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New York: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012

Human Rights Watch, in cooperation with The Film Society of Lincoln Center, presented the 23rd edition of its film festival from June 14 – 18.  Headquartered in New York City the Human Rights Watch is a global non-governmental independent organization considered to be the leading force in   protecting human rights and identifying their violations. By shifting the focus of media and policy makers to violations and to the need for corrective actions HRW prepares the ground for effective changes. Given current international instability, the incredible growth of the power of corporations, the weakening of accountability in the private and public sector, and the withdrawal of many from the political scene, HRW’s role has become more crucial. Among the tools HRW has employed over the last 30 years are wide ranging investigation of abuses, systematic objective data collections, publications, and increasingly important visual documentations of abuses and issues through the annual film festival.
The use of documentary films in the human rights field has important functions. They range from identifying new problems areas to providing additional information about existing violations, thus creating new support for human rights among the upscale audience watching the films. Equally important is the use of these films to organize advocacy and provide direct impetus for change. It is noteworthy that several of the films screened in past editions of the festival such as ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE and GRANITO contained evidence used in judicial proceedings to hold politicians accountable for human rights violations.  The success of the HRW Film Festival is in part due to the outstanding selection of superbly executed documentaries which provide a human face to the rights violations.  Specifically in the 2012 edition, narratives provided by the victims allowed the audience to readily identify with the problems presented. This direct story telling documentary technique gives a voice to the abused, which is backed up in most cases with well researched empirical data.
Organized around five themes the festival presented sixteen documentary and fiction films from 12 countries, including 14 New York premieres. They included a focus on the environment, health, women’s rights, crises reporting, LGBT and migrants’ issues as well as other topics.  The India/US coproduction BITTER SEEDS by Micha X. Peled draws attention to the high  suicide rate among impoverished  farmers in India’s Bt cotton belt. Following the wide spread introduction in 2002 of the genetically modified sterile seed, Bollgard, in India by the US corporation Monsanto cotton farmers have no longer an alternative. On the macro farm level Bollgard brings more profit to large land owners. On the micro level it proves a disaster for small farmers. They must use these seeds which require expensive pesticides and need as a hybrid more water thus are drought intolerant. The costs of growing cotton now exceed most farmers’ income. About 60% of India’s 90 million farmers have only 2. 5 acres or less of land and their former relative self-sufficiency has disappeared. In order to cover the costs, small farmers have become dependent on banks and greedy money lenders.  They do not have the means to use irrigation if there is no rain, thus one poor harvest wipes them out. To date an estimated 250,000 farmers have committed suicide, most by taking pesticides. ESCAPE FIRE: THE FIGHT TO RESCUE AMERICAN HEALTHCARE by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke investigates the expensive but inefficient US health care system. Though more money is spent in the United States on health care than in any other advanced industrial country and US health costs are estimated to reach $4.2 trillion within 10 years, the average American has fewer years to live than his counter parts in Western Europe, Canada, or Japan. Around $8,000 is the average per capita healthcare expenditure in the US more than double of what is spent in other countries yet virtually all medical indicators show that the US ranks rather low. About 30% of US healthcare costs are wasted and around 190,000 people die each year from medical error and hospital infections, the 3rd leading cause of death in the US.nio.  The average Cuban has an overall life expectancy higher than that of an American and even Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the one recorded for the US. Access to good health care is class specific and as the current presidential debate clearly show there is no consensus about the best strategy to control costs and establish a cost-efficient delivery system for drug and hospital care. Ironically the film makers document how some American corporations have succeeded to reduce their health care costs through setting up effective preventive care systems for their workers, as distinct from the remedy favored by most other corporations which reduce cost by cutting insurance coverage. One of the most infuriating documentaries screened this year is THE INVISIBLE WAR. Kirby Dick demonstrates how the military basically condones and encourages assaults and rape of female soldiers and officers in all branches. The military establishment basically refuses to prosecute effectively those who have been reported for assault and rape. According to official data in 2011 an estimated 19,000 reported sexual assaults occurred in the armed forces of which only 191 resulted in a conviction.  We observe a systematic cover up, window dressing on the set, obsolete procedures and wide spread denial of the problem. The split between appearance as reflected in official interpretations by high ranking officers and the reality of rape is painful. The condition persists in spite of congressional testimony and testimony by former officers and soldiers who were victimized.  There is an incredible courage to testify and report facing the military hierarchy which seems like an insurmountable obstacle. In REPORTERO we have Mexican journalists covering the activities of drug cartels though facing constant death threats, knowing of reporters murdered for their articles. Worse, as REPORTERO clearly shows that there will be no meaningful investigation or prosecution of the killers because Mexican drug cartels are closely tied to the authorities.  In early May 2012 the tortured and dismembered bodies of two former journalists and two photo journalist were found in Veracruz, two weeks later a police reporter was kidnapped and murdered with a cartel note attached to his body.  As suggested by the documentary, killers and police investigators are on the pay roll of the drug lords. On June 26, 2012 three policemen were killed by two uniformed policemen at Mexico’s main airport when they tried to arrest them for dealing drugs.  For Mexican reporters there are “Neither Rights Nor Security” as headlined in a recent Human Rights Watch Report. Against that background the moral fiber of journalists reporting about crime is encouraging. 
In a different tale of moral fortitude the Kampala gay activist David Kato’s struggle against homophobic laws is portrayed in CALL ME KUCHU by Katherine Fairfax Writh and Malika Zouhail-Worall.  As is the case in many other African countries, in Uganda homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by long prison sentences. Uganda’s proposed legislation would have introduced the death penalty for aggravated homosexuality and life imprisonment for the offence of homosexuality, as well as prison terms for those not reporting homosexuality to the authorities. Given the strong reaction of the international community against the bill, threatening the withdrawal of financial assistance on which Uganda depends, the proposed bill was withdrawn yet re-introduced early this year replacing the death penalty by lifelong imprisonment. David Kato was the first individual in Uganda declaring openly his sexual orientation. The documentary focuses on his long term struggle against Uganda’s widespread homophobia and provides a learning platform. For once criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda has its origin in homophobic regulations introduced during the colonial period by the British to punish unnatural sex. Yet the widespread popular opposition to homosexuality as shared by the press and most politicians has strong religious overtones.  Ugandans consider homosexuality as a threat to the family and to their strong Christian beliefs. This evangelical thrust was reinforced by several American fundamentalist preachers holding a conference in March 2009 in the capital Kampala covering among other themes the threat of homosexuality to African beliefs and institutions and the need to fight an alleged gay agenda. In April of that year the new law was introduced with support from the ruling political party.
It has also been observed that Ugandan homophobia is used by the government to distract from the severe economic problems faced by that country. David Kato’s photo and address had been published in October 2010 by the anti-gay magazine Rolling Stones with the names of the other top gays and lesbians in Uganda accompanied by the recommendation that they be hung. In January 2011 David Kato was murdered and his funeral disrupted by violent anti gay activists.
Religious fundamentalism married to politics has been creating a powerful homophobic movement restraining and criminalizing human rights in Uganda. For the observer of rising Islamic movements in Africa and elsewhere their potential threat to human values as embraced by democratic countries is a growing concern.

Overall, the 2012 edition of the Human Rights Film Festival confirmed that it belongs to the top film festivals in New York City and that it plays a crucial political role presenting human rights issues that have to be addressed.
Claus Mueller


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