The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a hell of a wake-up call. Watching well-chosen documentaries from our comfy seats, well fed and with friends, it’s hard to believe that our consumer driven, privileged “free” lifestyle is lived only by a tiny percentage of the world’s population. Elsewhere daily life is a struggle to eat, drink water, live as oneself, and prosper. Death squads roam, gays are murdered, children are brainwashed into the government philosophy and ordinary citizens hide in caves to avoid massacre because of their faith. It’s all documented in the festival, now in its tenth year, in films that cover a diverse and often shocking range of true stories. Festival founder Helga Stephenson says she has prepared most of her life to make it happen. Stephenson is passionate on the subject of freedom and film’s ability to champion freedom.
Congratulations on ten years of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. What inspired you to create it in the beginning?
I think I’ve been an activist most of my life one way or another and I decided I liked this organization Human Rights Watch and have tremendous respect for them. I was instrumental in bringing them to Canada and I helped them in an area that I know. When you join an organization you define the ways in which you can bring something to it or some value. It was clear that to them and to me I should use my background and my world and my contacts to start a film festival for them here in Toronto.
On a personal note you were exposed to a different world when you were young and living in South East Asia. How did that affect your world view?
It gave me a worldview and expanded me out of Quebec and Canada and North America to the east and gave me a world view. I always wanted to stay in touch with that bigger world. Now with the Internet it isn’t as hard as when I was young. One of the precepts of the Human Rights Watch is that you can make a difference so I carefully picked a way. It would be wonderful if people would do it in their community or for the small or large. The best thing they can do it bring their talents to that. After all my years in film that’s the direction I took and it’s interesting for me because I actually really enjoy and derive a lot of edification intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, working through these films and I am in touch with the world. We are always looking for the real story. Media is shaded and I like to hear the different voices in the world and experience what their world is like and what would drive them to make decisions. We forget because we are pretty spoiled that the circumstances that represent our daily life vastly for the majority of the world.
Have the films changed over the past decade? Do you see different subject matter now?
I’m seeing more and the younger generation is far more interested in concepts like human rights and environment and ecology than my generation. They become passionately attached to it and watching that generation of filmmakers apply to that part of the world and life to film is great. I think of the evolution of the technical equipment that allows them to go further into the territory and become more intimate and personal with the stories than they could have with a big clunky camera set up. Take something like Darwin’s Nightmare, which was made on a tiny camera and it won an Oscar.
These films can be deeply upsetting, showing abuses against individuals, nations and humanity.
It is intense. What I derive from it rather than being crushed by the weight of the world, the endlessly fascinating element is the resilience of the human spirit and the realising there are ways of doing something together and the ways they accomplish that. Some of the situations are horrendous the triumphs are unbelievably poignant and emotional because you know what they went through and how they operate to accomplish that. And it’s never the obvious person, a regular person, not a hero writ large who stands up and does something different. Putin’s Kiss is about someone, a 19 year old girl, who goes against the grain. It answers the question of what can happen when someone gets into trouble. All these massive forces move against them. How can all the people think the same way at the same time? But you learn that there are organisations poised and ready to go against someone. Let’s say mobs of young people are marching down the street with posters of my picture saying that Helga is evil. Where did it come from? I was grateful to be shown the mechanism. One of the mechanisms they use to discredit people they decide is not friendly to the cause.
The People of Katawapiskatt River is about all these aboriginal people are crammed onto a little piece of land up there (Hudson’s Bay, Canada) with one of the world’s leading diamond mines is a couple of hundred miles away, on the ancient lands serving no benefit to them. Living conditions are appalling and they are not their fault. They are also in the middle of a baby boom, and that was surprising to me. The town is awash in babies. The aboriginal people are having a baby boom. For me I was grateful to have a look inside. And it’s related in the Indian way with a soft voice, very matter of fact, not full of rage or useless emotions. It’s a simple, beautifully presented portrait of what life is like there. First of all was that not one of the most under-reported situations ever?
No Place on Earth is about the will to survive. They find a way to survive and they do and A World Not Ours, what happens to these young Palestinian men locked into these camps, the Serbian gay situation, what it’s like to be gay in Serbia. Our rights that we take for granted especially in Toronto in our gay parade. Pride is one of the largest in the world and an accepted part of city life. You certainly won’t be killed for being gay. The Patience Stone is a portrait of a woman in Afghanistan. It’s different in that it’s a feature film, a magnificent film and therefore may be more dramatic and at a very personal and intimate level. I did find some of the other documentaries list the atrocities whereas this is a feature that gives you time to get into the head of that young woman. You see life through her and you really feel it because there is time.
It must be fulfilling to bring these films to Toronto and through other programmes to young people.
It’s a privilege and I take it as a privilege that I am able to do this and see these films because it makes me a much more understanding person and a much more willing to give and try to understand there is another aside of the story. We understand that we live in a very privileged, cossetted society where we are not face to face on a daily basis with issues like these. Or even taking the extra time and effort to inform yourself at a deeper level.
Do you think films like these can have any positive effect on the situations they reveal?
For sure in secrecy bad things thrive. Bad things thrive behind the veil of secrecy so anything that can be done to shed light on certain situations is good. Change the world? No but maybe it will light a fire in somebody who will go and do something. You can never predict a chain reaction but you can predict that if you do nothing, nothing will happen and if you do something there is a chance that something more will happen and that will trigger other things. The great gift we have these days is the internet for the dissemination of information – it is the most important thing of this period in time. I’m happy to report that every film is vetted by researchers. They all have the stamp of approval for researchers at Human Rights Watch. Each one is a world expert in any given area. I feel confident going forward because they have been vetted. Key component so we know the information in the films is correct and that has been rigorously examined. You are not going to be fed misinformation or disinformed. That’s the word they’re using now. Make a difference. All you can do is what you can.
will be here in person for the screening of the film on Wednesday night.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from February 26 to March 7. Special guests include Shin Dong-hyuk, the escapee from the North Korean labour camp who is the subject of Camp 14 – Total Control Zone, Alanis Obomsawin, director of The People of the Kattawapiskak River, as well as many others who are Skyping in. For more info and the full schedule, visit tiff.net.
About the Human Rights Watch Film Festival:
Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, Human Rights Watch gives voice to the oppressed and holds oppressors accountable for their crimes. Rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For thirty years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
Human Rights Watch Canada Committee
The Human Rights Watch Canada Committee was formed in 2002 and is part of a network of committees across 13 cities in Europe, Canada and the United States. The committees include more than 450 people from a variety of backgrounds. The committees are an informed and engaged constituency that is a key part of Human Rights Watch’s defense of human rights.
Committees seek to increase awareness of local and global human rights issues and to enlist the public and governments to support basic freedoms for all. Committee members meet regularly to learn about human rights abuses, sponsor policy debates and generate support for Human Rights Watch and its mission through fundraising, outreach and advocacy. Human Rights Watch Canada thanks its supporters McKinsey & Co., Sonia and Arthur Labatt, Deluxe, Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian.