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Change starts here: the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

“Films always bring this personal, individual narrative to the story, which I don’t think you find so easily elsewhere,” comments Andrea Holley, strategic director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, on the merits of addressing human rights through creative storytelling. Cinema can take a viewer deeper into the subject, she says, because filmmakers spend long periods of time getting to know communities in places that are hard to reach.

For the next ten days sixteen documentaries that challenge injustice around the world will be showcased as part of the film festival, which makes its debut in London today. The films may complement the organisation’s research and advocacy work, says Holley, but they are chosen first and foremost based on the way in which they tell their story.

“Storytelling and filmmaking are the top criteria. The way the film is made, production values, the compelling narrative,” explains Holley pointing out that The Wanted 18 has already attracted a lot of attention. Based on true events that took place during the first Palestinian intifada artist Amer Shomali and director Paul Cowan have used animation to recreate an incident in which the Israeli army set out to destroy the independent milk production of a Palestinian collective farm in the name of national security.

In fact, home-grown cinema from the Middle East and North Africa is the focus of 2015’s festival. Holley says that in the past, films from the region were largely a result of American and European initiatives. Thanks to the development of major film festivals in the Middle East, such as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, for example, and the availability of funding this paradigm has shifted.

One subject noticeably absent in the festival line up is the Syrian refugee crisis, a humanitarian emergency that has frequently made headlines thanks to the scale of displacement and a region-wide disaster that has been the focus of much of Human Rights Watch’s work. Holley says submissions included little material on Syria and only a couple of the big festivals screened films on the conflict.

“It usually takes a good few years to make a decent documentary about a subject because of all the shooting and the editing, and so for me I kind of have a suspicion that next year the submission pool will see more Syrian films again, particularly about issues like the refugee crisis,” she says.

When it comes to the actual making of the productions, some filmmakers set out with the notion of “change” as a final objective. The Invisible War, for example, which premiered at Sundance in 2012, tackles the issue of rape in the military and is a prime example of an advocacy campaign that achieved concrete results. “That film, from its conception, was always intended to be used as a tool for change,” says Holley. “It was screened in Congress and it was screened for certain committees for the military here [in the US] and it did result in policy change in various areas of the government and military.”

Then there are films like Beats of the Antonov, which Holley says was made from an “artistic, musical, ethnographic perspective.” The documentary focuses on the musical heritage of Sudan set against the backdrop of the four-year conflict that has had terrible consequences for civilians in both the North and South. “It received a lot of attention and become a gateway for people who are not particularly interested in Sudan to really be educated about how serious the conflict is there and what the consequences are for civilians,” she explains.

Aptly, the slogan of the festival reads: “change starts here”. For Holley, the key thing she would like people to take away from the screenings is encapsulated in this tag line. “If one person comes and learns one thing or sees something differently after coming to one of our screenings that for me is what makes a difference. That’s all I hope for every year. I think time and time again my experience has shown me [that] people will come right out of a screening and say: ‘Wow, I never knew that’. Things like that happen in the moment, and they happen often. I don’t know where many people go from there in many cases but I suspect many people go on to learn more or actually take action.”

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