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By Culturekiosque Staff

NEW YORK, 13 JUNE 2008 - Co-presented by Human Rights Watch and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the 19th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival opens tonight, featuring 19 feature-length films and 13 shorts from 20 countries.

The two-week festival kicks off on 13 June with A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman. In 1973, the coup in Chile sent Dorfman, the author of Death and the Maiden into exile and killed many of his friends. Director Peter Raymont follows him on an emotional journey back to Chile as he recalls that tumultuous period and its consequences. Later in the festival, two films that he wrote with his son Rodrigo, Prisoners in Time (1995) and Dead Line (1998), will be featured. A Promise to the Dead will be followed opening night by To See If I'm Smiling in which six young Israeli women talk about their experiences during their mandatory military service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Director and former Israel Defense Forces soldier Tamar Yarom will present the film.

One of the most shameful legacies of America's past is invoked in Traces of the Trade (22 - 23 June), in which director Katrina Browne and nine relatives discover that their ancestors, the DeWolfs, a respected Northern family, used to be the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Their voyage from quaint Bristol, Rhode Island to slave castles in Ghana and the family's former sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba, unveils the all-encompassing economy of slavery that involved all corners of Northern commercial life, while they confront guilt (or the lack of it), grief and questions of racism and privilege. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, the film offers powerful new perspectives on the black/white divide.

On Thursday, 26 June, Letter to Anna tells the story of the life and tragic death of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006 by a gunman who some believe was an operative of the government of which she was openly critical. In USA vs. Al-Arian, the American government is implicated in this portrait of Palestinian-American activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian and his family during his federal trial on terrorism-related charges.

Letter to Anna
Courtesy of p.s. 72 productions

American cinematographer Ellen Kuras' The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), co-directed by Thavisouk Phrasavath, chronicles 23 years in the life of a Laotian family who escaped the ravages of the Vietnam War to resettle in New York. From Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel comes the world premiere of Project Kashmir, in which the directors, two American friends from opposite sides of the divide, investigate the war in Kashmir and find their friendship tested over deeply rooted religious biases they never had to face in the U.S.

Edet Belberg's The Recruiter (13 - 15 June) takes a look at army recruitment in this country through the story of Louisiana Sergeant Clay Usie, one of the most successful recruiters in the history of the Army.

In the Sundance award-winning The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo (17, 19 June), filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson documents the tragic plight of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo who are raped in the name of war.

The Greatest Silence
Courtesy of Women Make Movies

Africa is also the focus of The Dictator Hunter (15, 16, 17 June) which follows tireless Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody and Chadian political refugee Souleymane Guengueng as they pursue former president Hissène Habré of Chad, under whose regime tens of thousands of citizens were tortured and killed. "If you kill one person, you go to jail. If you kill 40 people, they put you in an insane asylum," says Brody, who will attend the festival screenings. "But if you kill 40,000 people, you get a comfortable exile with a bank account in another country, and that's what we want to change here."

Like A Promise to the Dead, the Chilean film Calle Santa Fe returns to the brutal Pinochet regime and post-revolutionary exile through filmmaker Carmen Castillo's personal journey back to her homeland, which she fled in 1974 after her husband, a leftist leader, was killed. From Brazil comes Maria Ramos's Behave (19, 20, 21 June), which follows the process of minors who have fallen into the hands of Rio de Janeiro's troubled juvenile court system and detention centers.

Calle Santa Fe
Courtesy of Wild Bunch

Middle Eastern offerings include the feature drama Under the Bombs, a tale of a Lebanese woman's search for her young son in the aftermath of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, and This Way Up, where a group of elderly Palestinians learn to live with the everyday changes, restrictions and surprises created when the West Bank Wall is erected just yards from their door. Playing in the same program as This Way Up, Open Heart (24, 25 June) highlights the plight of the Palestinian healthcare system struggling under occupation, while the short Deadly Playground (preceding the Israeli film To See If I'm Smiling) looks at a young boy's fascination with cluster bombs dropped by Israeli forces in south Lebanon in 2006.

This Way Up
Courtesy of Arturo Mio

Other highlights of this year's program include Roger Weisberg's Critical Condition (23, 25, 26 June), which reveals the impact of being sick and uninsured in the United States; American Outrage (14 - 16 June), a portrait of two elderly Shoshone sisters who've been fighting against the U.S. government's attempts to take over their land in Nevada (showing with the Kenyan land-rights short Rightful Place); and China's Stolen Children (21, 22, 24 June), an investigation into how China's one-child policy has led to a boom in stolen children, with an estimated 70,000 children kidnapped there every year and traded on the black market. The spotlight is also on China in the annual HRW photography exhibit in the Film Society's Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery, adjacent to the Walter Reade Theater, in which photographer Kadir van Lohuizen shows the world a side of Beijing that Olympic organizers would prefer to conceal.

Rightful Place
Hakima Abbas and Yobo Rutin
Witness, Kenya/US, 2007
Courtesy of Ryan Kautz at Witness

In partnership with the Adobe Foundation, the festival presents the inaugural edition of Youth Producing Change, a special program of nine short films directed and produced by youth from across the globe. Armed with digital cameras, young people expose human rights issues faced by themselves and their communities. Many of the teenage filmmakers will be in New York to present their work during the festival.

Title Photo above: China's Stolen Children
Courtesy of TrueVision Productions

2008 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
13 - 26 June 2008

Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th Street close to Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY
Tel: (1) 212 875 56 00

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External Links

Nicholas D. Kristof, Columnist: Opinion Editorials for The New York Times

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