By Amir Ganjavie.
Between March 26 and April 2, TIFF presented the 12th series of Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which featured eight movies: The One That Got Away, The Look of Silence, Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, Beats of the Antonov, The Salt of the Earth, Burden of Peace, The Wanted 18, and Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story. As the TIFF website states, “Bravely bearing witness to injustice worldwide, the eight features in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival tell extraordinary stories of struggle, survival, and hope.” In order to know more about the festival and its goal, Film International interviewed TIFF programmer Magali Simard.
Can you provide us with some context regarding the history of the festival? What was the initial goal for its establishment?
This is the twelfth year that we’ve run the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and of course Human Rights Watch and TIFF are two different entities. We came on board for many reasons, mainly because we firmly believe film is one of the best ways to address some of the most pressing political issues around the world.
How has the festival evolved over time in relation to these goals? And how do you judge its current success?
We have grown and have larger audiences every year. The addition of guest speakers each night is key to this series. Some of the topics are complex and can be daunting for anyone watching, so we want to contextualize the content for them. From human rights researchers to filmmakers, the goal is to give a comprehensive view on the issues at hand.
Can you tell us little bit about the selection procedure? What were your major criteria when selecting the movies for this year?
What is interesting about it is that as a festival and venue programmer you typically decide within your organization,
and within your programming team, what will be shown. With the Human Rights Watch Film Festival we do it in consultation with HRW researchers, most of them based in New York, who vet the content. A film programmer like myself is rarely an expert on the subject, so it’s a humbling process. It makes the lineup that much stronger.
How many movies have you received, how did you pick these eight movies from them?
We usually consider close to 200 and then narrow it down to eight. We look at the past year (mostly the past 6 months) of films from festivals around the world, and track filmmakers and their work.
There is at least one movie from each continent. Was this a criterion for your selection?
It is not a rule but it’s something we are aware of so we are very careful to cover as much territory as we can. We also try to include movies that touch on a wide range of political issues from around the world, while not doubling on territories or subjects.
Are the political issues very important for you to select the movies?
Yes, they are. Some issues are famous, some are completely new to some of us. For example, learning about the Uyghurs community was something completely new for me.
Do you have a specific topic for each year? If yes, what is the topic of this year?
No, it depends on the films made in a giving year. We try to cover as many topics as we can. Sometimes it is more historically focused and sometimes it is more about current affairs.
Can you tell us about the festival guests such as its notable speakers? What were your criteria in their selection?
Today we’re filming a pre-recorded interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, which we’ll share with audiences at the film’s screening. For Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, we will have Michelle Shephard, national security reporter who covered that subject and was a producer on the film, as well as Patricio Henriquez, the director of the movie.
Some of the best movies in the festival were screened in Toronto over the past year, either during the Hot Docs Festival or the Toronto International Film Festival. What are your thoughts on this? Do you consider this to be a weakness? Do you see yourself as a festival that shows the best of others?
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is less concerned with premieres and focuses truly on the subjects. Yes, some of them were screened in Toronto before, but there is an appetite for these films and presenting them for a second time in the city hasn’t affected audience turnout. I think the strength of this festival is that it frames the films differently.
Who are the major sponsors of the event? Did you receive funding from the United Nations or humanitarian organisations? I ask in order to know the connection between the festival and real-world politics, to know how seriously your work is being judged by political organisations around the world, and its real impacts on the improvement of human conditions in the world.
Well, the festival is a part of TIFF programming, so Human Rights Watch have their own sponsors for the festival and during the year to do their job around the world. And whoever sponsors TIFF is indirectly involved in this program as much as any of our others.
Nona Adili assisted with this interview.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.