On the Human Rights Watch: Four filmmakers discuss their eye-opening documentaries

The 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival is underway in New York City this week (June 13-23), with screenings at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, and downtown at the IFC Center. This year, many of the festival’s films highlight the endeavors of individuals and groups for recognition of human rights in cultures where conflicting traditional values inform the pattern of daily life. In this category, “Traditional Values and Human Rights,” we witness startlingly similar and recurring clashes through stories of the struggle for women’s rights, as well as LGBT, disability rights and civil rights, sometimes through the lens of history, but mostly through people whose aspirations define the progress of human consciousness.

The festival centerpiece is Raoul Peck’s Fatal Assistance, about the aid debacle following the Haiti earthquake. It is one of three films in the “Crises and Migration” category, along with Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, an outstanding documentary about life in Helmand Province. (Our interview appears below this introduction.) Also in this section is Marco Williams’ The Undocumented, which unfolds in Southern Arizona, in areas where Mexicans and Mexican-Americans frequently cross the border illegally. Williams, who is best known for the documentary Two Towns of Jasper (2001), about the murder of James Byrd, Jr., examines the efforts of law enforcement, human-rights workers and others who mitigate the devastating consequences of U.S. immigration policy on our southern border.

In the category “Focus on Asia” HRWFF is screening Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, which depicts Indonesian death squads re-enacting murders in the style of American movies they admire, and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14: Total Control Zone, about a young man who spent the first 20 years of his life in a North Korean labor camp. The latter, this year’s Nestor Almendros Award winner for courage in filmmaking, provides a picture of an Orwellian existence no one could possibly imagine in the modern world.

This year’s HRWFF program is distinguished by a preponderance of documentaries; only two of the festival’s 20 films are narrative features. One is Jeremy Teicher’s skillfully directed Tall As the Baobob Tree, a bittersweet drama set in Senegal that tackles the issue of child marriage. Teicher’s protagonist is a teenage girl (Dior Ka) who attempts to save her younger sister (Oumul Ka) from being sold in order to pay a family debt. The second is writer-director Srdjan Dragojevic’s dark comedy The Parade, set in Belgrade, Serbia, which follows a group of LGBT activists hoping to organize a gay parade.

Two of the documentaries in the category of “Traditional Values and Human Rights” are less than 60 minutes in length, and illustrate the effectiveness of the short subject in providing a succinct, comprehensive portrait of troubled lives. Karima Zoubir’s Camera/Woman is a profile of a divorced female cinematographer in Morocco who is her family’s sole support. Khadija endures persistent criticism from her mother, who is embarrassed by her divorce and by her evening work schedule which causes the neighbors to gossip. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Going Up the Stairs is about 60-year-old Akram, an Iranian artist who had been a child bride. Now, much to the chagrin of her lowbrow husband, she is a recognized Primitivist painter, soon to have a show in Paris. In my interview with Maghami, the filmmaker speaks about her subject’s unusual life.

Feature-length documentaries in the “Traditional Values and Human Rights” section which focus on women’s rights include Mike Lerener and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot, A Punk Prayer (HBO), about three radical feminists from the eponymous punk-rock group; Kim Longinotto’s Salma, the story of the travails of a Tamil poet; and Jean Nougaim and Mona Eldaief’s Rafea: Solar Mama, an unusual tale about a Jordanian Bedouin woman who, against the wishes of her husband and considerable pressure from her family, leaves home to enter a training program abroad. As a “solar engineer,” a skilled laborer able to assemble solar dishes, Rafea alters the trajectory of her family’s poverty, and improves the lives of her community by providing electrical power in the vast Nabatean desert.

Along with The Parade, in the LGBT section of “Traditional Values and Human Rights” are Shaun Catlike and Deb Tullman’s Born This Way, about four activists in Cameroon, and U.S.-based filmmaker Yoruba Richen’s The New Black. The latter examines the ways in which homophobia in the black community has been exploited to garner support for conservative candidates who often do not have the interests of black Americans at heart, or who ignore the needs of that community altogether. Mainly, the filmmaker focuses on the efforts of black LGBT activists in the state of Maryland, which recently passed a marriage-equality bill.

Among the documentaries about human-rights issues in the United States are 99%, The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film by Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read and Nina Krstic, and Al Reinert’s An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, about a man accused of his wife’s murder whose sentence is overturned by DNA evidence. Also in this section is Lisa Biagiotti’s Deepsouth, the story of two tireless Mississippi activists who hold an annual retreat for HIV-positive participants. Heart-rending stories of the ways in which poverty and discrimination have led to high rates of infection in the South highlight the complexity of the ongoing AIDS crisis that is not reflected in national newspaper headlines.

Last but not least is this year’s singular entry in the category of disability rights, Harry Freeland’s excellent documentary about the treatment of albinos in Tanzania, In the Shadow of the Sun. In my interview with the British director, he recounts the dramatic incident which led to five years of filmmaking in Tanzania, in which he follows two protagonists, both albino men, who live with the constant threat of murder and dismemberment. In many ways, In the Shadow of the Sun is the ultimate example of a human-rights struggle in which all the people of a nation must relinquish some traditional beliefs in order to protect a minority population—or risk the possibility of genocide.

If the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, at first glance, feels like too much misery for a week of summer days, it actually represents the greater challenge of spending a few hours with remarkably hopeful souls who believe that their movies might change the course of a war, or heal the vestiges of a long history of discrimination. Many of this year’s filmmakers are appearing on post-screening panels, sometimes with their subjects seated beside them.

My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, by Nagieb Khaja

In My Afghanistan, which subjects the audience to the daily barrage of gunfire and bombs rained upon the residents of Helmand Province, Khaja enters a war zone as both an insider and a foreigner. Born in Denmark to Afghani parents, the filmmaker used his compassion and his finely tuned instincts as a journalist to uncover aspects of the war in Afghanistan that are rarely, if ever, discussed in the American media.

FJI: You are in Syria as we speak, and I wonder whether you are working in the same way you did in Helmand Province, in Afghanistan, while making My Afghanistan. Are you employing co-filmmakers?

Khaja: No, I am not working in the same way. I am making a documentary about a Danish ex-gang leader who tried to pull himself together and join the rebel movement in Syria. It is an ongoing project. Right now, I am here to do some current-affairs reporting, to get some information on boy fighters in Syria.

FJI: I would like to clarify the languages spoken in the film. You speak Dari, right?

Khaja: Yes, but most of the people in the movie speak Pashto. Only one character speaks Dari, and that is Shukrullah, the younger guy.

FJI: You are Danish, and learned Dari from your parents. Are they from Kabul?

Khaja: No, from a province called Lowgar, near the Pakistani border.

FJI: So, throughout My Afghanistan, your journalist friend Stanikazi is translating the Pashto for you and others?

Khaja: Yes, that’s correct. He speaks Dari, Pashto and English.

FJI: How did you decide where to film, and what criteria did you use to choose the Afghani people who take the cameras and become your co-filmmakers?

Khaja: The reason I chose Helmand Province is because it’s one of the war-torn provinces. The premise of the movie is to show the lives of ordinary people living in war zones, and Helmand was an obvious choice. Also, I worked in this province before, and I knew Stanikazi. It is where I have a good network, and where filmmakers and journalists stay.

As to my criteria for choosing people, first, to get people who really want to participate in the project and have stories to tell. I want people who have something on their minds, and who will have their hearts in the project. Second, I want them to be representative of the people of Helmand. I choose people of different ages and also from different minorities. Of course, I also want men and women, but as you see in the documentary, it is a big problem to get women to participate. This is a very conservative society and at the same it’s war-torn, so there is a need to protect women, although the conservatism is used as an excuse to abuse women as well.

FJI: The young woman who agrees to participate but afterward comes in with a man and says that he doesn’t understand why she needs a camera—was that her husband or a brother?

Khaja: It was her brother-in-law.

FJI: It is a very interesting scene.

Khaja: I included it so that people can understand the circumstances for women in Helmand. Afghanistan is a very conservative country, and outside the cities they have a lot of traditions which are often much more conservative than in the cities. You have different layers of tradition and religion in Afghanistan.

FJI: In this scene, is the man worried about the woman being attacked, or is the issue that the woman is stepping too far outside her role?

Khaja: It’s a mixture. Generally, it is a problem for men, also, in Helmand to work with foreign organizations or journalists because they can be accused of spying. It is difficult for people in the rural areas because most of them are not educated. They cannot read and they are not so much aware of the role of the media. They are used to seeing embedded journalists from the West, and Afghan journalists who serve government interests and who are not practicing real journalism. It’s not surprising that people do not understand the role of journalism. They see it as an extension of government authority or Western powers. They do not consider journalists to be neutral.

One of my subjects says in the film that it is a problem for him to be seen with me because I am light-skinned. He can be accused of working with foreign forces. For a woman, it is more difficult; normally, in rural areas, they do not work and stay at home. When you are a man, you can defend yourself, but if you are woman and you have already crossed one of the boundaries of the social norms, it is much more difficult to defend yourself, especially during a military conflict. Remember when one of Nargis’ sons tells her to stop? He does not want her to participate anymore because people have started to talk about her.

FJI: And because he was being attacked at school?

Khaja: Not attacked, but people have begun talking about what she was doing. She was taking money from a foreign source. People from the village are talking, and maybe the insurgents will hear the talk and think she is collecting information for ISAF, the foreign forces. That makes it difficult for her family.

FJI: Why do you pay your co-filmmakers?

Khaja: I do it because 80 percent of the movie is not filmed by me, but by these people, like Nargis, Shukrullah and the others. I am getting paid to do this movie, so I think it is unethical not to pay them. They are doing most of the work. At the same time, it is not pay for doing the work; rather, it is for the time they spend away from their regular work.

FJI: The overall impression I have from the documentary is that the foreign forces there have their fingers in the dike and the dike is about to burst. The Taliban are just across the river waiting for them to leave.

Khaja: The problems in Afghanistan are not black-and-white as we are told in the West. You have a local person who works for ISAF, but at the same time he has friends who are Taliban fighters. You see that in the film, in that scene where the Taliban members gather in a room. So, these people are trying to survive in their environment. The Taliban is not as it is portrayed in the media, a foreign element, an exterior element; sometimes the Taliban are comprised of local people who decided to take up arms for some reason, perhaps because they feel the foreign forces are invading their country or for revenge because their families are being killed by aerial bombardment. American special forces are making a lot of mistakes, killing innocent people.

There are not only ideological issues here. When you watch the movie, you see that the Taliban is a normal part of their lives, a part of their environment. They’re just across the river. The Taliban mine the roads and people get killed by those bombs. At the same time, people are killed by foreign forces. It is not that the foreign forces are good and the local forces are bad or vice-versa, but these people know the Taliban. You see the local forces going around in their vehicles and they don’t speak the language. With the Taliban, the local people know when they are in danger, but with foreign forces, there are misunderstandings.

FJI: The local people do not care who takes over. As an American woman, I find that difficult because of the way that extremists such as the Taliban treat women. Having said that, I do not know what my country is doing in Afghanistan. I felt very conflicted watching your film.

Khaja: You have understood it 100 percent. People in Afghanistan, they are fed up with the war. They don’t care who wins. You’re right. They just want to be let alone. No one keeps their promises, neither the Taliban nor any of the foreign forces. So many ordinary people die; the numbers we hear in the media are underestimated. I have written a book about this issue, but I do not have an English translator yet. My film gives you an impression of how people are trapped in this conflict. In the rural areas, we only have these embedded journalists or pictures from the cities where there is relative peace. There are roadside bombs, but it is actually peaceful to live in Kabul. I think my movie shows hope, too. Despite the war, people try to live their lives.

FJI: Yes, for instance, Shukrullah is going to school. That is so life-affirming. What I found devastating was the conclusion of the documentary, the destruction of a family’s orchard for no apparent reason.

Khaja: It is a very symbolic scene. This man cares about his family, his home and his garden, and when the garden is destroyed, he loses everything. In this context, whoever wins the war, he’s already lost. His life is his environment and that land, and they’re gone. The compensation he is given by the people who occupy it as a military base is ridiculous. He has to rent a small house now.

FJI: Did you attend film school?

Khaja: I have a journalistic background, not a film education. I did news and afterward I did investigative journalism. That’s how I moved to journalistic documentaries five years ago. With this movie, I have made three documentaries.

FJI: How long will you be in the mountains in Syria?

Khaja: I hope just a few days.

Also see our HRWFF interviews with Raoul Peck, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Harry Freeland.