Film Festivals

Camera as Witness

1 Oct , 2007  

Written by Hermine Muskat | Posted by:

A field report from the 2007 United Nations Association Traveling Human Rights Film Festival in Cambridge.
Ten years ago, Jasmina Bojic decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights by starting a film festival.  Today, the festival has grown from an international showcase based in Stanford, to an eight-city traveling festival that helps illustrate the broad agenda of the United Nations.

Cambridge hosted the traveling festival for its sixth year, September 27-30 at the Brattle Theater.  Erica Sanger, festival coordinator and head of the United Nations Association of Greater Boston, said the purpose is to raise the level of dialogue between the projects of the United Nations and the larger community.  Films like these, she said, “capture the lives of people throughout the world and force us to question what we can do about what we have just seen.”

Bojic echoed these sentiments in her opening remarks on Friday night.  “I believe that the power of images can influence people to think about what’s happening in the world,” she said.  “They can bridge cultures and fight our worst enemy, ignorance.”  She also announced that Hidden Wounds, made by Boston filmmaker Iris Adler, would screen at the 10th UN Festival to be held at Stanford October 24-28.

Hidden Wounds profiles the struggles of three Massachusetts veterans of the Iraq war and earned Adler a 30th annual Boston/New England Emmy.  There is a good chance that it will be part of the UN festival in Cambridge next year.  Adler’s work includes the short film Just Married:  The Epic Battle Over Gay Marriage

The festival’s 15 films were organized in the following subcategories:  refugees, short films from around the world, victims, perpetrators and bystanders, rebuilding after the aftermath, a place to call home, and women’s voices.  Bojic conducted post-film discussions with three North American filmmakers present with their films at this weekend’s festival.

The opening night film, The Blood of the Yingzhou District, put a human face on China’s 75,000 children orphaned by AIDS.  An informative and lively discussion led by Joan Kaufman, director of the AIDS public policy program and the JFK School of Government at Harvard, followed the screening.  

Bystander is John Reilly’s exploration of why some people stand by in the face of atrocities (as bystanders) while others choose instead to speak out, often at risk to their own lives.  The film documents the moral courage of three men who stood up and intervened in attempts to thwart the mass murder of innocents in My Lai, Rwanda, and WWII.  All three are seemingly ordinary people, people we would not expect to display physical and moral courage.  Reilly’s film summarizes painstaking research on war crimes and genocides during the past century. 

Reilly is a stock trader in New York City who received his MFA in creative writing from NYU.  He is currently working on a screenplay.  Bystander is his first film.  After the screening, Reilly noted that with war and human rights violations increasingly coming into our livings rooms and our collective consciousness, the number of bystanders is increasing.  He cited the current genocide in Darfur as a glaring example of the bystander phenomenon.

“I believe that this is where it begins… in the classroom,” says an Israeli student in James Cullingham’s Lessons of Fear.  The film looks carefully at the lives of students and teachers in Israeli and Palestinian schools and at the difficulties they face when challenged by segregation, propaganda and a lifetime legacy of hatred towards one another.

As a young man, Cullingham, a professor in broadcast journalism at Toronto’s Seneca College, worked on a kibbutz in Israel.  When a friend married an Israeli, he became intrigued with what children in Israel and the Palestinian Authority were being taught about each other.  In the film, he suggests that the tendency to polarize the conflict obscures the fact that there are people on both sides trying to understand and reconcile historical and seemingly irreconcilable difference.  Before the screening he said, “If people are patient enough to watch the film and put aside whatever preconceived ideas they have one way or another, what you’ll hear are many sensible people who have legitimate concerns and sound ideas.” 

Lessons in Fear has been shown to Israelis and Palestinians and at conferences concerned with peace education and reconciliation.  Cullingham hopes it will be used at secondary and post secondary schools to promote increased dialogue and understanding.  During the Q&A, Cullingham spoke of conciliatory peacemaking efforts that are in progress in Israel and the Palestinian territories.  He pointed to the Israeli Palestine Center for Research and Information launched in 1988 as an example.

His film moved audience members.  “I feel that Cullingham not only engages while telling us something we do not know but he also conveys the ordinary in an extraordinary way," said Marjorie Saunders, a professor of humanities at Massachusetts Bay Community College.  "His account of the Israeli-Palestinian educational and cultural divide is both factual and poetic.”  

Janet Goldwater and Barbara Attie’s Rosita documents the struggle of two illiterate parents working to secure a legal therapeutic abortion for their nine-year-old daughter, Rosa.  Her pregnancy is the result of rape.  The parents’ battle with the governments of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, with the medical establishment, and the Catholic Church is successful.  The child has an abortion.  But afterwards, Nicaragua’s Archbishop excommunicates everyone he feels was complicit.  The repercussions of Rosa’s story have been felt in Latin America and Europe.

Audience members expressed concern about young Rosa.  Goldwater told the audience that after Rosita’s completion, legislation in Nicaragua has further restricted a woman’s right to a therapeutic abortion.  “The window to reproductive rights has closed,” she said.

Currently living in Philadelphia, Goldwater received an MFA at Boston University, taught at the Art Institute of Boston and lived in Boston for several years.  She and Barbara Attie have worked collaboratively for 17 years and have been longtime activists for women’s reproductive health.  The filmmakers that inspire Goldwater are those who build community relationships while filming so both filmmaker and film become advocates for the people and the communities they represent.

Goldwater and Attie are currently directing Goundo’s Daughter, a film about a mother in Philadelphia fighting immigration authorities and deportation to Mali because her two-year-old daughter would almost certainly suffer clitoral excision. 

Cambridge filmmaker Kim Romano (director of Muriel) saw a screening of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars about a group of refugee musicians living in Guinea through civil war.  She left the film feeling happy, despite the horrible depictions of brutality.  “The power of music and community to manage tragedy was beautifully portrayed,” she explained.  “You care about the characters and their joyful music is delightful.”  She was inspired by how the filmmaker caught unexpected moments.  “It’s the hope of every documentarian,” she said. 

Full details about the films can be found on the Global Voices website,

Full details about the films can be found on the Global Voices website,