By Mukul Khurana
The 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival is in town and opened on Thursday, January 21 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. This is not the first year for this kind of event, but the care taken in the selection of films and the scheduling seems to point to a well thought out experience. Credit goes to the collaboration between Paolo Zuniga of MOPA and Andrea Holley of Human Rights Watch (not to mention the excellent artists selected for the 2016 festival).
The organization known as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been around for almost four decades now. Initially, this American NGO focused on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Based in New York City (aptly in the Empire State Building), HRW now attempts to cover the whole world without an American/Western bias. For history buffs, HRW was formerly called Helsinki Watch. They now have offices in major cities around the world.
Originally, HRW started with the tactic of “naming and shaming.” As is clear from their modus operandi, this is still a tactic used in regards to exposing violations. They are credited with contributing to the democratic change in the late 1980s in Eastern Europe. In the 80s, they also turned in other directions—those became known as Americas Watch (1981), Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989). These separate entities united under the Human Rights Watch name in 1988.
On a very basic level, HRW is against capital punishment, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and is for freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Cases are researched and reported. There is only one other international human rights organization of a similar stature and bent—Amnesty International.
Amnesty International (AI), however, is membership driven. The main advocacy tool of AI is member mobilization. HRW researches and publishes reports. AI lobbies and writes detailed reports, but it also focuses on letter-writing campaigns, adopting individuals as “prisoners of conscience” and lobbies for their release. Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, openly lobbies for specific actions for governments to take against human rights offenders, including naming specific individuals for arrest, or for sanctions to be levied against certain countries.
The Times of London recently stated that Human Rights Watch had “eclipsed” Amnesty International. According to The Times, HRW depends on wealthy donors who like to see the organization’s reports make headlines. However, HRW has also been criticized by national governments, other NGOs, and by critics of still being influenced by the agendas of U.S. foreign policy. This background information was gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Human Rights Watch official website.
The background of HRC provides a useful context in understanding where their spotlight is shining in 2016. It might have made more sense to kick off the festival with the more controversial BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION (Documentary UK 2015) but that would have been too easy. This festival lineup eases us into various aspects of human rights around the world. I AM SUN MU (Documentary 2015 UK) and (T)ERROR (Documentary 2015 USA) were the first screenings.
I AM SUN MU starts our journey in Asia–North Korea, South Korea, and China to be exact. This is not a part of the world we are familiar with despite the “joke” dimension of a horribly repressive dictatorship. As Americans, we vaguely remember the Korean War. That war gave us North and South Korea. It also gave us a country with a fanatical hatred of “American Imperialism.” But it also gave us a bastion in South Korea.
Sun Mu means “no boundaries” in Korean. An artist, who defected from his native North Korea to South Korea, chose this new name to depict the transition. The problem: North and South Korea are diametrically opposed political systems existing side by side–and not without tension. The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separates a communist dictatorship in the north from a capitalist state to the south.
Sun Mu (as mentioned, not his real name) grew up in North Korea. He left North Korea by way of China and Laos to find his way into South Korea in order to seek refuge. He didn’t leave due to political ideology however. He left because he was “always hungry.” And that is the crux of the matter. North Korea’s regime is implicated in starving, torturing, and killing its own citizens. John Sifton (Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch) says that “North Korea’s situation is as dire as Syria, but for more than 60 years, the world community has managed to somehow neglect the scope…”
The story that director Adam Sjoberg (writer and director) so skillfully pursues is a different one. Interested in the defector community, he follows Sun Mu on a journey dealing with artistic freedom and the issue of the freedom to display art. Within that theme, the larger issue of human rights is subtly explored.
What does it mean when a North Korean artist can freely display his remarkable but highly controversial art in South Korea? How does that change when a government similar in its repression but “40 years ahead” (China) allows him to show his work in Beijing? And how does that change when the art exhibition isn’t allowed to proceed as a favor to the North Korean government?
I AM SUN MU uses a visual narrative form that goes beyond “normal” film making—and how could it be otherwise? Adam Sjoberg comes from a photographer’s sensibility. Sun Mu comes at the whole project as a visual artist.
Sun Mu cannot have his face uncovered as that would pose a great risk to the defector. To make up for that fact, he is given direction of the camera a lot of the time. Furthermore, much of the animation comes under the artist’s care. Technology is upending the way things used to be. While we say that North Korea is a “closed” society, people have access to what’s going on outside (albeit not openly) to a larger degree than prior years. And, markets are opening up all over the world.
In contrast to the West Coast Premiere of I AM SUN MU, the San Diego Premiere of (T)ERROR (Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe) clearly shows us that human rights isn’t a concept happening half a world away but rather is a reality for us Americans as well. We can smugly point at the unenlightened policies of a communist dictatorship, but what if we choose informants and enemies on our shores based on economic coercion and ethnic/religious prejudices? What if the prevailing culture after 9/11 in the United States has not been conducive to rational policy making? What happens to human rights when we don’t follow our own rules of engagement and our long held American values?
Saeed “Shariff” Torres is an FBI informant. He shadows and informs on Muslim-Americans. On the basis of a suspected jihadist he is asked to befriend, Shariff and the filmmakers of another documentary tell the unlikely story of modern political intrigue. Is it glamorous? Not really.
Saeed “Shariff” Torres was involved with the Black Panthers in the late 60s. In the process, he got into trouble with the government. Fast forward a few decades and Shariff finds himself on the other side of the law. He is now a FBI informant providing information about Muslim-American suspects—though he himself is Muslim—because he is an American first … In an incredibly “grey” world, a gritty and not so glamorous man tries to eke out a living by providing information about our new targets since 9/11—Muslim-Americans.
(T)ERROR begins slowly enough by drawing a portrait of a man passionate about two things: his son and cooking (baking to be more specific). He wants to make cupcakes, but meanwhile makes money by taking on assignments for the FBI. Because he turned to the Muslim faith during the Civil Rights era, he has a natural “in” into the Muslim mosque landscape in the U.S.
He shadows and informs on Muslims and Muslim-Americans—this time of Middle-Eastern descent mainly. His justification is that he needs the money and that this “new breed” is not “really Islamic.” Regardless of where we stand on those issues, it is clear that we have fallen “down the rabbit hole” of espionage and counter-espionage. Are we in the realm of the legal and possible or are we now in territory known as “entrapment?”
(T)ERROR makes use of texting between Shariff and Khalifah (Khalifah being the target of the sting operation) to move the narrative forward. Interestingly, he isn’t of a Middle-Eastern but rather is a white convert to Islam. He comes in the cross hairs all the same.
What do the documentaries I AM SUN MU and (T)ERROR have in common besides the fact that they are the first two films presented at the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival? The real important questions came up during the Q & A: When asked what the filming was like on the opening day of the exhibition in Beijing, Adam Sjoberg responded with, “The exhibition was going to get shut down–it wasn’t a question of if but rather when–during the day or after the day was over…”
He felt that he had two responsibilities—the film crew and Sun Mu. Once the immediate danger to Sun Mu was over (when he and the family left China), the danger shifted to the Chinese artists and curator Liang supporting the exhibition/project. All these people put their lives and careers on the line. “The level of fear was immense!”
Now, the issues are different. The exhibition was shut down. The artwork was placed in storage under police custody. Eventually, it was released to the curator. How do we get the artwork out of China safely? What are the implications of using the film to replicate artwork and thus distribute the artwork if need be? More important—what are the details and narratives of yet untold stories that go beyond artistic freedom? How do we tell those stories? How far can we go in showing shocking and graphic detail?
For the Q & A on (T)ERROR, a different problem presented itself. Andrea Prasow (Deputy Washington Director, Human Rights watch) was grounded in Washington D.C. due to a major snowstorm. Luckily, the author of the “Illusions of Justice” report was available by Skype to interact with the local audience.
Since 9/11, troubling patterns have been emerging—resources are being diverted toward entrapment type programs rather than real counter terrorism efforts. Andrea pointed to a “ramping up of the level of fear” in order to push a new political agenda. Among other negative outcomes, the Muslim-American community might be encouraged to not cooperate with governmental authorities. That would be a great loss to fighting real terrorist activities.
The exploration of issues around informants and entrapment ultimately asks our system of justice to make the defendant prove that he or she was not going to do something (i.e. guilty until proven innocent). That is against the very essence of American justice. When law and order become more important than justice, we have a problem.
More information can be found at www.MOPA.org/hrwff