The persistence of serious human rights violations occurring all over the world under different shapes, and the absence of concrete actions at national and international political level, gives not only newspapers and books the opportunity of filling many pages denouncing these violations, but it also procures substance to filmmakers to zoom in on political assassinations, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, rape, unfair or long trial procedure, inhuman treatments and discrimination against women by political, religious, or cultural claims in their works without neglecting the torture, a common and current activity in prisons or places of detentions, which comes on top of the violations.
World-renowned directors as well as local film makers have documented human rights abuses or portrayed human rights issues in films to give a voice and a face to those who were not heard by the powers that be. They have, implicitly or explicitly, been based on human rights tenets even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948. Therefore, nowadays we are witnessing the upcoming of sections of films specifically dedicated to human rights issues by different international festivals.
The Tallinn International Black Nights film festival is not to be outdone and in its 13th edition carried “an ambitious” title: Freedom to be Free which I also took as the title for this article. The festival explains that: “the program entails films that discuss freedom of speech in countries where it is suppressed with extreme measures, but also films about people who are repressed because of their political views in their home country. There are also films about children whose childhood has been robbed by warlords, films about inability to share the neighborhood with people who are of a different faith and films about people who are presumed guilty by the legal system.”
Let’s have a quick look at films, fiction or documentary, of the Human Rights program: Bassidji by Mehran Tamadon, which is also mentioned in the program Ordinary War, Ordinary People, a documentary of 114 mins, coproduced by France, Iran and Bangladesh in 2009, is the result of the director’s three-year study of the world of the Bassidjis, part of the Pasdaran parallel army to reinforce the power of Iran’s Islamic leaders.
The film is based on interviews with some of the members of this force done in a hesitant and yet courageous way. Mehran Tamdon who is an atheist and lives in France tries to and succeeds in getting into the mindset of the Bassidjis, and uncovers their motivations and world views, which make them blindly and without doubts to follow the wishes of Ayatollah Khomeini. Bassidji is a film that creates fear because of the certainty and doubtless minds of Bassidjis who consider themselves victims and denounce the conspiracy of the rest of the world towards Islam. Therefore nothing should resist their justification of “truth”. In this respect they don’t allow any place for human and especially women’s rights. The refusal of the results of the latest elections by a big number of Iranian people and the important role that Bassidjis played in thwarting the opposition’s post-elections demonstrations shows that, or they must accept society changes and different ways of thinking, or they guarantee their provisional survival by increasing their repression. Although Mehran Tamadon tries to reconcile these two opposite groups, it seems almost impossible that “Bassidjis” (meaning mobilized in Persian) would want to understand and share different opinions. How long can this last? Nobody knows.
Another view of the political situation in Iran is given by Arash T. Riahi, a young filmmaker who has been brought up in Austria and wants to give through For a Moment Freedom [Ein Augenblick Freiheit (produced by Austria-France-Turkey)], his souvenirs of the expedition he and his family went through before getting to Europe.
For a Moment Freedom tells the story of different refugees with their different reasons for leaving their countries and different dreams of the future. The film talks also about the helplessness of bureaucracy in dealing with the refugees: waiting for a life-changing decision in front of the gates of the UN representation in Ankara drives many of them to desperate measures. Despite all of the above, the film still retains a mostly happy and life affirming attitude. The director portrays each refugee with obvious empathy, but also with charm and positive undertones. Despite fairly conventional and weak dialogues and the superficiality of the actors, the film sets to give a perfect overview of the disastrous situation of refugees who assume everything to get to the “promised land” and flee exactions.
The third Iranian Kurdish director, Shahram Alidi, in Whisper with Wind (Sirta La Gal Ba), tells the story of 182,000 Kurds who were buried alive in mass graves in three steps in 1986, 1988, 1989 during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In 77 minutes, the filmmaker makes us travel with an old man, through a breathtaking landscape, who tapes the messages and prayers of people who have lost their beloved ones during the terrible events of recent history with his radio. His only mission is to be the messenger, to deliver the cries of sorrow to ears that might still want to listen or to the indifferent sky hoping that God might hear. Apart from the tragedy set against the beautiful landscape, the film deals masterly with sounds and music. Therefore they also become major characters in the film. That’s why radios are hanged as criminals on tree branches. The cry of a new born baby whose father will never be there to comfort him, the whispering wind bearing sorrows and mourning transmits the wish of living free.
Another film which also resumes the actual Iranian situation where everybody becomes a reporter in the absence of foreign journalists and the ban put on national journalists and filmmakers, is Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (Burma VJ: Reporter I et lukket land) by Danish director Anders Østergaard.
This incredible documentary, made in 2008, follows the highly dangerous activity of a tenacious band of Burmese reporters armed with video-cameras facing death, torture or life in jail to expose the regressive regime controlling their country. During its 84 minutes, the film offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state. Joshua, aged 27, is one of the young video journalists who work undercover to counter the propaganda of the military regime. He is the one who makes possible, by his courage and perseverance, to follow the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks lead a massive but peaceful uprising against the military regime.
Amidst marching monks, brutal police agents, and shooting military, the reporters embark on their dangerous mission of informing us about the events inside the closed country. With Joshua as the psychological lens, the Burmese condition is made tangible to a global audience. It makes also tangible similar situations in other countries.
On top of the hit parade of closed and terribly repressive countries undoubtedly comes North Korea. Although we have been witnessing, since some years ago, all kind of abuses in this country and horrors taking place in North Korea, Yodok Stories, by Andrzej Fidyk from Norway, and made in 2008, shows how more than 200,000 men, women and children are, at this very moment, being tortured, starved and murdered in concentration camps. The film tells the stories of refugees who somehow managed to escape from the Yodok concentration camp in North Korea and are now living in South Korea. Together they decide to recreate their past and tell the story of their experiences as prisoners in Yodok concentration camp to the world. The musical they create is an opportunity to get their story told, to enlighten the people around them and to cope with their painful memories.
Through their painful memories, we apprehend that the human rights in North Korea are non-existent; the dictator Kim Jung II holds all of North Korea’s inhabitants as hostages. One incorrect word and you and your family could end up in a concentration camp. The people of North Korea are being brainwashed and threatened into total submission to the totalitarian regime. It is also a lesson of optimism when we see how the escaped refugees find a way to inform people shut down in the country and shows that no country can live hermetically forever, though the information find its way in one way or another.
The Silent Army (Wit licht) by Jean Van De Velde, from the Netherlands, shows another aspect of children brainwashing used by the rebel army of Michel Obeke, formerly Minister of Defence. Through the story of Abu, a black child and a white family in an eastern African country, the film horrifies us by the cruelty inoculated to children by individuals in full madness of grandeur and enormous inferior complex. A violence which finds its roots in humiliation bearded during years of segregation and colonialism.
The film shows also the indifference of super powers or rich countries towards this kind of situations because they sell their arms and get a large benefit from the wealth of these kinds of countries. Business comes first… By the way, where is Charles Taylor? Who is taking care of the children who were left to constitute his scaring Children’s army who were undergoing harsh child soldier training?
In Firaaq (a word that means both separation and a quest in urdu), Nandita Das, the Indian director, depicts not only children, women, men being massacred but also the unrest of a society which cannot deal with its demons.
Firaaq is about non existing tolerance, towards people of different ethnic origin and religion. In order to respond to this necessity, the director puts in parallel some stories and shows the difficulties of forgiveness and the pain of being different. By over viewing the Indian Gujarat region nearly one month after violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims, the director poses also the question of misunderstanding between people with different backgrounds living side by side, fortunately without giving ready-made answers.
With Presumed Guilty (Presunto Culpable) by Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith (Mexico, 2009, 90′), we get into a judiciary hell lived by a young Mexican, Jose Antonio Zuniga, who was picked up off the street and charged with murder. He is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge who has never heard him speaking and based sentence on a testimony of a single eyewitness. Surprisingly, young lawyers got a camera access in the Mexican court and prison system. The movie shows the details of the retrial, the testimonies of the only witness, as well as the policemen who arrested Zuniga. After more than three years of struggle, Zuniga is released, based on insufficient evidence. The documentary, by telling about one real story, tells about the Mexican judicial system which presumes guilt. Nevertheless we know that, not only in Mexico, but in many countries it is very unlikely that behind the thick walls and in the absence of cameras, plenty of innocents can be as lucky as the hero of Presumed Guilty!!
It is not only in the section related to Human Rights of the festival that we could see films dealing with different aspects of the violation of human rights, we also had some examples in other section such as No One Knows about Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh) by Brahman Ghobadi, Women Without Men (Zanan bedoone mardan/Zanan-e bedun-e mardan) by Shirin Neshat, Altiplano by Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth, in the Euro-Asia competition program, and Russya 88 by Pavel Bardin in the Forum section.
No One Knows about Persian Cats, one of the most successful films of the festival by Bahman Ghobadi, the Iranian film director, deals with the basic human right: to make the kind of music one likes. Shot in only 17 days and produced in 2009, the film which was also a great success at the Cannes film festival, tells the story of how an entire generation of Iranians is striving towards personal and creative freedom and explains it through every moment in the struggle for making the music of their bands heard. It also shows, with a frenetic speed yet sufficiently understandable, many aspects of the life in Tehran, this huge capital. By showing a bunch of young people who want to make music and the odyssey they go through in order to realize their wish, the director makes us understand how Iranian reality is far from clichés existing in the west which associate all Iranians with terrorists, fundamentalists or other fanatics. Ghobadi wants to show the difference between Iranian rulers and the people of the country. He makes us discover the amazing and rare jazzy voice of Raana Farhan, who deserves to be discovered by all jazz lovers.
The most significant film dealing with Iranian women rights at a very special moment for Iranian society, the moment when it was crossing a big political and social turbulence, is Women without Men by Shirin Neshat, the internationally renowned Iranian photographer and visual artist. The winner of The Golden Lion at the Venice 2009 film festival, the film portrays, very aesthetically, four women coming from different backgrounds and social classes who are fighting for their freedom. The story of the film takes place in early 1950s Iran when the CIA paved the way for the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to ascend to power instead of the democratically elected, popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeghi. In spite of mentioning an important political period of Iran, the film cannot be considered as a political one. Based on a well-known book by Sharnush Parsinpuri, the political intrigue gives the possibility to all these women, freed by Reza Shah, from the weight and burden of the veil, to seek another destiny and to become the mistresses of their own fate. The price of this freedom seeking is high and it continues to be in a society confronted to the obligation of wearing the veil nowadays and being considered as half of a man in rights. It is a very moving and breathtaking film which conveys, in image, misfortune in a stunningly beautiful and captivating manner.
In a place endowed with a raw, pure overwhelming beauty, Altiplano, the area of the same name in the High Andes, a place where the Inca civilization and the sacraments of the Catholic Church meet, a horror is hidden and takes eyes and lives. Through their film, Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth, give to the spectator the vision of paradise and a tale of interwoven cultures in the contemporary world. But when we get a step closer, the reflection of moonlight in the water polluted by mercury thrown or left by foreign companies, their indifference towards people who are getting blind, sick and die in pain, gives the film its real meaning: defend culture and human rights. Other than pollution to mercury, the ethnic conflicts between whites and Peruvians, humanitarian doctors facing lacks, suicides, etc., and in spite of its fantastic panorama, the spiritual way of dealing with the subjects, exceeds the viewer and the film remains inadequately mastered. Why do the directors multiply themes without ever untangling them and never say who the aggressor is? Is it the American entrepreneurs? Why can’t the doctors heal the sick? However, thanks to some good actors and its realistic parts, the spectator is able to get into the subject and create their own scenario.
The opposite film to Altiplano is Rossiya 88, by Pavel Bardin, the young Russian director, who shot his film entirely on a handheld rig. With a docu-fiction underground style of filming he makes us see the other side of the moon: the existence of Nazi gangs who attack Caucasians in today’s Russia.
The plot of the film is imaginary, but the story is based on real facts. The tremendous lively way of depicting the members of a gang of skinheads, makes Russia 88 a very powerful and engaging film. It shows skinheads filming propaganda videos to place them on YouTube. As the camera records the life of the gang, they grow accustomed to it and stop paying attention to the filming. As the story develops, the leader of the gang ‘Blade’ discovers that his sister is dating a man from the Caucasus… Pavel Bardin’s film focuses on a phenomenon that, although largely ignored in the West, is very much a part of everyday life in Moscow. In addition, the murders, pogroms and terrorist attacks mentioned in the film are all to be found in police reports from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg and many other cities in Russia. The documentary quality of the film successfully creates an unpleasant sensation and involves the viewer in the viewing experience. Some scenes are truly stunning in their rough and gritty feeling.
No matter if the subplot is weak, it does not prevent the film from giving its strong message. The huge list of people killed last year by neo-Nazis appearing at the end frightens. And this is more important than cinematic perfection required by some critics.
In conclusion, I must add that due to the difficult circumstances in which many human rights films are made, some of them do not present optimal cinematic quality. Nevertheless, I hope, and I’m fortunately not the only one, that more and more festivals promote human rights films by gathering them in competition sections and by attracting the gaze in order to allow silenced and marginalized voices to be heard. A festival gives better and much visible tribune, in particular, to those who risk their lives for their opinion and are repressed by censorship.
Where the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights failed to provide and guarantee what is written in its Article 1, let’s hope that films and festivals could bring some changes by denouncing human rights violations in public places…
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2009