MOPA to host Human Rights Watch Film Festival
What’s it like to be a reporter in Tijuana? Or a gay man in Uganda? A female athlete in Iraq?
For a third year, the Museum of Photographic Arts will host the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, a traveling showcase of thoughtful and engaging documentaries. Convening a brilliant mix of filmmakers, human rights advocates, and internationally-minded San Diegans, it has become one of my favorite annual events in Balboa Park.
You won’t find a bunch of yawn-inducing talking heads; rather, the Human Rights Watch team reviews hundreds of submissions to select the most compelling documentaries.
Girl-Power in Iraq
“Salaam Dunk” follows a group of female Iraqi basketball players at American University in Sulaimani, Iraq. It presents a different view of Iraq than the troubled, sectarian one we see in the news as young women from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds join together to learn a team sport.
The team plays a game of knock-out at the end of practice. (Photo: David Fine)
Director and Editor David Fine spent more than two years working on the film after he learned about the team from a friend of a friend who had gone to Iraq to teach and write a novel, and ended up becoming the team’s head coach. During a conference call with Fine and Sally Merza, one of the featured players, the filmmaker explained his motivation to tell this story and his experience in post-Saddam Iraq.
“It’s really important that we start to view Iraq differently-- I think that’s key to the country changing and viewing itself differently,” he said. “We wanted to portray the next generation of Iraqi people. There is sincere hope there, people who generally care and want change.”
Piping up on the call with her sweet voice, Merza talked about joining the team during her second year in college. While the school supported female athletes, many of her classmates had trouble convincing their families that they should be able to play.
“When a woman comes [to America] and wants to play sports, she can play--even out on the street with friends. In Iraq, it was nearly impossible for a woman to say she wants to play sports. For most girls, it was harder to start playing basketball than to learn to play.”
Now 23 and living in the United States after coming here as a refugee, Merza said she thinks the film offers powerful messages for audiences both inside and outside of her native country.
“For Iraqis, I hope that they realize that women should have the right to do whatever they want. For people outside Iraq, I hope they realize that things they do on a daily basis that aren’t very hard, people in other parts of the world work really hard to do those things.”
See “Salaam Dunk” on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 3pm, or Monday, Jan. 28, at 10am. Panel discussions with Fine and Merza will follow each of the screenings.
Truth and Justice in Cambodia
The film “Brother Number One” is also screening on Sunday. It follows the story of a man, Rob Hamill, whose brother Kerry disappeared in 1978 while sailing in Southeast Asia. The family later found out that the Khmer Rouge had tortured and killed him. As the victim’s brother travels within Cambodia to trace what happened to his brother, he also learns about the broader, devastating impact of the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian people.
Kerry Hamill on his boat, Foxy Lady. (Photo: Courtesy Human Rights Watch)
James Ross, Legal and Policy Director at Human Rights Watch, spent time in Cambodia while working for a group called Global Rights and has written extensively on human rights in Asia. Ross said he believes the story of “Brother Number One” is so effective because it starts with a story that Westerners can relate to -- a New Zealander named Rob who lost his brother -- before transitioning into deeper issues related to genocide and its aftermath.
“It looks at Rob’s decision to go to Cambodia to testify about the case and to confront the man who was responsible for his brother’s death. There are incredibly compelling scenes as he is confronting him. It looks at brotherly love and questions of forgiveness and the impact on a family. How does one confront really pure evil?”
By featuring scenes from the war crimes tribunal in Cambodia, the film raises questions about reconciliation and the steps that need to be taken for a society to recover after nearly every family has lost someone to genocide.
“There’s a tendency to look at truth-telling and justice. Truth-telling is meant to bring out the story and the history as much as possible so people can agree to facts about what actually happened. Then you have justice which is really about prosecuting those responsible for heinous crimes. Truth-telling is important but sometimes it is adopted in order to exclude justice,” Ross said.
"Human Rights Watch's view as an organization is that it is very important to have justice -- fair justice-- to ensure that those who were responsible for the worst crimes are held to account.”
Ross will lead a more in-depth discussion after the film screens at MOPA on Sunday, Jan. 7, at 7pm.
Know Before You Go
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs Thursday, Jan. 24, through Monday, Jan. 28. Single screening tickets are $4 for MOPA Members; $6 for students, seniors, and military; and $8 for the general public. Festival passes that cover admission to all six films are $15 for MOPA Members; $25 for students, seniors, and military; and $35 for the general public. Buy tickets at the door or online through MOPA's website.