IN the era of "Basic Instinct," the movie scene often deserves its bad reputation as a peddler of sensation, exploitation, and other dubious commodities. So when a really worthwhile film event comes along, it serves a doubly positive purpose - casting light on some part of human experience that needs illumination, and helping to counteract the sleazier aspects of today's commercial movie world.
Two such events are now in progress, and since both are touring in the United States, they promise to reach a lot of spectators who might otherwise be ready to give up on moviegoing. One is a 20th-anniversary celebration of Women Make Movies - a not-for-profit organization that produces, promotes, exhibits, and distributes media productions by and about women. The other is this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, presenting 62 politically concerned movies, including the first retrospective devoted t o the remarkable career of Marcel Ophuls.
Women Make Movies (WMM) bills itself as the largest American distributor of women's film and video, with more than 250 fiction, documentary, and experimental works in its catalog. You won't see most of these in your local theater, since they are often too offbeat or challenging for regular commercial release. But museums, libraries, universities, arts centers, and community groups have benefited greatly from the existence of WMM in the US and elsewhere.
The organization's main commitment is to institutions that value informational and educational works over standard entertainment fare, with emphasis on the needs of women belonging to racial and ethnic minorities. Works by women of color constitute more than 60 percent of the current WMM collection. Other assets and activities include a production-assistance program that helps women obtain funding for their projects; regular workshops in the technical skills of film and video production; and a resource l ibrary.
The lineup for WMM's anniversary program reads like a "Who's Who" of enterprising women who have established firm reputations in a branch of the visual arts long dominated by men. Perhaps the most prominent is Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese-born filmmaker now based in northern California, where she not only makes movies, but also teaches cinema and women's studies, and writes extensively on feminist and postcolonial issues. "Shoot for the Contents," her recent film on cultural and political issues in Chi na, is a centerpiece of the WMM program.
Also on view are German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger's ambitious "Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia," about Western women on the Trans-Siberian railway; Pratibha Parmar's celebratory "A Place of Rage," about African-American women; "Hidden Faces," a documentary on Egyptian women by Claire Hunt and Kim Longinotto; "Canto a la Vida," a portrait of expatriate Chilean women by Lucia Salinas Briones; Zeinabu Davis's multimedia film "A Powerful Thang," about a Midwestern couple at a turning point in their relationship; a nd "First Comes Love," a minor work on American weddings by the extremely gifted Su Friedrich.
Other films include "The Body Beautiful," a study of a mother and daughter by Ngozi Onwurah, and Tracey Moffatt's enigmatic "Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy," about an Australian Aboriginal woman and her white mother.
Turning to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this event is clearly a success story, having moved from out-of-the-way screening rooms to commercial theaters in only a year. The 1992 edition is dedicated to the memory of Nestor Almendros, a filmmaker and brilliant cinematographer who took special interest in human rights.
Highlighting the program will be showings of Marcel Ophuls's films, including such near-legendary works as "The Sorrow and the Pity," about collaboration in Nazi-occupied France; "The Memory of Justice," about the Nuremberg war-crimes trials; and "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie," about the Nazi criminal and his ties with the postwar world. Also shown will be Mr. Ophuls's newest film, "November Days," about Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The festival as a whole includes thematically arranged series on topics like "History or Memory" and "Injustice for All" as well as a group of banned and censored films. Among the scheduled works are:
* "Cairo as Told by Youssef Chahine," by Youssef Chahine. A leading Egyptian filmmaker's muted, ironic study of his own city.
* "Cousin Bobby," by Jonathan Demme. The popular, Oscar-winning director portrays his socially and religiously active cousin in this minor but well-intentioned documentary.
* "Damned in the USA," by Paul Yule. A fierce and funny attack on American censorship.
* "History and Memory," by Rea Tajiri. A filmmaker movingly contrasts the experiences of her Japanese-American family with stereotypical media images.
* "Ice," by Robert Kramer. A politically problematic but disturbingly powerful 1969 drama about a new American revolution.
* "Island of Flowers," by Jorge Furtado. A hilarious and horrifying look at social inequalities in Brazil, made in the form of an educational movie gone berserk.
* "Life on Hold," by Maroun Bagdadi. A grippingly suspenseful drama about a photojournalist taken hostage in Beirut.
* "Perfumed Nightmare," by Kidlat Tahimik. A rambling, colorful journey through pop culture in the Philippines, which looks suspiciously like pop culture in the US.
* "Push Comes to Shove," by Bill Plympton. A clever cartoon about violence in supposedly civilized circles.
* "Wadi," Parts 1 and 2, by Amos Gitai. A quiet, superbly cinematic look at Jewish and Arab families in one region of Israel, in two episodes filmed 10 years apart.
* "Without Anesthesia," by Andrzej Wajda. Directed in 1978 by a leading Polish filmmaker, this drama focuses on a journalist deserted by his wife.
* "Xala," by Ousmane Sembene. Government, colonialism, and superstition are among the targets of this ferocious political satire, directed by Senegal's greatest filmmaker.
Beginning this year, the festival will bestow a cash award named after Mr. Almendros to a filmmaker who has made a particularly strong contribution to human rights.