The 8th International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva (5-14 March 2010) offered the Nobel Literature Prizewinner J.-M. G. Le Clézio and a reading from his work, the UN Rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak, French star Juliette Binoche and diva Barbara Hendricks for a day of solidarity with Africa, several debates with leading human rights campaigners, and 10 days of films from the afternoon and evenings.
Special topics, where the audience could take part in discussion, included the situation in Iran, the Roms (Gypsies), the Litvinenko case and freedom of expression in Russia, trafficking of women, Burma, Iraq after the elections, rights in China, war crimes trials, Cambodia, Islam in Europe and homosexuality.
I'd have been glad to take part in all of this, but because of shortage of time (how many people can take every afternoon and evening off for 10 days?), I focused on two particular questions:
First, what kind of film is it possible to make about human rights? Given that most subjects will be stories of abuses or, in view of the last two decades of atrocious history spanning Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Burma and West Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to make poetry out of the situation would be barbaric (to misquote Theodore Adorno on Auschwitz), is there any human rights film you would want to watch? And a festival of angry films about atrocity might seem like masochism, of strictly limited appeal (I've only been able to watch Schindler's List once and two years after it appeared -- and this is my academic specialty). At one viewing, when the lights came up, the only people still in their seats were me and a reporter from a Geneva freesheet. Where can such films find common ground with an audience?
Second, what can an audience, and the subjects of such films, make of such an environment of normally passive reception? And how can journalists break out of this framework? Sorry for the jargon, but in fact my concerns can be stated simply: in a world of new media where interactivity (however limited and illusory) is the way most young people use media (Swansea professor William Merrin speaks of me-dia for this new phenomenon of facebook, phone texting, blogs, twitter and multitasking), what are filmmakers doing to respond to the new challenges? And what is the position of the human beings who form the films' subjects? Or that of the audiences?
So I focused on film shows at FIFDH that were part of the Geneva educational programme, bringing in high school students and allowing them to interact with (listen to, question and speak to) the film makers and their subjects.