Amnesty International Film Festival comes to Vancouver
// Jonty Davies

50 years ago Amnesty International lit its first candle for freedom; now the struggle for human rights lights up the cinema screen.

Over the weekend of Nov. 17-20, the Amnesty International Film Festival came to SFU Harbor Centre in Downtown Vancouver, and with it brought a stark reality check. The festival is an effective incarnation of the organization behind it, Amnesty International, a non-profit concerned with with exposing human rights violations throughout the world. It also promotes ways the conscious public can contribute to ending it – be it writing to a Social Policy Minster in Serbia or participating in a candlelight vigil in Portugal.

The film festival was a showcase of just a few of the many international abuses of basic rights and at the same time a call to action. Though the films rarely shared subject matter, they were all consistent in their message: freedom is a beautiful right, but it is too widely unattained, often due to unspeakable brutality.

Kimjongilia by N.C. Heikin
(USA/France/South Korea)
North Korea is a nation of 24 million and it exists in a state of Orwellian nightmare. With 20 per cent of its male population in the armed forces, it stands as the most militarized country in the world. Its extreme isolation from the rest of the world and elaborate cult of personality around its leader Kim Jong-il have made it both a bizarre question mark and a grave concern.

Named for the flower honouring the “Dear Leader”, Kimjongilia follows the stories of escapees of the country’s oppressive state. Delivered mainly through talking heads, terrible stories of famine and unjust imprisonment color the grey panorama of a failed industrial wasteland.

The decrepit national economy is built in part on the forced labor of prison camps. Indefinite incarceration comes quickly and unpredictably, and the slightest of offences is punishable by immediate execution. Escape is difficult, the only hope being a treacherous passage through China guided by brave expatriates.

We meet several of these refugees, and from them, we learn some of the truths about one of the world’s most secretive nations. Byeon Ok- Soon tells us how she was forced to watch her mother and brother executed over a false accusation of salt theft, and Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp and raised to be a slave. With no knowledge of the outside, world he made a bid for escape with a friend. His friend didn’t make it past the electrified fence, but Shin Dong-hyuk did – to finally start his life at the age of 24. Though the film isn’t crafted too well, the stories are powerful.

For more on how to help visit http://www.northkoreanrefugees. com/ and http://www.helpinghandskorea. org/.

The Price of Sex by Mimi Chakarova
Oppression takes many forms, but few are quite as physically violating and psychologically imprisoning as the forced sex trade. Mimi Chakarova’s exploration of the Eastern European trade is very tough. She follows the stories of survivors who were taken from their homes in the northern Soviet Bloc only to be sold and blackmailed as they are moved south.

Filming undercover, Chakarova dives directly into the heart of darkness in the terminus stations of sex traffic in Europe and the Middle East. Chakarova is a photojournalist by trade and much of her imagery is very well composed. The sexual slums she visits are dark and intimidating places, and while her undercover filming never really produces anything too tangible, the oppression of the sex trade is clear to the viewer.

Sexual slavery is a reality for many young girls in Eastern Europe, but there is something to be said about its often unheralded existence in the rest of the world, including Vancouver.

Vancouver groups fighting human trafficking are http://justiceeducation.ca/ and http://wecanbc. ca/.

Justice for Sergei by Hans Hermans and Martin Maat
Until the 18th century, official corruption in Russia was technically legal. Things had gotten so good under the infrastructural development of Peter the Great that during his reign, bribery began to outsource salary as the main source of income for officials.

Though this was eventually outlawed, flash forward to the 21st century: Russian president Vladimir Putin’s maneuvering of the legalities of power has assured him an almost unchallenged rule over the nation and its industry. Though such maneuvers are very difficult to follow or certainly expose, Russia is a nation where governmental corruption is a very real thing.

Sergei Magnitsky of Justice for Sergei was simply a tax lawyer at an affluent firm that stumbled upon the largest tax fraud in Russian history: a $230 million fraudulent reclamation committed by government officials. Upon trying to expose it with pure intentions of citizenship, he was incarcerated without trial and died shortly afterwards in prison under questionable circumstances. Justice is a unique film in that using almost exclusively talking heads, it weaves a rather potent tale of political and corporate espionage. The film is understated but nonetheless an enjoyable and informative piece. Though Magnitsky’s case has provoked international outcry, there might easily be countless others like it that go completely unsaid and without justice.

Blood in the Mobile by Frank Piasecki Poulsen
As consumers, we influence the world around us through what we buy. Blood in the Mobile explores the horrific circumstances surrounding the mining of Coltan and Tantulum – minerals present in every cell phone – in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The film shows Danish director Frank Poulsen’s crusade to expose mobile phone giant Nokia’s exploitation of mineral mining in the DRC, which is characterized by slave labor and ultraviolent conflict.

The first half of the film sees Poulsen being led to a mine in the depths of the dangerous Congolese wilderness by the 16-year-old sole survivor of a recent massacre. The terror is palpable throughout the entire trek and reaches a fever pitch inside the mine. The second half features Poulsen on a Michael Moore-esque campaign through the offices of Nokia full of vapid rhetoric from the company’s social responsibility representatives.

For more on Congolese conflict minerals and refugees go to http://www.warchild.org.uk and http://www.refugeesinternational.org/ and http://www.friendsofthecongo.org/.

Cultures of Resistance by Iara Lee
The Medellin poetry festival in Columbia; monk revolution in Burma; street artists in Iran; the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia; photographers in the slums of Brazil; hip-hoppers amidst the Palestine/Israel conflict. All are part of the collage featured in Cultures of Resistance, an exploration of dedicated subversion. The film shows groups around the world who use art and voice to expose injustice, and present constructive alternatives.

Cultures provided an eloquent summary of the festival as its lack of cohesive narrative creates a more generalized approach to addressing the many issues Amnesty International itself deals with. This element of the festival makes a point to reveal these issues not to depress us or guilt us but to inspire us.

The films featured in the festival show us that while most of us enjoy the freedoms inherent in basic human rights, there are too many that do not. There’s much that can be done to make a difference even in the smallest ways, and there are people out there who dedicate themselves earnestly to this. From the gulags of North Korea, to the jungles of the Congo, to our homes, we all deserve a world of freedom, understanding and justice.

For more information of the activity of Amnesty International visit www.amnesty.ca or call 1-800-AMNESTY (1-800-266-3789).

//Jonty Davies, Ad & Events Manager
//Illustration by Camille Segur

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com