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New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival

Jennifer Whitney
Date Published: 
August 01, 2007


April 12-22, 2007

New Orleans, now more than ever, is the canary in the coal mine of mass social experimentation. On nearly every issue—housing, health care, environmental justice, education, human and workers’ rights, immigration—you name it, we’re on the front lines. In any city in the US, if you’re concerned about these issues, you should look at what’s happening to our city. The people of New Orleans, including the over 250,000 internally displaced people who are still unable to return home, are being dragged through one of the greatest privatization schemes of the century, as governments and corporations clamor to turn public housing into condos; public hospitals and schools into for-profit ventures; and displaced, poor people of color into residents of far-away cities not their own.

That is why the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival is crucial to our communities of resistance, the reconstruction of our city, and the struggle for justice. For its fourth annual program, the festival screened fifty films from fifteen countries on six continents, almost half of which were local, creating a powerful juxtaposition between the humanitarian crises in New Orleans and those in Iraq, Palestine, South Africa, Lebanon, and Mexico, to name a few.

Unlike many film festivals, this one is truly for, by, and about the community. From its beginning in 2004, the festival’s organizers—all community activists themselves—worked closely with grassroots organizations to develop programs that spoke to a wide array of New Orleanians, featuring films that address issues similar to those we face here, films that inspire resistance as well as community-building. Local directors feature prominently, and outreach is done and free passes offered to communities that might not otherwise have access to the festival.

Last year, just seven months after Katrina hit, the festival opened to great acclaim and against greater odds, showing forty films in three cities, including twelve storm-related works, and setting new records of attendance. This year, attendance was twice as high, and 18 directors came to introduce their films. The festival also held a benefit concert featuring New Orleans spoken word artists Asali DeVan and Sunni Patterson, and powerful singer Toshi Reagon, which raised over $1,000 for INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s newly opened Women’s Clinic. Additionally, local organizations presented many films, connecting local and international struggles, and drawing attention to their own work.

Difficult questions

Two of the four award-winning films were made by local directors: By Invitation Only, Rebecca Snedeker’s intensely intimate film offering an insider’s glimpse into old-line white New Orleans society’s rituals around Carnival, took the Audience Choice award for best feature; and Katrina’s Children, Laura Belsey’s powerful film featuring children speaking and drawing about their experiences in the flood and its aftermath, took the Jury award for best short film.

Other festival highlights included the world premiere of Big Noise Tactical Media’s Letters From Beirut, a devastatingly beautiful look at Israel’s recent bombardment of Lebanon; five US premieres; and Ahlaam, the first fiction film shot in occupied Iraq.

Some of the most inspiring events occurred outside the darkened theater. Presenting A Girl Like Me, a film by 17-year old Kiri Davis about the beauty standards pressuring young African American women, eight middle school students sang, danced, read poetry, and discussed their own challenges growing up Black.

Also notable was the discussion that took place after By Invitation Only, which asks difficult questions about race, class, privilege, and family ties. For two hours, about twenty people, including the director, listened to and challenged each other while sharing our respective positions about building multiracial grassroots movements towards liberation and a reconstruction of our city based on justice. A film festival simply couldn’t get more urgently relevant than this.