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Preview: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

4th Installment Returns to MOPA

Credit: Noujaim Films

Above: "Rafea: Solar Mama" tells the story of a Bedouin mother who challenges sexual stereotypes by going abroad to learn how to be a solar engineers.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando previews the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.


Human Rights Watch wants to use film to make a difference in the world. The organization’s film festival returns to the Museum of Photographic Arts tonight for the fourth year.

In Tanzania albino children are sometimes killed at birth and if they survive they run the risk of being murdered for their body parts. In Jordan, an illiterate woman challenges social barriers by learning how to install solar power in her home.

These might not be the kinds of human rights issues highlighted in the mainstream U.S. media but they are issues you’ll be introduced to at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Most film festivals simply look for well made films, but Human Rights Watch insists on films that are not only well made but also address human rights issues. Jennifer Nedbalsky has been senior program manager at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival for 11 years.

"Once a film has passed through the stages of it’s a film that we like, it’s a film on human rights theme, it’s very well made," Nedbalsky said, "What we then do is we bring the film to our staff, which includes over 300 individuals from all over the world who are very specialized in sort of their knowledge of a human rights issue."

These specialists then verify that the film portrays the subject in a responsible and accurate way, as in "Rafea: Solar Mama." Without an intruding voiceover narration, this graceful documentary shows how a Bedouin mother challenges cultural traditions about women by traveling abroad and training as a solar engineer. The look of pride on Rafea’s face when she turns on a light switch and makes her home the first in the village with solar energy, conveys better than words how education can create life-altering change.

This is precisely the type of film Human Rights Watch wants. The organization wants films that tackle human rights issues, personalize the problems, and then suggest a means of taking action. Human Rights Watch, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, researches and investigates human rights abuses all over the world. Its film festival is a means of getting attention for these issues. and allowing people to really delve into a topic and digest it.

Nedbalsky said, "For example the human rights abuses against albino young people in Tanzania, which is one of the films we’re showing in our festival. When you read about it in the paper or you see a snippet on the news, you don’t really get to know the people being affected by this issue and so what our festival seeks to do is to really put a face to the issue and to the topic and really try to get people to almost get to know these people that are dealing with these horrible situations and then feel moved to take action and create change."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Harry Freeland

"In the Shadow of the Sun" explores the violent prejudice -- mostly based on superstition -- experienced by albinos in Tanzania.

In the "Shadow of the Sun" brings to light in both a very poetic and informative manner, the violent prejudice – based mostly on superstition – that albinos face in Tanzania. The Festival’s films, combined with the post screening discussions, are designed to open people’s minds, and to begin a dialogue that can lead to change and action.

"The post film discussion," Nedbalsky said, "is a critical point for our festival all over the world, it’s one of the most moving experiences to sit through a documentary about someone that’s dealing with struggles in their life and to have a chance to either meet the subject or the filmmaker.

Marco Williams is one of the filmmakers audiences can meet this year. His film is "The Undocumented."

The film focuses on migrant deaths occurring on the border. Williams interviews families in search of missing loved ones, border patrol agents, the Mexican consulate, and an Arizona medical examiner who has seen border deaths jump from about 20 a year in the 90s to more than 200 a year now.

"We have a few shots to get the most accurate cause of death, get these people identified, and get them back to their families."

The topics raised in these films can be difficult and sometimes disturbing so Nedbalsky appreciates that audiences make an effort to attend.

"It’s really important that people are challenging themselves to learn about and share their compassion and learn about things that are happening all around," Nebalsky said.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival hopes that by showcasing these films and these issues and providing a forum for discussion it can make audiences realize that each of us has the power to make a difference.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicks off tonight with "The New Black" at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and continues through Sunday.

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