Amnesty International has been fighting for human rights for half a century now, and part of the organisation’s birthday celebration is a film festival in Bíó Paradís titled ‘(In)visible.’ The name is visualised on posters with the “in” brushed over, those are stories that in many cases are hidden from the world but the filmmakers felt needed to be brought to light and it corresponds with Amnesty’s stated aim: “To refuse to look away and demand that human rights violations are made visible but not covered up.” The festival lasts from November 3rd to 13th and brings us twelve films. The Grapevine managed to see eight of those before publication.
“My father always said we are part of a nation that has been searching for its lost voice for 150 years. And he said: ‘we’ve come quite close, we just have to reach out and we’ll regain it.’ His generation often tried, but failed time after time. Then, it was our time to try our luck. And for a few weeks we had a feeling of being as close to our target as never before. Today, when I see the blood-smeared walls, I fear that once again it was nothing more than just an illusion.”
This is the disembodied voice of an anonymous blogger in ‘The Green Wave,’ a film about the 2009 Iranian election protests and its aftermath. And it could have been written about most failed revolutions in history (and even some successful ones). But let us recall Amnesty’s motto: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” And the Iranian revolution certainly lit some candles and is seen by many as a catalyst for the Arab spring of 2011.
The film is composed of three main ingredients: interviews, archive footage and animated segments accompanying blog posts. The last part is the film’s biggest strength, the Iranian bloggers were crucial in getting the world to pay attention to the revolt and it overcomes documentary filmmaking’s biggest obstacle—the fact that the biggest atrocities usually take place off camera, while also testifying that even in the blogosphere the Persians infuse their writing with poetry.
Their battle was for democracy, but even if that battle is won, many more await. India is considered the world’s largest democracy, but that is of little help to the 600 million Indians living in poverty. ‘Nero’s Guests’ follows journalist Palagummi Sainath who is investigating the suicide epidemic of farmers: almost 200.000 farmers have taken their own lives in India over the last decade, usually because they have not been able to provide for their families. Sainath is highly critical of India’s media, the fastest growing in the world, which he calls: “A politically free media, but imprisoned by profit.” As an example he points to a fashion festival attracting more than 500 journalists, while he is the only one in the whole country specialising in poverty.
In ‘The Devil’s Operation’ we also meet poor farmers, this time in Peru. Their battle is with companies that value gold over life and want to build mines in mountains that would ruin the farmers source of water—and thereby their livelihood. But that battle is soon overshadowed by more sinister operations, as the big companies employ spies, hire military goons and torture the activist while the government turns a blind eye.
Feminists, sex bloggers and Nazis
The most prominent human rights issue at the festival is feminism, with no less than four films dealing with the issue (including two of the films I didn’t get a chance to screen, ‘Sisters in Law’ and ‘Pink Saris’). ‘The Jungle Radio’ centres on a feminist radio station in Nicaragua. The station’s most controversial show is the ‘Messenger Witch,’ who passes on stories about domestic violence, names and all—with echoes of the controversial Big Sister movement here in Iceland. But even more disorienting are some of the things some of the man say on camera, the rhetoric often going something like this: “…of course you shouldn’t hit your wife—but sometimes you just have to.” Similar rhetoric can be heard in ‘The Mobile Cinema,’ another film about how to bring the message out there. It’s a short film about a longer one, the cinema of the title travels the Congo and shows a documentary about rape—and we see the reactions and discussions that spring from the screenings. In a way it’s about the benefits a festival such as this can bring—but it’s a bit of a shame that the movie they travel with, ‘Fighting The Silence,’ is not being screened.
But while feminism might be prominent, the films are very varied and the most varied—and probably the best—is ‘An Independent Mind.’ The film focuses on the right to free speech, and what makes it so good is the variety of stories. We get a pop star from the Ivory Coast, Burmese comedians, a Chinese sex blogger, an Algerian comic book artist, a Basque rock band, a Guatemalan journalist and a Syrian poet who is currently a refugee in Sweden. And just to make sure the debate afterwards won’t be too cosy, the films ends with historian David Irving, who went to prison for being a holocaust denier—and while you remain very sceptical about his arguments he talks a surprisingly good game.
But going back to the Syrian poet in Sweden, we also have a Swedish director travelling the other way. Peter Löfgren (who will attend the screening in Iceland) discovers the underbelly of the Syrian regime, for a long time upheld as a beacon of light for democracy in the Arabic world, but underneath a crisp image darker secrets have emerged and the regime seems to have been bloodier then most, not to mention the indoctrination of schoolchildren, taught from childhood to revere their leader as a god. On the journey we are accompanied by ‘Travel Advice for Syria,’ courtesy of the American Foreign Ministry, which also gives the film its title.
Most of these films deal with events in the third world. The West is mostly absent, even if the links are explored in some of the films, for example how western capitalism feeds on the poverty of Indian and Peruvian farmers. But ‘Nowhere in Europe’ deals with political refugees from Chechnya who try to emigrate to Europe. And while the West is quick to condemn oppressive regimes it is awfully slow in accepting that those who flee them might deserve some help. The film tells four different stories of refugees in Europe, the most heartbreaking being the one of a couple who get no secure place to live with their disabled daughter and of the journalist (prosecuted for his cooperation with Anna Politkovskaya) who lives in constant limbo, as his case is delayed again and again for months and years on end.
To rebuild, again and again
These films are full of despair and short on happy endings (even if they do happen). But their very existence is a source of hope and the protagonist will continue to try to right the wrongs of this world, or to quote another Iranian blogger: “I will rebuild you, my homeland, even if I have to use the clay of my body to do so. / I will build a pillar for your roof, even if I have to use my bones to do so.”
The Green Wave
Sisters in Law
An Independent Wave
The Devil Operation
Travel Advice for Syria
Nowhere in Europe
The Mobile Cinema
The Jungle Radio
Films shown at 20:00 at Bíó Paradís,
admission 750 ISK/film.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson