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Human Rights Film Festival Opens

Advocacy organization gives challenging rights issues a public airing. WINDOW ON THE WORLD

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 1991


TELEVISION coverage of the Gulf war, with its instant images of high-tech combat and controversial questions of censorship and responsibility, sparked a new awareness of the complex role played by visual media in today's world. This month, a major film event in New York is spotlighting the importance of film and video as tools for exploring human-rights issues in countries around the globe - issues that cry out for attention and understanding even when dramatic incidents like the Tiananmen Square massacre and the demise of the Berlin Wall are not propelling them into front-page reports.

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Billed as the largest American event of its kind, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is remarkably diverse in the topics it examines and the countries it represents.

Many of its offerings take sides on the subjects they deal with, worrying less about ``balance'' than about airing views usually suppressed or marginalized in movie theaters and TV programming.

A number of the 36 entries also take unconventional approaches to film and video, looking for new forms of expression as well as new ideas on human rights.

A good example of such unconventional work is How Nice To See You Alive, by Lucia Murat, a Brazilian journalist who was imprisoned and tortured under her country's military government during the 1970s. Much of the film consists of videotaped interviews with eight women who underwent similar ordeals. These are framed by fictional scenes with actress Irene Ravache as a torture victim whose experiences, although now in the past, haunt her with maddening intensity.

There are no displays of violence in the picture, only recollections by women whose plunge into horror has left them anguished yet surprisingly resilient, as they think back on their lives and search for the meanings of what they endured. The film's mixture of fact and fiction demonstrates that there is no ``standard'' or ``correct'' way of probing such troubling material, but that any effective means must be employed to convey its impact and urgency. ``How Nice To See You Alive'' is distributed by the New York organization Women Make Movies, and deserves to be widely seen.

An even more startling mix of images is found in Introduction to the End of an Argument, a video by Elia Suleiman and Jayce Salloum that mingles pop-culture products from Europe, the United States, and Israel - revealing how consistently and outrageously much of the world has demonized Arab culture and history in media that have a pervasive influence on popular thought. Using old movies, cartoons, TV clips, pop songs, and similar artifacts, the video shows how Westerners and others are alway s imposing their own narratives on the Middle East, in fiction and nonfiction alike, and how this constant stream of simplistic material tends to merge into a blurry but insidious consensus that Arabs are somehow less worthy and civilized than ``the rest of us,'' whoever ``us'' may happen to be.