In this edition of the Arts we meet some of the guests at this year’s One World international festival of human rights documentaries in Prague, including an Oscar-nominee from the jury, the winner of the main competition and the recipient of the Václav Havel award.
“The aim of the One World documentary film festival is definitely to show interesting films that we have gathered over the last year, and also to create a debate platform for the audience that come to the screenings, where they have a chance to talk to the directors and also experts on certain topics.”
Among the dozens of guests who attended the festival in Prague over the last week and a half was NC Heiken, the American director of Kimjongilia, which features occasionally shocking testimonies from defectors from North Korea. Getting them to open up didn’t prove difficult, she says.
“I just began networking and saying I’m making this film, I’m looking for anyone who wants to tell a story, I’m ready to listen. It was this back and forth vetting, they would vet me, and since I had been at it for such a long time they trusted me. And surprisingly a number of people were very anxious to talk. They really, really wanted to tell their stories, because they felt that nobody knew what was going on.”
“One of the people in my film, his name is Kim Seong Min, a defector who runs a radio station in Seoul that broadcasts to North Korea…he has been a judge at the One World, I think it was three years ago. He said they went out for dinner and everyone agreed, he said with this bitter laugh, that North Korea is the worst place on Earth [laughs]. I have to agree with him, from the stories that my people told me, that is the sad truth.”
In 2009 Danish director Anders Ostergaard was at One World with his film Burma VJ, which was later nominated for an Oscar. This year he was back as a member of the main jury.
“It’s a very nice festival. I really enjoyed my time here, there was a very keen audience, a great vibe, and a nice combination of scope and a certain intimacy as a guest, which is also nice.”
Can human rights documentaries impact the real world, and change things?
“If they’re good. If they’re good, they can. They have to be good films. It’s not enough that they’re about the right issues. If they’re good films they will talk to a lot of people who may not have been interested before. It’s very important that the films get out of the ghetto, so to speak, and speak to people who are not necessarily of the same opinion as you are yourself as a filmmaker. You have to talk to the world outside your own environment.”
“Well, it’s a bit like I said before, it has to transcend the issue, it has to be more than the issue. It’s great that it’s political and that it has a purpose and an issue, but it must have artistic qualities in order to grip the audience, beyond the special interests.”
Ostergaard and the other jurors gave the best film prize to Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath for their film Enemies of the People. It is a very powerful documentary about the latter’s 10-year quest to speak to former members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who killed his father and other family members when Thet was just a boy. What did winning One World’s main prize meant to Lemkin?
“I think for both me and Sambath it really means an awful lot, because this is a really important festival in the whole world, everybody knows that it highlights the issues of human rights and solidarity and what audiences can do when they watch films, and so on and so forth. We really feel that to be have been honoured in this way by this film festival is very moving, and a great privilege.”
This year’s Václav Havel award for advancing human rights issues went to another powerful documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds, which records 2008’s riots against Chinese rule in Tibet, and growing frustration among young Tibetans with the Dalai Lama’s conciliatory approach in the face of Chinese repression. I spoke to co-director Tenzing Sonam shortly after he received the prize from the man who headed the Velvet Revolution.
“Václav Havel is an international symbol of human rights and democracy, and he’s also a long-time supporter of the Tibetan cause. He’s somebody I’ve known about for a long time, somebody I admire. So to actually receive this award from him means a great deal to me. And I think for Tibetan people as well it will really have a special significance.”
Do you think human rights documentaries can have an impact in the real world?
“I think so, absolutely. In fact, President Havel was just telling us a story of how he awarded a Burmese film the Havel award about three years ago. Then he went to Washington and presented a copy of it to President Bush, who saw the film. And apparently a lot of American politicians then got to see the film. According to the filmmaker, who later wrote a letter to Mr Havel, it really affected policy changes in Washington. That’s an amazing example, I don’t think all films have that kind of an impact, but certainly I think films can have an impact. Definitely.”
The Prague leg of One World came to a close on Thursday night. But a smaller version of the international festival of human rights documentaries is now moving on to another 29 cities and towns in the Czech Republic.
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