The latest edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens in London this week. Running from March 23 to April 1, it gathers together more than 20 documentaries and dramas on pressing global issues from places as diverse as Peru, Kenya and the former Yugoslavia. From the down-and-out on LA’s skid row in Thomas Napper’s documentary ‘Lost Angels’ to Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and driver in ‘The Oath’ from director Laura Poitras, the festival makes a range of typically marginal and silenced perspectives accessible. We spoke to the festival’s deputy director Andrea Holley.
Dazed Digital: The festival's now in its 15th year - can you say a little about how it came about, and its focus for this year?
Andrea Holley: It began as a series of films designed to raise awareness about human rights issues on the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first festival took place in New York in 1988 and grew from there to London and other cities in the US. There are four themes in this year’s London festival: Truth, Justice, and Accountability; Times of Conflict and Responses to Terrorism; Human Dignity, Discrimination, and Resources; and Migrants’ and Women’s Rights. In addition to these themes, there’s an overarching concept in the festival that looks at the power of media today and how that’s impacting both the way films are made and how human rights are viewed by the global public.
DD: The film ‘The Green Wave’ incorporates blog posts, tweets and mobile phone video footage to document events in Iran - how much do you think the rise of social media has changed things for filmmakers wanting to show what's going on in their countries?
Andrea Holley: The abundance of material from social media sources appears to be a bit of a double-edged sword at this point. In many cases, such as ‘The Green Wave’, filmmakers are able to incorporate such material into a film that might be lacking in visual material otherwise due to access issues and similar security concerns. In other cases, the material can be so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to edit and synthesise into a film. There is also an underlying question of authenticity that I think filmmakers struggle with as it’s often difficult to authenticate the sources of the material and verify that it’s not already edited in some way.
DD: Lynn Hershman Leeson's ‘!Women Art Revolution’ looks back to the '60s when female artists were fighting for recognition by galleries. Do you think the festival plays an important role in transmitting history?
Andrea Holley: I think the festival plays an important role with regards to history in the sense that we see time and time again how there are many versions of history. People often discuss how documentary is ultimately a subjective endeavour – not an objective one, even though it deals with factual material. What people seem to forget or overlook is that our history has that same quality. Someone, or some group of people, decided to record certain things – so we ended up with their version. There may well be several other versions of what happened. Obviously. So films like ‘!Women Art Revolution’ serve as reminders to question the version of events that we are being shown and taught.
DD: Any other highlights we shouldn't miss?
Andrea Holley: There are several films that will have extended Q&A discussions and receptions so people can continue their conversations one-on-one after the screenings conclude. Those films include our Opening Night ‘Incendies’ and our Closing Night ‘The First Grader’ as well as ‘Pushing the Elephant’ on Saturday night at the Ritzy and ‘A Small Act’ on Tuesday night at the Ritzy. In addition to those films, we’ll have film subjects in attendance at ‘You Don’t Like the Truth – 4 Days Inside Gunatanamo’ and the entire filmmaking team present at ‘Granito’ and ‘When the Mountains Tremble’.