Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Case for Human Rights

There is one word I use to describe films like those at festivals like the Human Rights Film Festival 2008 : “worthy”. This is damning with faint praise, in that I expect the message to be very important and the spirit to be earnest, but that very same purpose can also blind the film-makers – and, at times, the audience – to the flaws of the movie.

The two short films I attended were both fascinating, in that they showed ways of life and international issues that I, for one, am not all too familiar with.

Bowling for Zimbabwe was, unsurprisingly, a brief documentary on current life in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, and interviewed several ordinary and extraordinary Zimbabweans. While the film was generally about Zimbabwe, overall, the film lacked cohesion as it literally was just a lot of “this is my life” and “these are some statistics” kind of talk with no narrative to help move from one person to the next.

The feature film though was an hour-long documentary called the Dictator Hunter. Once the film had finished, it was refreshing to hear one of the discussion panel say the film was a bit pompous, as it accurately summed up the excesses of the film. There was an entirely fabricated moment of “spontaneous” grief as widows swamped the "star", lawyer Reed Brody, on the burial site of their husbands, a site the film intoned the women had never visited before (for over 15 years…), that had my sceptical eyebrow in maximum lift mode, and just felt like a cheap emotional ploy on the part of the film makers.

For the most part though, we followed the first part of the journey to bring a former President of Chad, Hissène Habré, to trial (putting someone before a court, in my opinion at least, is never a guarantee of bringing someone to justice, so I prefer not to use the term the movie bandied about so happily), as Belgium asked for his extradition only to be met by the bureaucracy and blame-avoiding Senegalese government. In the end, a trial date was set, but the verdict is expected a few years from now.

We were also introduced to some of Habré’s victims. One in particular struck a chord with the audience when, to an American Congressman, he asked the question: how can governments, who have signed treaties upholding basic human rights and freedoms for individuals then fail to protect civilians or even to protest against inhumane treatment? The Congressman’s response showed that while the world of Human Rights is politics, not all politics is Human Rights.

While one never doubted Brody’s conviction or passion, and one applauded his drive and action, it became apparent that one of the man’s motivators was not just a sense of justice and righteous indignation but also a fairly healthy ego. It was a shame that the self-indulgence detracted from the cause, removing fact and the pursuit of justice for moments of hubris, attempting to humanising the hunter when, really, the film was not about him at all.

So yes, both the films were “worthy”. The quick discussion afterwards added extra context to the films, which to me showed that the films were missing some vital pieces of information, though perhaps that was intentional if the idea was to show them in this format.

Verdict: Very worthy films, and definitely interesting, but flawed and, in both cases, the stories are not yet finished. Five scalps out of ten.

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