Interview: John Biaggi (Director – Human Rights Watch Film Festival)

Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. Through the Human Rights Watch Film Festival we bear witness to human rights violations and 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. The film festival brings to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenges each individual to empathize and demand justice for all people.

The 24th edition of the Human Rights Film Festival returns with a selection of films that bring human rights abuses to life through storytelling—challenging each individual to empathize and demand justice for all. One of the striking themes in this year’s festival is the tension between “traditional values” and human rights.

From June 13-23, 2013 the Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns to New York City at The Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center.  We talked with Festival Director John Biaggi about its evolutions, this years unique events, the power of film in drawing awareness to issues of human rights around the world and much more.

For More Information & Tickets to the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival ClickHERE

What is your filmmaking background?  How has this related to your association with Human Rights Watch?
I have been at the festival for 17 years in almost every capacity.  I started as a non paid intern and moved into programming, eventually becoming associate director and director during that time period.  Beyond that, I had a rather long career as an artist and sculptor; also as a videographer.  I shot films for others mostly, but did a few documentaries of my own, one of which did quite well.  It was on Leprosy in America.

Being part of the festival for 17 years, how has it changed from your initial involvement to now?
It has changed a lot!  The foremost change has been the films themselves.  The quality of the films made on Human Rights issues has vastly improved and become very sophisticated over the years I have been here.  In particular the dramas made on Human Rights issues have improved along with the amount of venues they are shown in.  When I first got here there were very few outlets; non were on television, virtually none had a theatrical release.  Today that has completely changed.  A lot of these films have a limited theatrical and some have a full-blown theatrical release.  It has been very good for the festival because it has allowed us to show an increasingly stronger array of of films each year as they have become more sophisticated.

The one thing that has not changed too much is the number of narrative films on Human Rights issues.  I would say there are slightly more now, but the festival has moved farther toward documentary in recent years.

Do you see this correlating to the increased accessibility of filmmaking or have you noticed the awareness to Human Rights increasing, therefore yielding more films on the subject?
Human Rights as a concept in people’s minds has increased exponentially in the last 10 years.  It was not something that was mentioned that often in regular conversations but now it is in the media constantly.  In a world bound closer together by technology, people instantly find out about abuses and issues that involve Human Rights

I would say that part of the problem of the amount of narrative films on Human Rights produced is that there is virtually no funding for independent narrative films.  Finding money for narrative is very difficult because documentaries are not as expensive to make.

Each year the Human Rights Watch Film Festival centers around certain themes.  In reading the description of this years edition, I see a quote from you that reads “the most striking theme this year is the tension between traditional values and Human Rights…”.  Can you explain this quote?
We are not a festival who picks a theme each year and goes out trying to find films to satisfy it.  We try to find the best Human Rights films we can show each year and then we look at what kind of themes we see.  This year the most striking theme is this tension between traditional values and Human Rights.  I would say specifically to women’s rights issues.  We have a number of films about how women are perceived in different societies and the inequalities that exist for them.  Through different characters in different films we saw the consistent struggle for women to assimilate into society, as well as have their voices heard on different levels.  I think this is a very striking theme here and, honestly, a positive one.  It shows the struggle of women worldwide in getting their voices heard and demanding real change on the ground in their communities.  A film like ‘Rafea: Solar Mama‘ is a lovely, positive film and the central character is a very inspiring individual.  She is struggling against her clan, her society, her husband; but she perseveres.

There are a number of films like this in the program this year, including films on child marriage.  Another big issue faced by young women around the world.

Rafea: Solar Mama

Do you find themes that consistently carry over from year to year?
That is a very good question!  Women’s issues in one respect or another are part of the program every year.  This year we happen to have an unusually large and strong block of these films, but every year we feature a number of films around these issues.  Also, we see the amount of films not only about women but by women, so we have a very strong year of female produced films, which is great.

Beyond that, for New York we have a several films that deal with issues within the United States. We certainly do not want anyone to think that the US is exempt from being scrutinized by the film festival.  There are plenty of Human Rights issues here at home.  Sometimes that gets lost when you are looking at all these films from so many different countries;  countries like Israel and Palestine,which (unusually) is not represented in the festival this year.

Focusing back on the home country, one of the themes we see a lot are issues involving prison or (lack of) justice.  We had great films last year about protestors, and this year we have ‘99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, which is absolutely a question of miscarriage of justice and the overuse of the police.  Last year we had ‘If A Tree Falls‘ about protestors and how the justice department came down so hard on these people without substantial evidence.  These kinds of issues come through the festival every year in New York.

99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

The festivals kick off film ‘Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington’ is one of great interest to me.  I am not sure how come it had taken me so long but I recently watched ‘Restrepo’ for the first time and am quite familiar with the work of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.  Why did you choose this film to open the festival?
This is a remarkable film!  What Sebastian Junger has done here is highly commendable.  He was dealing with, first, a personal friend who has died.  This is an incredibly difficult task for a filmmaker to step back and make a film, and a strong film.  Then he was dealing with a tremendous amount of material.  Besides 1000s of beautiful photographs, Tim had video work and films, not to mention all the people who felt very close to him.  All to say, I really think it is a remarkable piece of work and one of the strongest films of the last few years.  On top of that you add how Human Rights Watch had a very long and deep relationship with Tim Hetherington.  He had been a very close friend to many people here, especially in the New York office.  He generously went on assignment for Human Rights Watch to a number of countries and brought back amazing, beautiful photos we exhibited in various places around the world.  He was a generous soul and committed to the Human Rights Watch cause.

When ‘Restrepo‘ came out and went to Sundance I had called Tim and asked him if he would let us premier it in New York.  He said yes right away.  That is the kind of guy he was.  We all loved him here.  For us, it will be a very emotional evening.  We have a great discussion lined up after the screening, as well.  We will have Sebastian there, as well as James Brabazon, another great photojournalist and filmmaker.  Also, our own Peter Bouckaert, who was the one who had gotten Tim’s body out of Libya and back to his family, which is no easy task in a war zone.  We also have Carol Bogert, our Executive Director will be moderating.  All the pieces are in place for a very deep and emotional experience and I think the audience will be in for a special evening.

Which Way is the Front Line from here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington

Can you talk a little about the closing night film ‘Tall as the Baobab Tree’?
This is one of the few narrative films in the program.  This film is a beautiful film and the filmmaker used non actors, but people who have experienced the issues in the film.  He was working with people who were deeply involved in the themes of his film and it comes across beautifully.  The performances are understated and emotionally rich.  It is on a very important issue and one that Human Rights Watch has worked a lot on, which is child marriage.

There are two other film which are worth a special mention.  One is our festival centerpiece ‘Fatal Assistance‘ by Raoul Peck.  It is about Haiti, the international community and the billions of dollars that went into the “recovery” effort, a lot of which has been squandered.  It is an amazing documentary from a veteran filmmaker.  The layers and the beautiful complexity in this film is remarkable.  It really takes you through the whole process of what happened there.

The second film is ‘Camp 14 – Total Control Zone‘ about North Korea.  A stunning documentary and one of the best single interviews I have seen in some time.  It is of a young man who is the only documented escapee from a notorious prison camp.  he was born in this camp and that environment was all he had ever known.  The interview the filmmaker gets with him in his tiny South Korean apartment is really a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

 – Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

Human Rights Watch
Facebook: /HumanRightsWatch
Twitter: @hrwfilmfestival


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