The Human Rights Watch London Film Festival is in full swing. We caught up with the Creative Director, John Biaggi.
As a successful director/producer, what inspired you to use your skills in the field of human rights?
I’ve been with the film festival since 1999 when I arrived as an intern. I have a background in documentary film production and was always drawn to human rights subject matter, so it was a perfect fit for me.
What’s the biggest challenge in putting on the film festival?
Good question. There are numerous challenges to put on any festival. If I had to focus on one it would be finding enough really strong human rights films to fill our festival programs, consistently each year.
You must get a huge amount of applications – is it tough deciding on the films that you show?
We do get a lot of films in for consideration, this year it was upwards of 700, and we pick around 40 films as our pool for one festival cycle (we put on multiple film festivals worldwide, so many of the films travel to more than one of our festivals). The consideration process is long and involved as besides looking at the quality of the story arc, the structure of the film, the production values, strength of the characters portrayed – we also have to have every film vetted internally by an expert at HRW with deep knowledge of the subject matter, to insure it is factually accurate.
Do you have a favourite film of the festival?
This is always a difficult question as I feel all the films have their special elements and strengths. However, if I had to pick a favorite this year I would pick I AM SUN MU – I love the pace of this film, and the artists tenacity and bravery in trying to mount his politically charged one person show in Beijing – against all odds. And I love the theme of art and human rights the film portrays.
What state do you think human rights are in at the moment?
Tough question. Clearly there are so many human rights concerns worldwide, sometimes it seems overwhelming. However, many of the films we show are very empowering, showing the power of just one person to change things, receive justice – and I like to focus on those stories, which show what individuals at their best can accomplish in the world.
Obviously the refugee crisis has been dominating the news and thoughts of people all over the world, and especially here in Europe. Has it been a recurring theme in submissions to the festival?
Yes, the refugee crisis has elicited numerous film entries to our festival in the past few years. And we’ve shown, and are showing in London starting this week, some very strong films on this – AT HOME IN THE WORLD about a remarkable Danish Red Cross school that teaches the children of asylum seekers from all parts of the globe who arrive in Denmark; THE CROSSING, a truly eye opening film that follows a group of Syrian refugees from Egypt, crossing by boat to Europe – they took a camera with them on the journey so it is quite singular in showing what this journey is like; and MEDITERRANEA, which is a drama that is based on the main characters actual journey from Burkina Faso to Italy in search of a better life, and the animosity he finds there.
How do you like London?
Well, I’ve never been asked this question before. I am very fond of London, and have a high opinion of the London audiences who ask very strong, informed questions in our Q&A’s with filmmakers.
What are your top tips to anyone wanting to make a film for the festival?
Hmmm… Be prepared for your film taking a lot longer than you think it should. And, embrace the time it takes – don’t rush the film, as films become stronger and richer as time passes and the story is allowed to breath, and things (sometimes very unexpectedly) happen to your characters that add all kinds of interesting layers to the storyline. The best documentaries are ones that take over five years, in my experience.