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Justice Matters | Filmfest DC

April 18, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In January, she blogged about the lessons a new generation of activists can learn from the civil rights documentary Freedom Riders.)

Filmfest_dcHow do you tell a new story about the Palestinian conflict, one that touches audiences in a different way, goes beyond the nightly news images, and sparks new ideas and discussion?

For filmmaker Emad Burnat, co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, which is being shown as part of the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC in Washington this week, the answer was personal. "There have been many films made about Palestine, but the filmmakers didn't live the situation, didn't know the reality. I live there; and I was always filming. My cameras were part of the non-violent resistance that my village, Bil'in, mounted against the Israeli occupation of our lands. I used my camera to protect myself and my friends and the other villagers. And when it came to shaping a story out of the seven hundred hours I'd filmed over seven years, I realized that it had to be my story; the story of my own experience."

That personal connection has struck a chord: 5 Broken Cameras premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last fall; showed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the World Cinema Directing Award for documentaries; and has gone on to screen at numerous festivals and win many more prizes. This summer it will be featured in several Israeli festivals and on Israeli television and will open in the U.S. as well.

Burnat, who had been a farmer, got a camera to film his new baby in 2005 and then turned it on the conflict in his village, sharing his extraordinary footage with international news agencies. He met his co-director, Guy Davidi, an Israeli there to film a documentary, and together, with support from the Global Perspectives Project of the International Television Service (ITVS) and IDFA's Jan Vrijman Fund, they created 5 Broken Cameras.

About fifty D.C.-area filmmakers gathered on Saturday morning at Busboys & Poets, a restaurant-cum-progressive cultural/community center at 5th & K Streets for a "salon" event with several directors and producers in town for Filmfest DC, which opened April 2 and runs through April 22. Two films that are part of the 2012 Justice Matters program -- Burnat's and Ravida Din's Pink Ribbons, Inc. -- were featured.

"This is the third year for Justice Matters," said Filmfest DC director Tony Gittens, who founded the festival in 1987. "Justice Matters has proven to be very successful and has given us a way to offer something special to the metropolitan Washington audience. Every festival tries to take advantage of its locale, to reach out to the people who live there. D.C. is unique because so many people here are interested in policy issues: it's in the newspapers, in the workplace, and around the dinner table. Justice Matters is a natural for us."

Conceived and programmed by Linda Blackaby and supported by the CrossCurrents Foundation, this year's Justice Matters series is showing Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, Blood in the Mobile, Brothers on the Line, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, The Island President, and Pink Ribbons, Inc., in addition to 5 Broken Cameras.

Funding from the Wyncote Foundation makes possible the other component of the program: the Impact Project, which concentrates on community partners -- organizations that, according to Blackaby, "have some kind of stake in the issue the film addresses. We identify the community partners, often in collaboration with the filmmaker, and they range from grassroots groups to large NGOs."

For instance, the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that works on the Middle East as well as other issues, is paired with 5 Broken Cameras. At the screening of Pink Ribbons, Inc., an expose of corporate appropriation of the breast cancer cause, representatives of Breast Cancer Action were there to respond to the film. Another Pink Ribbons, Inc. partner is the National Breast Cancer Awareness Coalition, which shared information about its Breast Cancer Deadline 2020 petition drive to improve research results.

"This model, of linking social issue films with local organizations working on the issues presented in the films, is not new," said Blackaby. "The San Francisco Green Fest, an environmental film festival, strongly promotes these action-partnerships, but they're an activist festival by definition. What's unusual is a more generalist film festival that shows a variety of good new films on various topics, especially international films, supporting those community partnerships. A few festivals do it and do it well, like the Cleveland International Film Festival, and more festivals express an interest. But even festivals that have a real commitment to this approach find it requires a lot of staff time to make meaningful connections."

As the series has grown, the festival has learned how to do it more effectively.

"This is the first year we've had partners for every film, more than twenty in all," notes Blackaby. "They're listed on the Web site as links that take visitors directly to their own sites. Their participation depends on the issues, and activities vary. Some partners send staff to the screenings to engage in the post-screening discussions and distribute literature. This year, the Guatemalan Human Rights Committee/USA has an intern dedicated to bringing a Guatemalan audience -- there is a large population here in the metropolitan region -- to see Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, about the international criminal case against a former Guatemalan military leader."

In addition to IPS, 5 Broken Cameras partners include Docs in Progress, Peace Café, and Reporters Without Borders. Busboys and Poets' owner and festival supporter Andy Shallal moderated the film's post-screening discussion and asked Burnat what his goals for the film were. Simple, said Burnat: educate people about the experience of his village, which includes the arrest of children and other violations of international law. "I don't trust the politicians. My hope is in ordinary people; they can bring about change."

Individual voices and community-based activism is also the solution presented by Pink Ribbons, Inc., which remembers the women who protested the excessive use of mastectomies and takes a highly critical view of "race for the cure" programs. Speaking at the post-screening discussion, the National Breast Cancer Awareness Coalition's Vernal Branch said that "Twenty years of fundraising for research on treatment has resulted in only incremental improvements -- a few weeks or months more of life. What we need is research on the environmental causes of breast cancer and prevention."

In addition to the post-screening discussions, the Impact Project "takes the films off campus," adds festival director Gittens. "The filmmakers talk with students in the schools and connect with associations that are working on the issues raised in the film. And this year, we're going to Capitol Hill with Brothers on the Line, which is about the United Auto Workers and the history of the labor movement. Representative John Conyers has arranged a screening with members of Congress: you can only do that in D.C.!"

-- Kathryn Pyle

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