Lights, camera … political action

In Argentina, a generation of children grow up orphaned when their parents mysteriously “disappear.” In the West Bank, Palestinian youngsters attempt to cope with life in refugee camps. In India, widows live out their lives without status or respect.

Heartbreaking events, sure — but they’re tragedies nevertheless destined to slip under the radar of our busy, media-saturated lives.

Except in the case of the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival — where it’s the media that brings these stories to us.

The above-mentioned tales of woe are captured in Archivo De La Identidad, documenting how Argentina’s disappeared are being remembered; Arna’s Children, footage of a children’s theater group rehearsing in Palestine; and White Rainbow, a fictional film named for the white saris worn by the Indian widows self-exiled to Vrindavan.

And, while focusing on Amnesty’s international human-rights watch, sometimes these movies also touch much closer to home. Take the 63-minute Mojados: Through the Night. Created by filmmaker Tommy Davis, the movie documents a 120-mile cross-desert journey of four migrants from Michoacan, Mexico. Of course, everyone’s heard about the border crossings of illegal immigrants — but Davis lifted the event from the black-and-white of newspaper reports and emblazoned it in life-sized, moving images. For 10 days, the filmmaker traveled side by side with these men, chronicling what happens to tens of thousands of them every year as they attempt to cross into the United States.

Not just for drama guys

“I’ve always been interested in international development,” declares local entrepreneur David Sweatt, who’s responsible for bringing the AI Film Festival to Asheville.

Our area’s various threads of activism weren’t enough for Sweatt, though. “In the Southeast, there’s not really a [hub] for outreach efforts,” he explains. “I was looking for ways to make Asheville more active, and had the idea to get involved with film.”

With the success of Asheville’s own fledgling film festival, the way was paved for widespread cinematic screenings.

Sweatt continues: “I’m not a drama guy, but I found out that Amnesty had this program.”

AI’s film fest got its start in Seattle in 1992, where coordinators hoped to attract audiences to some of the highest-quality human-rights-related films, in both documentary and fiction genres. But just showing a couple movies didn’t prove a worthy endeavor, and so the nonprofit used its international scope to connect with filmmakers, TV stations, production companies and other film festivals globally.

What came of those relationships was a library of programming ranging from feature films to shorts, most of which would never be seen in any other U.S. venue. However, viewing isn’t necessarily restricted to obscure offerings: Major motion pictures with strong human-rights stands, such as The Killing Fields, also get screen time.

“Amnesty itself is not a filmmaker, but they think these films have merit,” Sweatt explains. So, he joined forces with the organization to bring the eye-opening stories to WNC.

Annual AI film festivals now happen in West Hollywood, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Laramie, WY. And each is a bit different: Pittsburgh’s, for example, runs for a week with only one feature-length film showing each night, followed by Q&A sessions. At last year’s West Hollywood festival, on the other hand, 40 films were screened during a five-day run.

Racism, torture, and maybe a manicure

Asheville’s first Amnesty International film fest hosts three days of complacency-rattling screenings, with tickets priced significantly lower than a seat at a blockbuster movie.

Indeed: Despite being saddled with some action-movie-esque titles — Condor — Axis of Evil comes to mind — these films are hardly Hollywood fluff. Most titles forecast decidedly unhappy endings: Deported to Torture and Shock Act, for instance. Don’t expect tidy conclusions of the guy-gets-girl — or even the guy-saves-world — persuasion.

This Way Out is the story of three refugees to the U.S., each escaping persecution in their own countries for revealing their homosexuality.

The Letter is set in Lewiston, Maine, where the mayor sent open correspondence to the Somali refugee community telling them not to bring any more of their kind into the city.

Repatriation follows the lives of North Korean spies who were captured and held in South Korea for more than 30 years.

Nary a sunset into which to ride. But apparently the horror isn’t totally relentless.

“There is some hope,” says UNCA-based festival coordinator Leslie Sloan. The ironically — yet logically — named Beauty Academy of Kabul touts itself as an “optimistic documentary” following a group of American beauticians who travel to Afghanistan, post-Taliban, to open the country’s first beauty school. This, in the land of burkas.

“They won’t all be end-of-the-world films,” Sweatt promises. But Sloan points out that, after all, the movies’ “purpose is to … highlight the issue. If people’s hearts are broken over what they see, they’ll find a way to do something.”

Sweatt adds: “There are organizations to address these issues.” And information is available at some screenings — Mojados: Through the Night, to be shown at UNCA, will feature an after-film talk by Professor Mark Gibney and Catholic Services representative Jerry Tudela.

One good film fest deserves another

When Sweatt decided to bring the AI event to Asheville, he hoped it might follow close on the heels of the larger Asheville Film Festival. Unfortunately, scheduling was a problem, and Sweatt settled for kicking his event off in January.

Another difference between the two festivals — besides size and budget — is that the AI showings aren’t juried. No judges will be taking notes or handing out awards.

“Filmmakers actually aren’t coming to this festival,” reports Sloan. “It’s more about opening people’s eyes and hearts and minds.”

That’s often a perk to taking in any movie — but Amnesty aims to arouse more than mere curiosity.

“Amnesty International is very action-oriented,” says Sloan. “Just by exposing people to these problems, people might join Amnesty.” (The 1.5-million-member organization works toward a world where all people are free from violations of freedom of conscience and expression, as well as physical and mental abuse.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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