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Perfect Timing For The Human Rights Watch Film Festival

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on May 18, 2012 3:00PM

2012_05_17_thelist.jpg Whether it's the state of women in Afghanistan, civilian deaths in Libya or even Chicagoans' rights to free speech and assembly, the NATO summit has brought the topic of human rights into the foreground. From poster board on the sidewalks to elevator conversations among strangers, we are encountering issues that too-often get ignored. With all this, and the busloads of human rights activists hitting the streets even as we type, there should be more a larger than usual potential audience for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which screens five new documentaries at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting tonight.

All selected films are making their Chicago debut and feature discussions with the filmmakers. Opening night film The List tells the story of Kirk Johnson's quest to save the lives of Iraqis whose lives have been endangered by their work with the United States in rebuilding Iraq. Johnson became fascinated with the Middle East while a student at West Chicago Community High School, studied Arabic in college, and then felt obligated to use his knowledge leading reconstruction projects in Baghdad and Fallujah. After seeing his Iraqi colleagues targeted as traitors and collaborators, and even hunted, kidnapped or killed, Johnson grew frustrated by the unresponsiveness of the U.S. bureaucracy.

He now carries around enormous binders, filled with the names of Iraqis who worked with the United States in good faith, but who may soon pay for it with their life. "It doesn't matter how you felt about the war or what we should do next," Johnson says in the film. "We have a moral and urgent obligation to help those Iraqis who are endangered because they helped us." Congress voted in 2008 to expand a visa program allowing the resettlement of Iraqis in the U.S. Only about 7,000 of the 25,000 visas have been issued, and with the withdrawal of American forces imminent, time is running out. Filmmaker Beth Murphy's document is informative and timely, and Johnson's case is an open and shut one: we have a responsibility to help the people who helped us, and we have to do it now.

Other films at the festival include something for the activist in everyone: Reportero, Bernardo Ruiz's account of the terrifying atmosphere faced by journalists in Mexico who try to cover government corruption and organized crime, Under African Skies about Paul Simon's landmark album Graceland on the occasion of its 25th-anniversary performance in South Africa, Brother Number One's personal depiction of Khmer Rouge atrocities and their aftermath, and a documentary about the impact of bioengeneering in impoverished agrarian India, Bitter Seeds.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from May 18 through 30, the Gene Siskel Film Center. Check the Film Center's website for details about screening times and discussions with each of the filmmakers.