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The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival : Creativity, Conversation and Change

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My footsteps echo and I am overwhelmed by the colour white. Black and white faces of children, mothers and soldiers stare out at me from white walls, illuminated by spotlights. Yarra Gallery provides a sombre and reverent temporary home for visitors to remember those caught in the Cambodian Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975. The images stand, stark, as requiem to the work of 135 photojournalists and war correspondents that lost their lives, or were recorded as missing, during the Indochina Wars.

A massive two weeks has just ended in Melbourne for the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF) and now the highlights of the festival have hit the road to air in the rest of the country, including our capital Canberra.

This year the festival’s themes have centered on photojournalism, war correspondents, mental illness, and the stories of extraordinary people as they traverse roads less traveled. It has incorporated panel discussions on the most influential photos of all time, question and answer seminars and art displays, with just over 20 films. This year, the festival even entered a children’s film; Zarafa

Sari Braithwaite, the festival’s Programming Manager for the second year in a row, stated, ‘Every year the festival has something exceptional and remarkable about it.’

‘[We hope] to surprise audiences and make them think about what human rights look like on screen,’ says Sari. ‘We want them to think about what a human rights film is and how these ideas and our society are ever evolving. [HRAFF aims to] catch that and start a conversation.’

But the public seems to have spoken about this year’s highlight. Fans in Sydney this week were quick to sell out the festival’s closing film Alias Ruby Blade, and Melbourne’s festival required two encore screenings to satisfy demand.

‘This is the first time we’ve ever done the encore screening,’ Sari says.

The film – made by a husband/wife team – chronicles a young Australian activist, Kirsty Sword, who becomes an underground activist for the Timorese resistance in Jakarta.

While HRAFF usually aims to find films that have not yet premiered, the programming team found Alias Ruby Blade at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, the largest in the world.

‘It immediately piqued our interest,’ Sari says. ‘Even though it’s a US filmmaker it has an Australian protagonist in a story that is so linked to Australia. It’s a story of one of our closest neighbours; our history is intertwined.

‘The programming team knew right away that there was something really special there and that we needed to highlight it in the program. This one, more than any other film for our audience, really connected people and I think that is because of the local relevance.’

The first HRAFF festival was in 2007 and had what Sari terms ‘beautiful, ambitious beginnings’. It started with Evelyn Tadros and Naziath Mantoo, former University of Melbourne students, who decided the time was ripe in Melbourne for a human rights film festival. Sari tells me, ‘Both of them talked about these ideas around a kitchen table with markers and butchers paper’.

‘The festival isn’t about telling people what to think or to see the world in one way, but to challenge the audience,’ Sari explains.

As a programmer, ‘I really insist on art form and exceptional film-making,’ she said. ‘I believe that if you can take people on a story they begin to see human rights issues in a more nuanced way.’

From these humble beginnings, the festival has evolved into a fully-fledged professional organization with a vision and a plan for the future. And it is looking to build its audiences inter-state. HRAFF is successful due to a large, hardworking team; three who have paid positions and a cohort of volunteers.

Sari began her affair with the festival when she moved to Melbourne from Canberra, and eventually became a volunteer in 2011. ‘In 2010 I got a pass and went to as much as I could, and I just loved what the festival was doing and the conversations it was creating,’ she said. ‘So, when there was a call out for volunteers I put my hand up.’

‘I think HRAFF is about fostering a robust human rights culture in Australia, and what is really exciting is that HRAFF engages in pushing the boundaries of what the human rights culture looks like in Australia.’

But for Sari, with a background in historical academia of Indigenous Australian issues, HRAFF is primarily about people. ‘I really love the process of working with the programming team,’ she says. ‘We spend hours and hours every week watching films; we watch about 400 features as a team.’

Of these 400 prospective films, the programming team then has the job of selecting around 20 films to show as part of the festival, and ‘that’s when I feel really excited about what we’ve done,’ Sari says.

‘We bring these films to a cinema packed full of people and make people feel things; they laugh and cry and feel really connected to people they are never likely to meet,’ she says. ‘There’s a little bit of magic in that room.’

The photographs send a ripple of emotion around the gallery as visitors ponder the faces of young girls supporting rifles, a human spine littering the street or an old busted camera that tells a tale about the fall of its owner. Those who lived during this time, find the strength to speak about what they know and what they remember. One lady told me, ‘my friend ran an orphanage in Cambodia. One day a woman who was running past, left her baby in my friend’s arms; hoping the white woman would be able to protect him.’ At this time America was organizing transport out for its citizens still in Cambodia, ‘but my friend had no papers for the baby,’ the lady said. ‘She did the only thing a woman could do at that time; she cried until they let her on the plane with the infant Cambodian boy’.

The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is currently touring, and will be in Canberra from June 3-5. You can find all the program details via their website.

2 thoughts on “The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival : Creativity, Conversation and Change

  1. It’s wonderful to be taken so skilfully into the background history of organisations like this

  2. Pingback: Human Rights Arts and film Festival: Creativity, Conversation and Change | Eileen McInnes

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