Imbuing human rights with the glitz of a film fest

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — What started out 12 years ago as a modest film festival devoted to human rights has grown into the largest festival of its kind in Europe, run under the auspices of one of Europe's leading human rights advocates.

It has been more than 20 years since Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwrite, led a peaceful revolution that brought down Czechoslovakia's communist regime. And it has already been seven years since he retired from politics, serving first as president of Czechoslovakia and then its successor state, the Czech Republic.

Havel keeps a relatively low public profile these days — he lends his name to the festival and helps judge its Vaclav Havel Award, but doesn't otherwise take an active organizing role. Nonetheless, his crusade for human rights has arguably never been more powerful — it has certainly never been broader.

In 1999 just 3,000 people watched a collection of 48 films at the inaugural One World Film Festival. Ten years later the number of films being shown had nearly tripled and the audience size has exploded. Tens of thousands now watch the films during the eight-day festival — which ended Thursday — here in Prague. But now the festival also travels to nearly 30 other cities and towns across the country, and will also be shown in Brussels for the first time this year.

Schools and education programs also will show some of the films, and they are available online. All told more than 100,000 people are expected to view this year's entries.

Dasa Van Der Horst, director of Amnesty International in the Czech Republic, said she is impressed with how the festival has developed over the years.

“In the very beginning there were people, only like young university students, but now you can see more diversity,” she said. “And in 12 years I think you can really see the focus is much broader.”

Van Der Horst says greater social awareness of human rights strengthens society in a still-fledgling democracy

“I think [the festival] is really wonderful and year-by-year better; and the discussions are year-by year better,” she said. “People are not afraid to ask [questions] they are more learned about the subjects ... . I think it's really a great progress.”

This year, the festival's organizers sought to highlight human rights abuses in Iran, given the mass demonstrations and violence following the presidential elections there last year.

But the breadth of this year's entries is truly global and includes topics not traditionally thought of as human rights abuses, such as films about working class families struggling to survive, be it in post-communist Poland, the United States or elsewhere.

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.