Filmmakers struggle to tell stories of human rights

They scrimped. They scrounged. They "sold." And they went on filming. Inspired by their heroic subjects, these documentary filmmakers kept recording the unrecorded stories that they hope will promote worldwide discussions.

When the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival's 12th season opened in Boston earlier this month, some of the participants recalled the tribulations and triumphs of working outside the edge of public acceptance.

In "Daring to Resist," filmmakers Martha Lubell and Barbara Attie explore why some people risk their lives to save others. The story is told through the lives of three teenage Jewish girls who fought Nazi genocide.

For "Homeland," Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson spent three years tracing the struggle of native Americans at Pine Ridge (S.D.) Reservation to overcome a grim heritage of unemployment and alcoholism. In "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends but the Mountains," Kevin McKiernan spotlights the scarcely known plight of the world's largest stateless ethnic group.

The festival's organizers, eager to spark grass-roots discussion of human-rights issues, also help community groups and colleges organize screenings.

These filmmakers aren't after profits. They count themselves fortunate if they don't end up too much out-of-pocket. They talk instead of penetrating the "maze" of funding for nonmainstream productions, limping along on small grants, and frantically assembling highlight footage to impress foundations.

"It really bothers me that you have to sell yourself, but that's the game we have to play," Ms. Lubell says. She fought to fund Daring to Resist, the story of underground resistance in Holland, Hungary, and Poland during World War II. The former ABC and CBS researcher calls herself "very lucky" to get PBS distribution for this gripping tale of three women facing the Holocaust.

One of her and Ms. Attie's aims was to dispel the idea that Jews went meekly to their death. She says the inspiration of the three teenagers who risked their lives 55 years ago "really kept me going" during tough times during production.

For Lubell, success means connecting with audiences. To do this, she says, "passion" is as important as cinematic skill. Ms. Spitzmiller agrees: "We can always play with technique, but if you have nothing to say, what's the point?" The goal in Homeland for her and her husband and co-director was to tell a story they felt the mainstream media has overlooked. Shocked to find that the Lakota Indians have an 85 percent unemployment rate, they admire these native South Dakotans' "very fine, rich family life. It's not just alcohol and casinos."

"Homeland" received an enthusiastic response at Mr. Rogerson's Groton (Mass.) High School alma mater. "It was a whole new experience for these [elite] students," he said. He hopes these teenagers and many others will "develop a sense of curiosity and want to learn more" about the challenges and courage of American Indians, who try to maintain their traditions in a modern world.

While production money did dribble in, the couple also took other jobs and sold friends' donated antiques to get by. "Your belief in your subjects really pulls you through," Ms. Spitzmiller said.

Good Kurds/Bad Kurds was shot by two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It has been included in some 30 American and international festivals. Still, Mr. McKiernan ruefully terms it "a made-for-television film that hasn't been on television."

Despite eight challenging years spent filming around the world, McKiernan says making the documentary turned out to be easier than getting people to watch.

The story indicts Turkish "ethnic cleansing" of Kurds. It traces the US government's alleged complicity in covering up the crimes of a strategic ally. And it follows an emigre family's persistence, despite torture and deportation threats, in fighting for Kurdish rights.

While he found great network interest in footage of Iraq's persecution of Kurds, he said he encountered a "stone wall" when he showed Turkey - an American strategic ally - perpetrating the same crimes.

McKiernan, whose international journalistic experience includes photographs for The Christian Science Monitor from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Turkey, said he received more than 400 rejections for funding until a MacArthur Foundation contact persuaded colleagues to reconsider.

"When my voice is heard, I touch someone," McKiernan says, and when an audience understands his work, the filmmaker knows he has succeeded.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival will travel to St. Louis Jan. 30 to March 6; London, March 29 to April 5; and New York, June 13 to 28. For more information, call 212-216-1264 or log on to www.hrw.org/iff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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