Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival begins this week in London, with a number of screenings and events taking place across the capital. The programme contains a diverse collection of films that aim to investigate human rights abuses around the world and bring these situations to a wider audience. Here is my take on four of the highlights from this year's festival.

Jai Bhim Comrade

Jai Bhim Comrade begins in 1997 with the killing of 10 unarmed members of the Dalit community, who were protesting the desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar, an inspirational figure for these people. A few days after this massacre, the poet and singer Vilas Ghogre visited the scene of the crime and he was so shaken by the events he committed suicide. This is where Anand Patwardhan – who used Ghogre's music in one of his earlier films – started filming, and over the next 14 years he continued to amass footage, which he has now edited into an engrossing and illuminating three-hour examination of caste discrimination in India. The Dalit people are regarded by many people in India as "untouchables"; they are fit only for the most degrading manual labour and are treated with disdain as they walk the streets cleaning up after those from more respectable communities. In Jai Bhim Comrade, Patwardhan explores the complex history of the country's societal distinctions and exposes the oppression that they face every day, while also telling the story of Vilas Ghogre and keeping tabs on the criminal trial of the officers who opened fire on the Dailts.

That Patwardhan can keep tracks of these various strands of his sprawling subject without ever letting the film feel baggy or unfocused is testament to his intelligent filmmaking. He has a patient, inquisitive approach that allows him ample time to investigate every aspect of the topic in eye-opening detail. He gives voice to a wide spectrum of people during the course of the film, whether they are politicians or members of the downtrodden Dalits, or simply upper-class citizens who don't think twice about airing their bigoted views. The film's most potent tool, however, is the soundtrack, as Patwardhan incorporates numerous protest songs into the film that tell the story with clarity and heartfelt urgency. One of the most striking scenes at the end of the film focuses on a group of young protest singers called Kabir Kala Manch. In a troubling postscript, we are told that they have been forced into hiding after daring to speak out. Jai Bhim Comrade is a brilliant film about politics, injustice, racism and social inequality, but above all it's a film that listens to people who most desperately need to be heard.

The Parade (Parada)

When the LGBT community in Serbia bravely attempted to stage the country's second Gay Pride parade in 2010, the result was a day of riots, violence and hatred as right-wing hooligans and the police (both of whom outnumbered the actual marchers by around 6 to 1) fought running battles. Srdjan Dragojevic's The Parade takes place one year earlier and details the aborted attempt to stage a Pride march in 2009, with his satirical take on the story focusing on a group of homosexuals and homophobes who are unexpectedly forced to work together. Prior to the opening credits, a glossary explains the various derogatory terms that Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bosnians have for each other, before revealing that they all share the same word – "Peder" – for homosexuals. When Dragojevic introduces us to his four principle characters, they are painted in such broad strokes they initially appear almost cartoonish. There's ultra-macho ex-gangster Limon (Nikola Kojo), his trophy wife Biserka (Hristina Popovic), gay wedding planner Mirko (Goran Jevtic) and his partner Radmilo (Milos Samolov), who drives a pink mini and has to be taught to act like a man in a scene reminiscent of La cage aux folles.

These characters are all given depth by the expert performances from the cast and by Dragojevic's smart script, which takes every opportunity to skewer the codes of Serbian machismo and the thoughtless homophobia that is rampant in the region. The first half of The Parade is terrific fun, as it cleverly draws together the disparate characters and contrives a way to make them co-exist in an amusing manner. The picture loses a bit of its spark when Limon and Radmilo are forced into a cross-country road trip to recruit additional security from Limon's ex-army pals, and the longueurs of this segment push the picture unnecessarily close to a two-hour running time. Watching these initially antagonistic characters bond is still fun, however, no matter how predictable it may be, and the picture has a stirring finale, which epitomises Dragojevic at making us laugh while never letting us forget the very real threat of violence that gay people face in homophobic societies.


Kim Longinotto has spent years travelling the world and making documentaries about societies that oppress women, and in Salma she has another remarkable story to tell. Salma is the story of a Tamil woman in her 40s who is currently respected as one of India's most prominent poets and female activists, but the true magnitude of her achievement in gaining such a position is only revealed by examining her past. It is common practice in many Islamic Indian communities to withdraw a girl from society when she has her first period, and to keep her locked inside until a husband is found for her. This is what happened to Salma, who was imprisoned by her parents for years until she finally acquiesced to marriage, and then found herself locked up by her husband's family, eventually spending over two decades effectively under house arrest. Throughout this time, Salma was writing poetry about her experiences, and when she finally smuggled these poems into the outside world, the publicity they generated ensured her overdue liberation.

As Salma revisits her past, Longinotto is an unobtrusive observer, with the director always being alert to particularly telling moments. We see her subject telling teenage girls that they have to stay in school, but her advice is contradicted by the many women who repeatedly tell them that this is simply the way things are, and that women of this faith have a role that they have to play. The way in which Salma has overcome the obstacles in her life is truly inspirational, but Longinotto plays that sense of emotional uplift against the backdrop of so many women who never find such a way out. In one haunting shot, she films a wedding, in which a teenage girl is being married to a much older man. As celebrations go on around them, Longinotto's camera moves in to the girl's face; she looks so vulnerable, so afraid, so young.

War Witch (Rebelle)

Many films have explored warfare from the perspective of a child, but perhaps it makes most sense for a film set in Africa to take that approach, considering the way children are regularly forced to take up arms on that continent. Canadian director Kim Nguyen's War Witch is the story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a 12 year-old girl abducted by rebel forces from her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to kill her own parents as she is turned into a soldier. Nguyen augments the horrors of what Komona witnesses and experiences with a magic realism that allows him to create some striking images, notably the white ghosts that walk the land in front of Komona after she has killed. This careful balancing of contrasting tones is a vital component in War Watch's success, and Komona's romance with fellow soldier Magicien (Serge Kanyinda) gives the central section of the film a tenderness that is all the more moving for being surrounded by such horror.

This focus on their relationship also gives dimensions to characters who might have existed as little more than symbolic figures in a lesser film. Nguyen also draws sensitive and convincing performances from his cast of non-professional actors, with Mwanza in particular being an extraordinary discovery. She brilliantly depicts the gradual hardening of Komona's soul in the face of conflict and the atrocities that are inflicted upon her, before her relationship with Magicien allows her to reconnect with her humanity. Nguyen's direction is excellent, attuned to both the emotional journey of his characters and the world they exist in, which is defined by its violence and belief in magic as an everyday part of life. Given how many shoddy and manipulative films we've seen about African troubles, It's easy to be suspicious of western filmmakers who travel to the continent seeking sensationalist fare, but Nguyen has delivered a portrait of an African child soldier that is surprising, nuanced and ultimately very moving.