An Interview with John Biaggi, Director of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

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The 20th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) takes place in New York from June 11 to June 25. POV’s Executive Director Simon Kilmurry took the opportunity to ask John Biaggi, the director of the festival, about the history of the festival and what’s on slate for this year. Check out HRWIFF’s website to see the full schedule of films.

Simon Kilmurry: This year Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is presenting its 20th edition of the festival. Congratulations on reaching that landmark! Can you tell us how the festival was founded and how it has evolved over the years?

John Biaggi
John H. Biaggi: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival was created by Human Rights Watch in 1988 and had a year hiatus in ’89, hence our 20th Anniversary year in 2009. The impetus for creating the festival was that 1988 marked the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and from the perspective of Human Rights Watch, it seemed that few people outside the human rights community (which was small back then) knew what the declaration was. The thinking was: film was (and remains) the dominant media form, so the best way to educate and activate the general public to human rights was through a film festival. Back then, this was quite a forward-thinking, gutsy endeavor. It has proven to also be a very fruitful decision, as the festival has grown and blossomed, and certainly played a strong role in launching many human rights films and raising awareness of human rights among a broad audience worldwide.

20th Human Rights International Film Festival

Simon: What have been some particular highlights of the past 20 years?

John: Wow, there have been so many. Here are some of them: hosting the films of SaGA, the Sarajevan film group, in 1994, who brought it to the festival while the war was still raging; presenting the world premiere of Calling the Ghosts in 1996, a seminal film on rape as a tool of war in the Bosnian War; closing night in 1999 when we screened Strike by Sergei Eisenstein with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra; hosting a Q&A in 2000 with legendary Black Panthers Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Jamal Joseph, following the screening of Public Enemy by Jens Meurer; the festival’s remarkable moment as a distributor of the film Jung: In the Land of the Mujaheddin, on the heels of 9/11/2001 — we made the film available to hundreds of organizations, theaters, museums and NGOs to screen and helped put a human face to the people of Afghanistan; the unprecedented crowds and feeling of togetherness at the festival for the 2002 edition, when a post-9/11 America wanted to learn more about the wider world — that year the festival broke the attendance record at the Walter Reade Theater, a milestone that still stands today; that same year, and most fitting for the time — listening to Ziggy Marley sing his father’s “Redemption Song” on the Walter Reade stage after the screening of Life and Debt by Stephanie Black; sitting down to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in London with three generations of Van Peebles (Melvin, Mario and Mario’s son whose name escapes me) when we showcased Baadasssss! at our 2005 London festival; listening to Michael Gallagher speak so movingly and with such a universal appeal to justice and peace, at our Benefit Night in 2005 following the screening of OMAGH, the dramatic film about his personal tragedy in the Northern Ireland conflict; in 2007, meeting the incredibly brave Malalai Joya, the Afghan women’s rights activist and politician who spoke out, defying the warlords in her country — whose story is captured in the film Enemies of Happiness by Eva Mulvad.


Simon: How do you choose films to feature, and in your opinion what makes a film a good fit for HRWIFF?

John: How we choose the films is always a multi-tiered endeavor. First, the films have to be centrally about human rights. They have to then be factually accurate, and all the films we consider that make it to the final round for consideration are screened by a Human Rights Watch expert on the themes in the film. The films have to be compelling, and have a strong arc — good editing is key. What makes a film a good fit, in addition to the above criteria, is if the film presents important current issues of human rights, or if it looks at an ongoing human rights issue — which we may have covered in past festivals — in a new light or from a different perspective.

Simon: As festival director, what’s your vision for the future of the festival?

John: As director, I will continue to search out those human rights issues that Human Rights Watch is most concerned with and working on currently. In this way, I hope to reinforce the important work HRW is doing, and to give those particular human rights issues greater exposure in ways our reports can’t. At the same time, the festival is an excellent arena in which to present human rights concerns that are ahead on the horizon (environmental human rights are one of these growing concerns).

Simon: Many of these films address contemporary human rights crises. Can you talk about some examples of films that have made a difference?

John: The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo by Lisa Jackson is a recent film we showcased that has made tremendous impact on this human rights situation. Lisa took her film and had it screened for members of the British Parliament, the United States Congress, the UN; she’s also screened the film in the Congo for key ministers and politicians. The film helped bring a higher profile to this issue, particularly for those in power. Resolution1820 was passed by the UN this past June declaring “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” which is a major advancement on this issue. This is the kind of impact we see with more and more of the films we showcase in the festival, and this is what film can do.

Simon: When people see these films, they often leave the theater and want to get involved in the issue. How can people best get involved?

John: Yes, this is one of the major objectives of the festival and certainly of why filmmakers made their particular films. It is also a central reason why we try and invite — as our guests — all the filmmakers to each festival, and usually come quite close to this goal. In this way the filmmakers can give audiences exact answers to what they can do. In addition, independent film websites have become far more sophisticated in the past five years, and almost all the films we showcase now have compelling websites, including information and links on how someone can take direct action to help.
Simon: Do these films that are showcased at the festival ever get used in HRW’s other work?
John: The films are often used to present our work in other cities in the world, or as part of important conferences on the issues in the film, where we might add our HRW experts for a post-film discussion. In these ways, the films are used strategically to further the goals of our work, and to affect policy.

Simon: HRWIFF has a strong traveling and international component. Tell us about how that works. Are there differences between how films are received in different countries?

John: The traveling festival is a very successful component of our festival. It is strictly for North America (due to language, film rights and staff time issues) and travels from September through May to over 40 sites — mostly universities, colleges and museums. The films are chosen from our London and New York festivals. We estimate that the entire traveling festival reaches 40,000 people each season.

Simon: Which films are you particularly excited about presenting at this year’s festival?

John: This year, befitting our 20th Anniversary, we are opening the festival with a film on the International Criminal Court (ICC) — The Reckoning (which will air on POV on July 14, 2009) by Pamela Yates. The importance of the success of the ICC for human rights worldwide, and for the prosecution of major violators of human rights, cannot be overstated. So we are highlighting the ICC and the issues surrounding the court.

An interesting note this year: we have six filmmakers who are returning with films to the festival for a second, third, even fourth time. This is Pamela Yates‘ fourth film in the festival. Our benefit night film, Eden is West, is filmmaker Costa Gavras‘s third film in the festival, and our Nestor Almendros Awardee this year, Anne Aghion, returns for a third time as well with the remarkable, moving film My Neighbor, My Killer. Fabrizio Lazzaretti brings his second film to the festival, the beautifully told Back Home Tommorrow, and the Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) are back for their second closing night slot at the festival, with their wonderfully entertaining and highly effective film The Yes Men Save the World.

Simon: How do you balance the need to educate audiences about very serious issues and the need to entertain them — after all, these are movies?

John: This is a good question, and one that we think of often. I would say that audiences have evolved on this front, people are more interested in human rights issues then ever before and you see this reflected in more big Hollywood films made on human rights concerns. Outside of Hollywood, the sophistication of human rights films has continued to rise, with top level dramas from Europe and other continents that go on to win awards and have theatrical lives worldwide. Both of these phenomena point to the fact that human rights as a topic is not seen in the old light of something too ‘down’ or heavy for audiences to involve themselves in. On the other hand, we are always excited when we see a strong human rights film that successfully employs humor to deliver a powerful story and message. This is one of the hardest feats a filmmaker can tackle in my opinion, and when successful, it also makes for a particularly potent film with wide appeal.

Simon Kilmurry
Simon Kilmurry
Simon served as chief operating officer of American Documentary for six years before assuming the role of executive director in Fall 2006. Since joining AmDoc in 1999, he has played a key role in helping to set strategic direction for the organization and implementing new initiatives, including the Diverse Voices Project, POV's co-production initiative in support of emerging filmmakers; POV's Borders, PBS' Webby Award-winning online series; and True Lives, a second-run series for independent documentaries on public television. In addition, he worked to secure pioneering partnerships with both Netflix and Docurama to expand the distribution opportunities for POV filmmakers and enhance branding for POV Previously, Simon was associate director at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit literary arts and education organization and publisher, where he is now a member of the board of directors. He has also served as a board member and treasurer for Elders Share the Arts and East Harlem Block Schools, and as an informal advisor and funding panel member for other organizations including the New York City Center for Arts Education, the Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers and New York State Council on the Arts. Simon attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Columbia University Business School's Institute for Not-for-Profit Management.