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Motivational Movies
by Mary Nyiri

Filmfest Hamburg partnered with Human Rights Watch (HRW) to bring films that address human rights issues to the public. For two years Hamburg has had a committee that holds an annual fund-raising dinner for HRW. At the dinner they accept donations and provide information about the organization’s work. Nikolaus Hansen, a committee member, explained that one way to promote political discussion is through films. In London and New York, HRW now holds annual film festivals. Here in Germany, they decided to do something similar through the help of local festivals, thus bringing three films to Filmfest Hamburg as part of their efforts to raise awareness. One is a feature film, Dreams of Dustfrom Director R. Laurent Slagues about gold diggers in the Essakane mine located in northeastern Burkina Faso. The other two films are documentaries: M from Director Nicolás Prividera about the “disappeared” of Argentina during military rule and God Grew Tired of Us from Director Christopher Quinn which chronicles three Africans from civil war-torn Sudan who immigrate to the United States.

So what exactly is HRW? It was founded as “Helsinki Watch” in 1978 to support the citizens’ groups that formed, first in Moscow, then throughout the Eastern bloc countries, to monitor government compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Thirty-five nations signed the accords which recognized the borders of Europe as they were at the end of World War II and all nations agreed to promote personal liberties in their own countries. HRW has since grown into a truly international organization, free of government funding, with the following mission:

   Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all. (Excerpt from

A Studio Hamburg Filmtalk evening was devoted to HRW with Eric Goldstein, an expert from HRW Washington representing the organization. Goldstein believes that through films, the general public can learn about human rights abuses around the world and perhaps become motivated to take action. Part of their strategy is to expose such abuses so that the nations or political parties involved are forced by public outrage and pressure to change. He was joined by Nicolás Prividera, the son of a young woman who was “disappeared” in 1976 when Argentina was under military rule. Prividera’s search for what happened to his mother is documented in his film entitled M. Now he is traveling the world to talk about how at least 14,000 people “disappeared”, just like his mother, from 1976 to 1983.

Many people who survived still will not talk about what happened. After democracy was reestablished, prosecutors began trying members of the military juntas for abductions, killings and torture, but the trials and sentencing of junta leaders, and military and police officers, led to a violent military backlash. For years, the amnesty laws blocked the prosecutions of crimes committed under the military dictatorship except for rape and the theft of babies born to mothers who had “disappeared,” crimes specifically exempted from the due obedience law. In 2001, however, Federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo reopened a case against two police agents accused of the torture and disappearance in 1978 of a Chilean-Argentine couple. In a landmark ruling that opened the gates to more such prosecutions, Judge Cavallo held the amnesty laws to be unconstitutional. HRW has been regularly reporting on the progress of such prosecutions, details of which can be read on their website.

Human rights issues around the world are so diverse and extreme it would be impossible for any one organization to address them all. But HRW does try to speak out about the worst abuses and reaching out through films is one of the ways the organization believes it can reach a much wider audience. For instance, seeing dusty gold diggers emerge from holes in the ground with their sacks of rocks in Dreams of Dust dramatizes the plight of so many in a way that an essay could never do. Such films can also be used to further causes of those portrayed and perhaps aid others who suffer from the same circumstances. In the case of one of the immigrants featured in God Grew Tired of Us, John Dau, after he established himself with work and education, successfully founded the John Dau Sudan Foundation and serves as the director of this project which is raising funds to complete the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in Duk County, Sudan as well other projects to improve healthcare and education in southern Sudan. They also work to help educate Lost Boys in Africa. Screenings of this film will hopefully bring more donations to his foundation.

Knowledge is power and in the case of films that draw our attention to human rights issues, that knowledge can be turned into the power to make a difference