Civil Society, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

Festival Brings Human Drama from Headlines to the Screen

Beatrice Paez

A scene from "This is My Land…Hebron." Credit: Courtesy of HRW Film Festival

TORONTO, Canada, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - The often heroic struggles of some of the world’s human rights victims and advocates are on full view at the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which runs through Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre.

The 10-day festival, now in its ninth year, features films that are not for the fainthearted, with subjects that include abuse, trauma and violence.

However, “although they deal with difficult subject matter, the subjects of these films are inspiring…in how they overcome human rights abuses in the past or how they’ve been defending the people who’ve had their human rights violated,” Alex Rogalski, the festival’s programmer told IPS. “They’re (going to) make you look at the headlines in a different way.”

The festival takes off with “Special Flight”, a documentary propelled by portraits of asylum seekers and illegal migrants stranded at the Frambois detention centre in Switzerland.

Stuck in limbo, the residents face three possible fates: amnesty, deportation via “special flight”, or the option to leave the country voluntarily. The verdict seals the fate of the residents, with no recourse for an appeal.

The film is a follow-up to Fernard Melgar’s documentary series, which will lead into a string of web-based films that trace those deported back to their next destination.

“This is My Land…Hebron,” directed by Stephen Natanson and Giulia Amati, weaves the testimonies of Israeli settlers and Palestinians as well as interviews with those caught in the middle of the long- standing conflict.

Among the brave souls captured on film was a former Israeli soldier, who traded sides to work as a tour guide, offering visitors an intimate and unbridled view of life inside the divided streets of Hebron.

“There are many things that we’re not getting news of and I think some of the Israeli interviews are wonderful because they very clearly explain what the situation is in Hebron,” Natanson told IPS.

An ancient city fabled to house the tomb of Abraham, Hebron is home to 160,000 Palestinians and roughly 600 to 800 Israeli settlers, flanked by a contingent of 2,000 Israeli soldiers tasked with protecting the settlers.

The daily grind of taunts, threats and stone throwing has become a routine experience for Palestinians who sometimes find themselves the target of children who have been drawn into the conflict by their parents.

Once a vital trading post, the city, which holds special significance to monotheistic believers, has been transformed by the conflict into a veritable ghost town with boarded shops and deserted streets.

Directors Natanson and Amati set out to capture the widening rift that alienates residents from one another and the rest of the country.

“We could only observe the situation and ask the questions. These are the questions we asked and the answers we got,” Natanson told IPS. “It’s difficult to see the situation in Hebron and imagine that it’s going to get better.”

Lee Hirsch reels us into the lives of Tyler, Alex, Kelby and Jameya – teenagers who have become a target of bullying.

“The Bully Project” not only captures the emotional and physical abuse that confronts them, it also exposes the flawed and startling reactions of school administrators who brush off the incidents as a part of childhood experience – “kids will be kids”.

The festival will close with “The Island President”, a film that trailed the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. Acting as Nasheed’s shadow, director John Shenk taps into the challenges of mending the country’s economy and cultivating democracy, along with the pressing fight against climate change.

Given access into the political underworld during Nasheed’s first year in office, Shenk’s documentary, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011, offers an inside look into political brokering.

Other festival highlights include Pamela Yates’ “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” which covers the genocide campaign in Guatemala through to the search for justice, and “The Price of Sex”, an investigative piece on international sex trafficking that led Mimi Chakarova to the streets of Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Dubai.

“I think these movies are the opposite of escapism, these films are engaging you in someone’s reality…a reality you may not be familiar with,” said Rogalski.

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