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Beating Swords Into Cameras 

Webster University hosts the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

Political posturing and patriotic platitudes find no place in the five films that make up the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. In contrast to the self-congratulatory, simplistic commentary passing for news today, this festival showcases well-researched, even-handed investigations of human-rights transgressions. Aiming to confront cruelty and corruption, these filmmakers use their cameras as weapons against atrocities.

The traveling festival began in 1988 to exhibit fiction and nonfiction, experimental and traditional works, with the selection committee weighing artistic merit and political content equally. Ironically, the always grim, sobering subject matter leaves the viewer heartened, knowing that so many courageous individuals refuse to cower or capitulate. Intellectually gratifying, emotionally moving and often aesthetically exhilarating, these five works hold governments and the powerful accountable for their inhumane actions.

The first film, In the Shadows of the City, is a fictionalized narrative that seamlessly integrates documentary footage of the siege of Beirut and the 1982 massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Shadows begins in November 1974 in southern Lebanon as Israeli bombings force twelve-year-old Rami and his family to move to Beirut. There, we follow Rami's fate over the next fifteen years. Director Jean Khalil Chamoun never identifies factions as Christian or Muslim, saying, "I didn't feel the necessity to play the same sectarian game." The second program moves to Chile with The Pinochet Case. Director Patricio Guzman weaves testimony from relatives of "the disappeared ones" and from torture victims with a chronicle of Pinochet's regime, Pinochet's house arrest in London and legal action leading to his release.

In War Photographer, the third film, a microvideocamera perches over James Natchwey's 35mm still camera. For more than two decades, in places including Kosovo, South Africa and Palestine, Nachtwey has captured what he calls "people's authentic emotions." A humane presence who touches our hearts and minds, he speaks eloquently of his days spent face to face with famine and destruction, grief and trauma. Director Steven Silver's The Last Just Man, program four, focuses on the heartbreaking reminiscences of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who led the small United Nations peacekeeping force into Rwanda in 1994. The UN's initial unwillingness to intervene or provide additional support allowed genocide to unfold: 800,000 Tutsis were massacred in 100 days. In program five, a French television crew probes the state of Iranian democracy by documenting the Islamic republic's presidential election. The crew doggedly pursues the story through Tehran's troubled streets.

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