Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. Every year, through their Human Rights Watch Film Festival, they create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference. I sat down with John Biaggi, the festival’s director of 15 years, to talk about the impact that film has on advancing human rights, how difficult it is to get films past censors in China, how human rights situations have changed (or not) over the last decade and a half, and how the next generation of filmmakers and activists are bravely telling their stories. John told me that when he first started with the festival in 1996, submissions were sent in the mail on VHS tapes. Many things have changed since then. Read on to find out more. This is part one of two.
Bjorklund: How many screenings are you doing? I know there are 21 films.
Biaggi: Yes, and mostly the films screen twice each. So it’s not a huge overwhelming program of films. Sometimes the film [shows] three times because we have three cinemas. And then [on] our benefit evening we’re showing The Whistleblower, which I don’t know if you’ve seen but it’s very good and Rachel Weisz gives a strong performance.
Bjorklund: I saw the trailer – it’s set in Nebraska, right?
Biaggi: Yes, she’s a police officer from Nebraska and she goes to Bosnia with the UN mission there and she uncovers some very serious corruption and trafficking. It’s very well done. The acting across the board is very strong and it’s such an important topic and it’s a very hard topic to show normally. Trafficking of women – we’ve seen a lot of films on it but most of them are not very well done. For HRW, which is a very lawyer and fact based organization, we vet every film internally and very carefully and they didn’t pass vetting.
It’s been a tough subject for us to find just the right film. It’s a strong film, really well told and also factually accurate that we could stand behind so this is a good film for us.
Bjorklund: How many submissions did you get for the festival this year?
Biaggi: You know, we don’t count it anymore because years ago – just five years ago – we used to get a thousand submissions for a human rights film festival. And it got to the point where it was so overwhelming because we are a staff of three full-time. Of course you can add screeners, you can have volunteers but someone has to manage those people and it’s a lot of work so we came to this point where we were like we had to do something. It’s too much, we can’t spend all our time watching all these films, we have so many other things to do to get ready for the festival. So, I came up with this screening process where all the submissions have to come through the website, through email, you send us an email with a short synopsis and preferably a bio so that we know if you’re a first time filmmaker because often those films are not terribly well made. It’s sad but it’s true.
Whether you’ve had some experience, you’ve made other films, or you have a team whether it’s the producer, the cinematographer, people who have done other films on human rights then it gives us a little bit more knowledge of what kind of film we might be dealing with. And then also just because people send us films that they think are about human rights they are not necessarily human rights subjects for us.
Bjorklund: Give me an example?
Biaggi: Well, I’m trying to think of things that…I can’t think of anything really recent but people will send films about their family, for instance. A family film – to them it’s a human rights film but to us it’s more of a film about the inter dynamics of people even if there’s some kind of overbearing father and he’s treated the daughter badly but not abused, verbally or badly over the years, there’s an attempt at reconciliation, they think that’s a human rights film but for us it’s not a core human rights films. It’s something that we would not necessarily show. When we only show about 20 films we have to really pick and choose what are the important films and also often, over the years what we’ve tried to do is to dovetail the festival closer to the organization and the themes and interests of the organization. Whether it’s where the organization is heading, what are the reports coming up on the horizon that are important. Not to say that you can go and find a film if we’re doing a report on trafficking, ”Oh I want to go find a film on trafficking.” You know, you can’t go out a find a film on a particular topic. That’s not the way it works usually. Sadly, from the perspective of maximum impact, which would be great. Like OK, we have a report coming up on this issue — let’s show a film on that issue and we’re sort of broadening the impact of our report. But that’s just the nature of programming, we just can’t do that.
You’re programming from what you find that year and you’re also programming, honestly, from what’s available because every year there’s a few very strong human rights films that we don’t get for one reason or another: they’re coming out theatrically in this city, they have other plans, they’ve shown at other festivals and we can’t show them again; so there’s a number of layers of how the program comes to fruition and what films we end up showing.
Bjorklund: It’s a really good selection on a broad range of themes and issues; I was just really surprised and a bit disappointed that there’s nothing on Asia this year.
Biaggi: That’s a good point. Asia has been traditionally a very difficult place for us to find strongly produced human rights films. For instance, one of the biggest aspects of Asia which is China – we simply do not get many films on China. The only films that we get are from the Chinese diaspora. And often the Chinese diaspora doesn’t have the access that you would want on a particular topic of human rights inside China. China has been very successful at really flattening the human rights workers in their country. They’ve pretty much kept them absolutely down and so you don’t see very many films coming out of China that we can get, that we can show. There might be some in there but they would never send them to us. They couldn’t get them by the censors.
Bjorklund: I know last year you showed the film on Tibet at the closing night of the festival because I was looking back through the past programs. I talked to your publicist about the program because I was really looking forward to seeing it. All of the films have a story that needs to be told and I think it’s great that in London you have films about South America, that you’re showing in particular the Pamela Yates films, I just think that Asia is a such big issue and in many ways still such a closed place that it’s just too bad that they can’t get past censors. So how do you encourage filmmakers inside to tell their story without being silenced? Or how can you see a submission that someone does?
Biaggi: It’s very difficult. The only time we get films that are told about what’s happening inside China are films that are made very sophisticated, very carefully structured and told films that can tell a human rights story without scaring the censors and without getting completely shut down. I mean, you know we showed Up The Yangtze, which is a beautiful film that is about the Yangtze Dam and how it had displaced all of these communities – an environmental human rights film, basically. But when you watch that film, you see first and foremost that it’s a beautifully produced, beautifully shot film and it deals with these very likeable young people or characters. One of them works on a cruise ship that goes up and down the Yangtze, very personable and very upbeat. And I think the filmmaker was very smart in how he approached the film and made it in a way that it wouldn’t upset too many people. The human rights are all there but it’s for a sophisticated audience, certainly. Those are the kinds of the films that we occasionally see. The other one I’m trying to remember that we showed last year was about the internal migrations and I’m forgetting the name.
Bjorklund: Last Train Home?
Biaggi: Yes, Last Train Home. Again, a film where there are certainly human rights themes but I think if you’re a government censor and you’re looking at this kind of a film, you’re mostly seeing this family and it’s a very interesting family, there’s internal dynamics, there’s problems with one of the children, the young girl, but it sort of could be looked at as a family drama.
Bjorklund: It could.
Biaggi: And those are the kind of films that we end of showing about China in particular. Outside of that we certainly have shown a lot of films on Tibet over the years. It’s one of those topics that is so frustrating and sad from the human rights perspective but also from the festival perspective. I’ve been with the festival [for] fifteen years and the Tibet story just sort of keeps degrading and getting worse. What I’ve seen in 15 years is basically that China has sent so many people – Han Chinese – into Tibet that I don’t know how much of Tibet is left at this point. Even though we do keep getting films about Tibet and the struggle for freedom like the film last year that we closed with here in London, it’s one of these very frustrating situations where nothing really improves for that human rights concern in the same way that Israel and Palestine has been the same for my 15 years at the festival. The exact same dynamics, the exact same problems you see in the films today on Israel and Palestine you’ve seen 15 years ago. Nothing has changed in that situation at all.
And that’s sad. From a programming perspective it’s sad and it’s frustrating but also from a human rights perspective it’s rather depressing.
Look at the film we’re showing this year This Is My Land Hebron. It’s a new take on that situation, certainly. And that’s the other thing that I was going to say about these films: we’ve shown so many films on Israel and Palestine, Tibet, Argentina and the Junta and The Disappeared, Chile and the Pinochet era and Allende and these are sort of like iconoclastic human rights themes that hundreds of films have been made on. And the festival has shown numerous films on all of those issues to the point where at this point in programming we’re looking for a new sort of approach, a new angle, a new story that hasn’t been told within that bigger story. Because otherwise we’re just sort of retelling the same thing over and over again and it’s not very interesting from a programmatic point of view but also it’s not moving that story or that human rights concern forward in any way from a film festival point of view.
So for instance, the Holocaust, that’s another good example. We’ve shown a lot of films about the Holocaust over the years. The last film we showed on was KZ by Rex Bloomstein who is a UK filmmaker, very good filmmaker.
For us it was a completely new take on the Holocaust that we hadn’t seen before. The main character is a tour guide at the infamous KZ concentration camp and it’s a very intimate story about what happens to somebody who has to tell this almost untellable story over and over again to these groups of people who come on these huge tour buses. He’s an alcoholic, he has problems with his family, it’s really pretty remarkable and a really new approach to talking about the Holocaust and that’s why we showed it.
And with The Sun Behind The Clouds, the Tibet film we showed last year, that was to us, the first film on Tibet that was comprehensive. In that film you had the new generation of Tibet activists, you had the Dalai Lama of course who is featured in every film on Tibet, naturally. You had the protestors in India, you had the government in exile. You had all of these various elements. You had some Europeans. You had people involved like protestors in America. It was sort of a very comprehensive, beautifully structured film showing the totality of what the problems are both with the Tibet freedom movement and also with China and where we’re at now with China and Tibet. So they’ve really done a really beautiful encompassing film about this and that’s why we showed it because you know, we’ve shown a lot of films about Tibet.
And with the Israeli Palestinian film this year, This Is My Land Hebron, that film is, besides being shockingly upsetting even by Israeli and Palestinian standards, what I found so unusual about that film is that it shows how hatred and these intractable problems are passed down to children. How children are indoctrinated on both sides and how that really shows one of the main reasons why nothing really has changed in Israel and Palestine because every generation has taught their children to really hate the other side and that has created a situation where there’s no ability to move beyond and to find some kind of a resolution. And that film encapsulates that in a way that I haven’t seen in other films. And Hebron is a particularly intractable and terrible situation.
Bjorklund: Can you tell me more about Youth Producing Change?
Biaggi: It’s the third year and it’s actually the last year.
Bjorklund: Oh really? I was looking forward to asking you about it, especially after talking with you now about inspiring the next generation and the effect that human rights violations have on kids. It’s a unique story and a unique program – so it’s the last one? Tell me why.
Biaggi: It is a unique program and it’s the curtain call, actually here in London. They all started in New York and we take them through our cycle, we take them to San Francisco, Boston, they go on the traveling festival which is in North America. They’ve been on television and gotten some great press. So we take it around our circuit and end in London with each year but this is the last year. We’re finishing the grant with Adobe Youth Voices. It is a wonderful program. It’s something that we’re trying to help in our way, continue, maybe somewhere else. I don’t know. Amnesty was looking at possibly doing something with Adobe Youth Voices with youth films. Someone we’ve worked with at Amnesty on the Youth Producing Change films is actually now at Amnesty and she was trying to see if they could adopt the program in some form. It would be different of course. It was a three year grant and it’s run its course and it’s a challenging, very time consuming program to put together. 250 youth films from around the world were submitted but when I say submitted, I mean Jennifer who is in charge of the Youth PC program actively pursued and reached out and…
Bjorklund: …fostered the youth…
Biaggi: Yes, and got them to send the films because often with these youth programs once they finish these films the youth move on — they go onto the next level of school, the teachers move on to their next class or their next program and a lot of these films are just left on a shelf somewhere and you don’t see them anymore. So for us to find them, we had to contact the teachers, the teachers had to find them, or do we have the master, where is the kid, I don’t know where the kid is anymore. It was a big endeavor. So it’s something that needs a place that has a bigger staff to continue. Although I think we did an excellent job and it required a serious amount of time to put it together.
And it’s a very good program. I think more than one film may go on to television.
So that’s nice and the kids are great. The things that’s really remarkable about the program is that when you meet the kids in New York they’re very…well, timid, I don’t know if they’re timid but they’re a little nervous. It’s often the first time they’ve been in front of a big audience and had to do a Q&A and had to talk about the issues in their film and why they did the film and all those questions that come from an audience. And we coach them and sit with them beforehand and workshop with them, [and say] here are the type of questions you’re going to get, let’s work through some of it.
They’re not media savvy, they’re not used to public speaking or anything, so you watch them there and then when you see them here it’s a totally different thing. They’ve grown, they’re all smoothed out, they’ve really learned how to speak about themselves and the passion, the interest, why they did the film, the issues. And I find that very rewarding and also it’s very uplifting because here you have very enthusiastic young people and you’re giving them an opportunity to have a certain educational experience – how to present a film on human rights, how to talk to people about these issues — that to me was the most rewarding part of the program.
Bjorklund: I’m very sad to hear of its end because I know part of the festival’s aim is raising public awareness and also getting people to make a commitment to human rights, long term. So getting them involved when they’re young and having them tell their story…it’s a shame it’s ending.
Biaggi: Absolutely. It’s sad. I don’t disagree with you there. Human Rights Watch, the organization, doesn’t really have an educational component per se, it never has. The focus of the organization has never broadened out to include young people which is something about we’ve had internal discussions about over the years. Different people have come and gone to HRW who are more interested in trying to get the organization to broaden their reach but as Jennifer has said, Amnesty has a huge educational component and in a sense, some people at HRW have the view that since Amnesty has this immense education in the US in schools and also here in Europe, for HRW to jump into that in any sort of serious way, it might be difficult and it might also just be redoing the wheel in a sense. So I don’t know. But I agree with you, the kids that you see in this Youth Producing Change program, they’re the people that you’re going to want…
Bjorklund: Submissions from!
Biaggi: Yes and also their support for the organization as a whole.
Bjorklund: So you’ve been with the festival 15 years, and this is the 15th year of the London festival. So seeing things that don’t change like Tibet and Israel and Palestine, what success stories, what have you seen, Northern Ireland maybe, or what have you seen through the festivals of stories that have changed?
Biaggi: We’ve seen some success stories. Northern Ireland is a very good example. We’ve shown some films early in the festival about that and certainly it’s been something that has changed considerably and looks to be on a very good path. Although it’s stumbled a bit but it still seems that it looks to be going quite well.
Uganda. We showed a number of films about the Lord’s Resistance Army and certainly that country has come a long way. You look at something like Rwanda, it’s hard to say in some respects, some people feel it’s moving in the right direction although I must say the President doesn’t seem a very democratically minded person so that one’s a tough one to say. Also the reconciliation of the society, I don’t know that that’s moving forward, I would actually say that that that’s not really going anywhere from that perspective. The Tutsi and the Hutus in schools, dealing with these issues is not really something that’s happening there. There’s some countries where there’s been some accountability, like Chile, where some people have been brought forward from the Pinochet era and there’s been some justice in Argentina as well although I would argue it hasn’t been enough and it’s kind of late.
The whole thing of Pinochet here in London and when they were trying to extradite him, that was kind of a sad chapter, because it just didn’t happen. And then he died.
Bjorklund: When you were talking about trying to link the festival programming with the the HRW watch reports or things happening in the world of human rights abuses that you’re engaged in your advocacy and legal sides, how does that happen? After the state visit with China and President Barack Obama in Washington, your director, when releasing the state of human rights World Report in Brussels said that the United States and the European Union need to do more for human rights and they need to be tougher and they need be tougher and talk less and engage more. What can people who go to your film festival and see these horrific stories do to encourage that?
Biaggi: Well, the platform for the film festival for moving any of the human rights issues forward with the films has become quite sophisticated. Years ago, you’d show a film and someone would have a stack of paper petitions and say ”Please sign this petition” and blah blah blah and you know, that’s kind of a small impact. I don’t mean to discount it but in the scheme of that problem, it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much for the problem. Well, today, what do you have today?
Every film in the festival has a website, they’re on facebook, they’re on twitter, they’re using the media platform that are so broadly disseminated to their advantage. Especially these smaller documentaries where they’re not going to get a huge theatrical, they’re not going to get major play, it’s not like it’s a human rights drama, it’s not like it’s Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s an important film, but it’s a small film and they don’t have the resources financially to get it out there to everybody. But they do have these media platforms to try to interest and cultivate a wider audience of people who will help on this subject, who will get word out to their Congressman, who will interest their friends, who will maybe support it financially, directly. Most of the websites have direct links to the people, the characters in the films, or the organizations that are supporting the human rights issues that they’re showing in their film. It’s a good way to donate, to funnel money, to get broader and stronger financial support for some of these issues. I think that’s one of the big things that’s happened.
But also the other thing that has really happened in the 15 years since I’ve been here [is that] the filmmakers themselves have also become very sophisticated in realizing that the film is a tool and you take the film to the Parliament here in the UK. I can’t tell you how many of these films have actually played for the members of the British Parliament, they’ve played them for the EU, they’ve played them for the US Congress, they’ve gotten a copy to Obama’s people.
Bjorklund: How is it solicited? How does one of the documentaries that you show end up being shown at the House of Commons or at the Capitol?
Biaggi: That’s the filmmaker and that’s where the sophistication of these filmmakers has really increased. In a number of cases you’re dealing with a filmmaker who is also a seasoned activist and they know how to go through the system, they know how to get their film to someone. They do it through friends, they do it through contacts; it’s something that they’re used to. But even people who aren’t seasoned activists, I think that there’s been enough years of the rise of human rights as an issue globally and you see it in the media all the time I think that people making these films now have seen or have read of how some of these films have worked their way through and become important. Even films that are, let’s say, big films, like a film by Michael Moore or a film by someone who has really managed to get the film into a broader dialogue, there’s so many articles written on some of these films that I think the path and the way you go about presenting the film and making it pop for a more politically and socially savvy audience, I think that there’s kind of a formula. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean that there’s a new level of sophistication of film makers. They’re not just making the film and then sort of looking around saying, ”Well now what I do with it”? I think there’s a sense of ”OK, there’s the HRW Film Festival, there’s the Human Rights Film Network, I want to show it at a festival in Washington DC because that festival has good contacts and I’m going to ask them to invite this Congressman, this person and I want to talk to them afterward.”
When the films come to New York, the filmmaker often meets with staff at HRW, or we put them in contact with people that they want to deal with or we suggest someone who might move it along. And also, I think there’s a loose community of human rights documentary filmmakers and there’s a certain amount of interaction that happens between these filmmakers, sort of an educational component where the older more seasoned ones are helping some of the younger ones find their way and find their way to make their films have an impact. It’s not an easy thing to do and I see the case every year where some of them don’t do much with the film and it’s frustrating but I think more and more of them are learning how to really use the film and to give it a bigger life. Because the problem I always say with these filmmakers is they make the film and some of them just breathe a big sigh of relief and just sort of give up on it.
Bjorklund: Because the production is over and the creative process is done?
Biaggi: But I would argue that the actual creative process has just begun because the creative process is using the film as an effective tool to try to make some change.
Part of this, when I say there’s a structure of what you do with a film like this, one aspect that I’m seeing more and more, increasingly is they take the film, they bring it back to the community, they have a series of screenings, not just in that community but they then do a film tour of the country or of the regions and they have discussions. They try to have local radio, they try to get local politicians involved. That happens a lot more than 15 years ago when I started and no one even thought to do that. The idea that ”Hey, it’s not just about taking the film to a Western audience and trying to get a Western politician to Hey! Do something about this!” but really, you just made a film about Peru and the Fujimori problem, well take the problem back to Peru and show all of these communities and have a discussion and use Skype or use this or use that and if you can’t afford the trip, you can still be there, you can still talk with them, get the local politicians involved, get local people involved have a reception afterward and continue the discussion. That’s something that’s become more sophisticated.