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Imbuing human rights with the glitz of a film fest

Vaclav Havel's human rights film festival has its biggest year yet.

The winner of this year's best film award was “Enemies of the People.” Despite the well-documented history of the genocide of 2 million Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, this film manages to break new ground with a series of interviews with former Khmer Rouge insiders.

The film “The Sun Behind the Clouds,” which chronicles the plight of Tibet's struggle for freedom from Chinese rule, won the Vaclav Havel Award as the film that makes the most significant contribution to human rights awareness.

And Polish filmmaker Pawel Lozinski won best director for “Chemo,” which shows the lives of cancer patients under-going chemotherapy in a Warsaw clinic.

Virtually all of the films are poignant illustrations of people's struggles to live in peace and dignity. The plight of the Roma, or Gypsies, is commonly associated with Eastern Europe. But “Me, My Gypsy Family and Woody Allen” is a moving story of a Gypsy family in Italy that suffers constant scorn from society and harassment by the authorities, despite their efforts to get along. While filming those scenes, the 19-year-old filmmaker, Laura Halilovic, is fighting off pressure from her family to get married. She believes she can make it as a filmmaker — if only Woody Allen would answer her letters.

Another worrisome development in parts of Europe is the rise of right-wing extremist groups. "Heated Blood" is a chilling account of violent extremists in Serbia and how they are encouraged by the Orthodox Church.

Czech photographer Ondrej Besperat unwittingly got caught up in the maelstrom in 2008 when he was covering a protest in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

“Yes, I got beaten up there in front of the American Embassy,” he said. “For me the movie was a way to learn more about a problem I was working on two years ago. But at the time I was unprepared for what I encountered.”

Klara Laurencikova is working inside the education ministry to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. She had high praise for the film festival and said it is a message Czech society needs to hear.

“I very much admire the organizers of this film festival,” she said, “because the documentaries about human rights are very important for our society, the Czech Republic and for people who still don't feel enough respect and are not so tolerant of others.”

Given the international scope of the entries, that appears to be a message that transcends borders.