Eye on human rights: Annual film festival illuminates wide range of social issues


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF), in its 21st year this summer in New York City, screens at a time when most New Yorkers are preoccupied with record-breaking unemployment, cuts in funding to public institutions, and sliding real estate values, the latter one of the pillars of our urban economy. New Yorkers, like other Americans, hold bankers, Wall Street executives and developers responsible for the city’s belt-tightening, but we remain newly shaken from our equanimity, unaccustomed as we are to the city’s vulnerability.

In the rush to assign culpability and dispense justice, will we seize this opportunity to reshape our city, to introduce reforms that may make her less susceptible in the future and, more importantly, that reflect our progressive values as New Yorkers? Every film at HRWFF, whether it illustrates terrible crimes committed in Cambodia and Sierra Leone, or injustices here and abroad, appeals to our humanity—to acknowledging victimization, but also to examining our complicity.

Nineteen feature-length documentaries and narrative films, all of which were in consideration for HRWFF’s Nestor Almendros Award, and organized around three themes—accountability and justice, development and migration, and societies in conflict—screen at the Walter Reade Theater June 10-24. The winning documentary, Enemies of the People, about the 1970s genocide in Cambodia, will have its New York premiere on June 18. Co-directors Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath take home the cash prize, named for a founder of HRWFF. The festival’s sidebar, “Youth Producing Change,” screens 11 shorts by young people from countries as diverse as Kenya, Slovenia and the Occupied Territories. HRWFF opens with 12th and Delaware, about the ideological battle over abortion, and closes on June 24 with Presumed Guilty, which follows a case before Mexico’s criminal court.

For New Yorkers, many of the films shown this year will seem as distant as the geographical and cultural divide which separates New York from Fort Pierce, Florida, or Freetown, Sierra Leone, but the message of accountability resonates nonetheless. In the recent rash of hate crimes across the New York metropolitan area—motivated by race, sexual preference and class—we see in microcosm the roots of civil conflicts across the globe. Resolution lies in the just assignment of blame, but also in a reconsideration of the values of any society which creates fertile ground for these crimes. In this year’s festival especially, when the economy is forcing many New Yorkers to re-evaluate their own lives, it will be difficult to meet the moral challenge of HRWFF’s human-rights filmmakers. We had the privilege of speaking with six them about their courageous work in far-flung parts of the globe and here at home.

Enemies of the People, Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath
Driven by a desire to discover why the Khmer Rouge slaughtered millions of Cambodians in the late 1970s, print journalist Thet Sambath set out for the countryside to interview former members of the infamous rebel group. Over ten years later, after risking his family’s financial security and his own safety, Thet’s interviews have become the foundation for his documentary Enemies of the People, co-directed with Rob Lemkin.

The film highlights Thet’s conversations with “Brother Number Two,” Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s closest aide, now awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. “In 1998 and 1999, people knew who he was, but most people did not know how powerful he was during that time,” Thet explains in a telephone interview from Phnom Phen.

Thet’s project started in 1997 as a book, but by 2000, the journalist had begun videotaping his interviews with Nuon Chea. He met Lemkin when the British filmmaker arrived in Cambodia to make a documentary about the Khmer Rouge. Lemkin interviewed Thet, and the two decided to collaborate on Enemies of the People. (A related book, Behind the Killing Fields, by Thet and Gina Chon, will be published on June 30 by University of Pennsylvania Press.)

The documentary, which includes chilling conversations with villagers forced into service with the Khmer Rouge, also recounts Teth’s own story. Three members of his immediate family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, although for many years he did not confess this fact to Brother Number 2, fearing that Nuon Chea would think he was seeking revenge.
Actually, Thet’s motivation was historical documentation, and that initial detachment led him to an incredible conclusion. “I forgive Brother Number 2, his children and the children of militia who killed the Cambodian people,” he says, “because they are now mothers and fathers themselves and they are the future.”

Two-thirds of Cambodia’s current population were born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but it is common knowledge among Cambodians that some government officials are former members of the party. “How can we have a future,” Thet observes, “if the people don’t know their history?” Attacked by villagers just two weeks ago before our interview, Thet remains in danger because of his continuing research on the Khmer Rouge.

The filmmaker, who appears on-camera editing his footage and speaking with Nuon Chea, confesses that he is uncomfortable with his status as a subject in Enemies of the People. In an e-mail exchange with Lemkin, the co-director admits to having to persuade Thet that it was the right decision for the documentary. “Sambath wanted the film to be just the record of his investigation, in other words just the testimony of Nuon Chea and the killers,” Lemkin writes. “He did not want to be in the film. I knew that really he was the center of the story and that without his personal development and family history the film would have no charge.” In May, the two filmmakers were in the midst of post-production on their next documentary, which Thet says “will explain all the reasons for the Khmer Rouge’s killing of the Cambodian people.”

Out in the Silence, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson
Joe Wilson left his hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania, after high school and never looked back. Six years ago, he married New York native Dean Hamer in Washington, D.C., and last year the couple celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in the Rust Belt town. What happened in between is the subject of their documentary Out in the Silence.

When Wilson and Hamer took their vows, they did what most people do who had long ago left home—they shared the news of their wedding by placing announcements in their hometown newspapers, in this case Oil City’s The Derrick and The New York Times. Eight months of invective followed from readers of The Derrick, along with one letter to Wilson, sent directly to the couple’s home. It was from an Oil City mom despondent over the treatment her gay son CJ was receiving at school.

Wilson, who remained “closeted” throughout his high-school years in Oil City, found Kathy Springer’s letter surprising. He also felt a deep responsibility to CJ. “CJ was ‘outed’ because he defended a kid who was being tortured,” Wilson explains in a telephone conversation from Washington, D.C. “He said he wasn’t going to stand by and watch it. I had a peer in high school who couldn’t hide that he was gay, and I was a witness to his abuse. I did nothing but go deeper into the closet until I could escape.” Wilson decided it was time to go home, and Hamer, a doctor with the National Institutes of Health at the time, accompanied him. “It was a culture shock for me to go to Oil City,” Hamer admits, “but it was also great because I was there with Joe.”

Out in the Silence documents CJ and Kathy’s travails with the Oil City School District, but also the lives of Linda and Roxanne, a couple who live two doors away from Wilson’s childhood home. “We met Roxanne because we noticed her rainbow flag,” Hamer remembers, “and I said: ‘Joe, knock on the door.’” During the course of filming, Roxanne met and fell in love with Linda, and the two purchased and renovated a historic theatre, in part to contribute to Oil City’s revitalization efforts.

An evangelist minister and his wife, the Mickloses, who reached out to Wilson and Hamer, complete the filmmakers’ wistful portrait of small-town America. Every one of their subjects overturns a stereotype, but homespun mom Kathy most surprisingly of all. “I’m glad you mention her in that light,” Wilson says, “as representing that broader notion of what people’s preconceived ideas are of rural areas and small towns, and the people who call them home. She is remarkable.”

Out in the Silence will be broadcast by New York City’s PBS station in late June. “We began this project with the idea that we would paint a portrait of Oil City based on the responses from the newspaper announcement,” Hamer recalls. Then there were four years of filming, during which CJ and Kathy, with the help of the ACLU, sued the Oil City school district for discrimination and won. Linda and Roxanne opened their theatre where they sponsor gay events, as well as performances for which the whole town turns out. And, most surprising of all—at least for those of us who think of the heartland as a backwater—Joe Wilson underwent a healing transformation by going back home. “I have to say that many of us who grow up in small towns and leave them behind,” he ruminates, “vowing never to go back—I think we are losing a lot.”

12th and Delaware, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Abortion rates have been declining since the mid-1980s, when many baby-boomers were approaching the end of their child-bearing years. It’s a fact that did not escape the notice of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the co-directors of 12th and Delaware, a documentary about the ongoing ideological and cultural battle for abortion rights in Fort Pierce, Florida. “This is just my opinion from talking to women of all different ages for the last few years when we were making the film,” Grady says, “but older women don’t have the same hang-ups about abortion as younger women do. It was accepted socially in the 1970s and that changed, but then the whole country has become more conservative.” Grady and Ewing were on a shoot in Detroit, and Ewing was unable to join the interview.

12th Street and Delaware Avenue is an intersection in Fort Pierce, a blue-collar town on Florida’s eastern seaboard where Ewing and Grady found an abortion clinic across the street from a “pregnancy center” financed by a Roman Catholic priest. The center provides free ultrasounds and graphic videos aimed at convincing women not to terminate their pregnancies. “That’s their agenda—to be as close as possible to an abortion clinic,” Grady explains. “If you see an abortion clinic anywhere in the U.S., look around and you’ll see a pregnancy center.”

The documentary’s subjects are Anne, who runs the pregnancy center, and Candace, who owns the abortion clinic and is what Grady calls a “de facto abortion advocate.” Candace and her husband started the clinic as a business venture. “You can’t really have that job—not the way she’s had it for 20 years—and not turn into an activist,” Grady quips, “because why wouldn’t you just quit? Why not just run a laundromat?”

The filmmakers were given surprising access to patients at the pregnancy center, some of whom made a wrong turn and ended up at the center instead of their intended destination, the abortion clinic. Once at the center, they are offered a free ultrasound, a test many of them cannot afford but one which accurately reports how many trimesters have elapsed since conception. “Anne has seen the film and wouldn’t argue with anything in it,” Grady says. “Because she’s devoted her life to the cause, the abortion clinic workers are quite demonized in her mind, and watching them was not easy for her.” Anne’s employees picket the abortion clinic every day, and try to convince women entering it to come to the center for advice.

Grady, whose sentiments about abortion lean to the left, is nevertheless critical of the approach taken by progressive advocates. “The battle was so hard-fought,” she says, “that there was an unwillingness to discuss abortion as anything more than any other medical procedure.” Recent studies indicate that the overwhelming majority of women having abortions identify themselves as Protestants or Roman Catholics, yet as the documentary so eloquently illustrates, the cultural campaign of the pro-life movement sometimes works. “They change women’s minds one woman at a time,” Grady declares. One conclusion we can draw from 12th and Delaware (airing on HBO on August 2) is that unlike baby-boomers who often spoke openly about their abortions, younger women are quietly exercising their rights. However, Grady and Ewing fear for the future. “You don’t need to change any laws if there is no desire,” Grady says, “if there are no buyers.”

War Don Don, Rebecca Richman Cohen
When Rebecca Richman Cohen’s friends discovered she had served on a U.N. Special Court defense team for a man accused of crimes against humanity, their reaction was a mix of confusion and horror. “They asked me how I could possibly defend someone who had committed such terrible crimes,” the Chicago native remembers. “War Don Don is a response to that.”

Cohen’s law-school service on the court, and a two-year stint as an assistant film editor, prepared her well for the complex issues raised in her documentary, part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. The title, surely tongue-in-cheek, is Krio for “the war is over.” Sierra Leone’s internecine warfare ended in 2002, but in a country where the median age is 19, many have vivid memories of the devastating conflict that killed 50,000 people and maimed thousands of survivors.

Cohen follows the trial of Issa Sesay, a leader of the Revolutionary United Front, which sparked civil unrest in Sierra Leone in 1991, and overthrew the government of Joseph Saidu Momoh in 1992. (Cohen did not work on Sesay’s defense team.) Sesay, now serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity, was convicted by the U.N. Special Court in Sierra Leone in 2009. Cohen interviews Sesay, members of the defense team and the prosecution, ordinary Sierra Leoneans, and government officials who attest to Sesay’s role in disarming the RUF. The defense team and some Sierra Leoneans argue that Sesay’s sentence is unjust, but the amputee survivors Cohen speaks with insist that the punishment fits the crime. “Sierra Leoneans are deeply divided in their opinions about the court,” she says in a telephone conversation from Sierra Leone. “They are also divided on how they see the nature of justice implemented in the court.”

While past documentaries about the U.N. Special Court have often lionized the prosecution, War Don Don provides a more balanced view of the entire court, raising the issue, for instance, of the money paid to prosecution witnesses, and the fact that these witnesses, often criminals themselves, generally receive immunity. Among Cohen’s subjects are David Crane, a chief prosecutor who says that his travels through the country produced in him a “righteous fury to see justice,” and Wayne Jordash, the articulate lead counsel for Sesay who admits that in different circumstances he and his client would be friends. Crane and Jordash present oddly biased aspects of the court to a lay audience, but War Don Don explains the necessity for their exaggerated stances in the adversarial system of law. The prosecution has overwhelming power in trials where the defendant’s actions are universally reviled, so the defense team must mount a vigorous case for judicial moderation. In short, Cohen’s portrait of the U.N. Special Court as an imperfect institution feels novel.

War Don Don also illustrates for a lay audience the effect of the U.N. Special Court in Sierra Leone, whose mission differs from its incarnations in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. This court will try only 13 defendants, those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes, in an attempt to deliver “speedy justice.” This choice has several pitfalls, as Jordash points out in the documentary. For example, had the court spent more time on the “fine distinctions” of the defense’s case, he observes, the civil war in Sierra Leone could be understood in all its complexity. “The problem with missing that opportunity,” Cohen explains, “is that you’re distorting the nature of the conflict and the reasons people took up arms. It makes it difficult to prevent conflict in the future when you write such a distorted history of the conflict.” Cohen insists that members of the U.N. Special Court in Sierra Leone are aware that the trials conducted there are inadequate for shaping the historical record.

Cohen is in Sierra Leone to complete the subtitling of War Don Don in Krio, a language brought to Freetown by the original settlers who were American freed slaves and Creole speakers. (The word “Krio” is derived from the English word “Creole.”) English is the official language of Sierra Leone but Krio is the lingua franca, and translation will allow a broader domestic audience for the documentary. The effort is important to Cohen, who points out in War Don Don how divorced the trials of the Special Court are from the lives of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. Asked about what she wants her audiences to take away from the documentary, she replies: “I hope people will ask tough questions about the hard work that needs to take place after a conflict. I hope that the prosecution of international criminal justice will not be seen as a stopping point, but as a starting point to ask the tougher questions about the rest of the work that needs to be done.” War Don Don has been picked up by HBO, but plans for broadcast or theatrical release have not yet been announced.

Read Maria Garcia’s complete interview with director Rebecca Richman Cohen here.