Human Rights Through the Lens: Film Festival Shines Light on Violations Around the World

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Written by Paul Nash, Senior Editor

After returning home from 13 tours of duty as an elite Navy SEAL, serving in some of the toughest combat deployments of the past twenty years, including Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Christopher Beck, recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, made the transition to Kristin Beck.

The decision to become a transgender woman, Beck says, was not an easy one. Former colleagues were confused, and she even received death threats. But she knew that if she was ever going to live her life whole, as “the real person I always knew I was,” then there was no choice. She began dressing as a woman in 2011 and started hormone therapy two years later.

“I fought for 20 years for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness,” Beck says, “and I want some happiness.”

Kristin Beck’s story is told in Lady Valor, a new documentary directed by Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog, and distributed by CNN Films. It is screening as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. That festival, which is travelling to major cities in North America, Europe, and Africa, aims to shine a flashlight on human rights violations around the world.

“Film is the most powerful way to expose human rights violations,” says Helga Stephenson, the festival’s founder and co-chair, and CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television. “It can show the actual event, the cost in human suffering, and is a great deterrent against abusers.”

The festival runs in Toronto from March 24 to April 2, and then in New York from June 11 to 21. It includes films from several countries, covering themes as diverse as accountability and justice, art versus oppression, changemakers, and LGBT rights.

Represented in the brilliant line-up are works from both established filmmakers and relative newcomers like Joey Boink and Sander Wirken, who contributed Burden of Peace. The two young filmmakers follow Claudia Paz y Paz throughout her four-year term as Guatemala’s first female attorney general, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The result is a powerful chronicle of her struggle to bring justice to the victims of deadly criminals aligned with Mexican drug cartels, and to end impunity for corrupt police officers, prosecutors, and politicians.

“One reason there is so much violence in Guatemala is the impunity,” Paz y Paz explains. “Not only the impunity of crimes in the present, but also the impunity of the crimes that took place during the war.”

Paz y Paz scores her biggest achievement in indicting the country’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, for his role in orchestrating the 1981-83 genocide during the country’s brutal civil war, which is estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayans.

Soft-spoken and compassionate, Paz y Paz demonstrates through her unflinching adherence to the rule of law that “you don’t have to be a man to be made of steel.” She remains strong even when her life is threatened. “When I took the job as Attorney General, I knew there were risks,” she says, “but I have to do it because the victims deserve justice…the country deserves justice.”

To those in Guatemala’s corrupt military establishment and business elite who denounce human rights as “political ideals from socialist countries,” Paz y Paz has a simple message. “You cannot say: ‘No human rights cases because they upset certain people; no corruption cases because they upset other people; no cases of violence against women’,” she declares. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Sadly, however, it does work that way. Paz y Paz’s term in office is cut short by seven months, ended by those whose economic interests are threatened by her campaign to roll back impunity. The landmark conviction of Ríos Montt – the first ever for genocide in a national court – is overturned. Fearing violent reprisals, Paz y Paz is forced into self-imposed exile in Spain, where she remains today.

To some, Burden of Peace might seem like a record of futility. Stephenson, however, points out that all the films demonstrate how ordinary people can stand up to human rights abuses, and in doing so help to bring about change.

“It is people who stop human rights violations,” Stephenson says, and “film can inform them, galvanize them, and keep the record straight on what did or, in some cases, did not happen.” She adds: “Abusers do not like light to be shone on their activities – they thrive in secrecy.”

In Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, Chilean-born filmmaker Patricio Henríquez also deals with abusive power, calling attention to the absurdity of those who have sought to pervert the American judicial system for the sake of political expediency. He traces the Kafkaesque journey around the globe of 22 Uyghurs, a Muslim people of Turkic origin living in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The men flee China in the late 1990s to escape religious persecution, travelling to Afghanistan, where they hope to find sanctuary and start over in an Islamic country. They instead wind up in a remote mountain village controlled by the Taliban. The village is bombed out of existence one night by the United States shortly after 9/11 because it is a suspected al-Qaeda training camp. The Uyghurs who survive are soon handed over to American forces by local Afghan warlords, “sold” for the reward money being offered for captured terrorists.

From Afghanistan, the Uyghurs are transferred to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. There they spend several nightmarish years before the U.S. government decides they are innocent. Nonetheless, they remain unlawfully imprisoned for several more years, victims of the absurd legal quandaries created by the extra-judicial island prison, grandstanding politicians opposed to their release on U.S. soil, and the diplomatic challenges of trying to give them to another country.

Beats of the Antonov takes us to another troubled spot: the Blue Nile and Muba Mountains on the border between North and South Sudan, a landscape wracked by starvation, discontent, and the longest civil war and ethnic conflict on the African continent. Here, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka shows us how refugees live amid sporadic attacks by government forces on rebel-held hideouts. Indiscriminate aerial bombings from Russian-made Antonov planes kill and maim men, women, and children by the thousands. From this hell rises a hybrid musical heritage as a powerful cultural expression of defiance and resilience in the face of conflict and oppression.

The festival’s organizers say that these and other films were chosen from more than 500 submissions. The decision to include a film was based as much on their human rights content as it was on their artistic merit.

“Because it is a Human Rights Watch Film Festival, each film is vetted by a researcher in the particular area the film deals with so we know the information contained in the film is fair and accurate,” Stephenson says. “This is an important exercise in maintaining the credibility of the film and of the organization.”

Festival organizers hope that by throwing light on human rights abuses through storytelling they can challenge people to empathize and demand justice. Stephenson says she would like to see the films move people to get involved with organizations working on issues that are important to them. “If everyone did a little something, this would add up to a big active population who would not let abuse happen,” she says. “Each person can make a difference – it’s inactivity that is the enemy.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival Press Site