executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, which shows a group of Indonesian former killers re-enacting their crimes in by mirroring films they enjoy, and “Camera/Woman”, about a divorced Moroccan woman who films wedding parties in Casablanca.

 
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  • Until Film

    Correction: Ewell and Aites never joined the movement. They (and the film) are not affiliated with the Occupy movement. They are independent filmmakers, not Occupiers or activists.

  • Until Film

    Correction: the primary goal of 99% was to depict this year in American History, a year that included fallout from issues as broad-ranging yet connected as the mortgage/foreclosure crisis and the looming student loan crisis, as well as the effect of lobbying and money in politics, as well as the protests that manifested as the Occupy movement. This film is larger than the Occupy movement and is not by members of it. That’s a pretty big error to have in this piece.

  • Lucy Westcott

    Hello Until Film, thank you for your comments. As the author of this piece, I would like to provide some clarification. The piece is not supposed to imply, and does not say, that the filmmakers are part of the Occupy movement or joined the movement. The only ‘involvement’ the piece gives to the filmmakers is that their interest in the movement led them to make a film about it.

    Secondly, with regards to the ‘primary goal’ of Occupy, this piece is about the wider Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and ’99%’ is one of four films I chose to include in coverage of the festival. There was simply not enough room to go into wider explanations of Occupy; it was more about the film and filmmaking process. As the Occupy movement has been covered in the press, I believed the audience would have a good enough idea of what the movement is about without having to explain it again.

    I would not necessarily deem your comments ‘corrections,’ but I appreciate your points anyway.

    Thank you very much.

    Lucy

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