Can Movies Save the World? The Best of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Summer is the season of superheroes. We all know this. That new Superman movie is making plenty of money, after all. The comic book takeover of the blockbuster is now so complete that talking about it seems silly. The season’s big budget affairs are also not where to find the most innovative “heroic journey” storytelling. The movie heroes that stick with me from this June weren’t caped crusaders, even the ones with the most effective backstories. They’re the faces of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the New York series of which came to a close this past Sunday.

Granted, this might not be immediately obvious from the program. Human Rights Watch, after all, implies a certain moral urgency. These films, mostly documentaries, tell the stories of underprivileged and outright oppressed individuals and communities around the world. It seems much, much more likely that a festival of this character would be full of victims rather than heroes, the very stereotype of the “issue documentary” designed to make you weep and offer your support. Yet, as is often the case, these non-fiction films are far from what you might expect.

Moreover, the simple fact of heroism among these documentaries is only the beginning. We’ve all seen the downtrodden fictional protagonist rise up and claim victory on the silver screen. Watching it unfold in the real world is often emotionally effective but hardly inherently interesting. When Gertrude, a young Cameroonian woman, comes out to the nun that raised her in “Born This Way,” we are touched. Yet the real accomplishment is larger, and is shared by other films in this series. It has nothing to do with the larger-than-life heroics of the fictional superman, and everything to do with humanity itself.

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Take “In the Shadow of the Sun.” Harry Freeland’s powerful documentary tells the story of Tanzania’s albino population, a community fighting the worst prejudice imaginable. Local witchdoctors have been spreading a belief that the body parts of albino people will bring good luck and immense wealth. In 2006 this led to the murder of an albino woman, and the problem has only escalated. Against this backdrop of violence, Freeland paints a dual portrait of Vedastus, a teenager trying to complete his education, and Josephat, an activist determined to fight back against the false beliefs that are putting him and his community at risk.

At the core of both “In the Shadow of the Sun” and the situation it confronts is the most basic of human dignities. Albino people in Tanzania are referred to as “white ghosts” and “devils.” At one point Freeland films Josephat talking to one of the offending witch doctors, who quite frankly explains that albinos are not people. This makes Josephat’s mission all the more astonishing. He travels from town to town, introducing himself to the locals and taking their questions en masse in public squares. He is a hero not because he accomplishes superhuman feats, but because he insists on his own humanity.

The courage to tell your story becomes the center of both Freeland’s film and one other, Marc Wiese’s “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.” The latter is a portrait of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man who was born in and later escaped from the Kaechon internment camp in North Korea. The psychological violence inflicted on the inmates of this prison camp is too complex and disturbing to detail here, but the overall impact is an individual assault on humanity not unlike the social de-humanizing of the albino community in Tanzania. Josephat and Shin have both devoted their lives to conversation, explaining themselves to communities both local and international. Their heroism is in the form of basic human interaction, speaking from the heart.

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Crucially, the non-fiction form is the perfect way to engineer this sort of re-humanization of character. While the superhero gets to achieve the height of glory through special effects and a unique backstory, Freeland and Wiese are able to match the natural advantages of the documentary to the simplest of heroic acts. The same is true for “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” which devotes more time to the court appearances of the three members of the Russian activists than it does to their now-legendary performance. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin present a Russian Orthodox Church that has gone out of its way to treat women as second-class citizens. The result is a society that assumes lunacy and wickedness on the part of those women that fight back (a hardly uniquely Slavic phenomenon).

As a response, Lerner and Pozdorovkin delve into the personal histories of Katya, Nadya and Masha. They interview their parents, explore how they found their way to radical politics, and humanize them in the face of an unfriendly and cold Russian judicial system. Just as outside the courtroom the devout religious crowd is explaining that these women have metaphorically defecated on the heart of Russia. Too often the identities of activists are obscured by simplified and stereotyped perceptions of how they became radicalized. Political discourse falls apart when two sides of an issue stop seeing each other as people, and while these three women have become quite the touchstone of religious anxiety, Lerner and Pozdorovkin are determined to show them as people (and three very different people at that).

The mission statement of Human Rights Watch says quite clearly that the organization’s primary goal is to “protect the human rights of people around the world.” While a festival can hardly arrive on the site of a conflict and mediate, the films that make up this year’s program have done the immeasurably important work of telling the stories of perceived victims and raising them to the level of heroes. And if that isn’t inspiration enough, their engagement with the potential of documentary filmmaking as a form is equally worth celebrating.