To a film fan, festivals are a lot like being offered a box of chocolates under pressure. Will you get lucky with a well-shot, beautifully-edited caramel cup? Or will you be stuck with a long and stodgy, tasteless toffee? Fortunately, the Human Rights Watch international film festival is one of the few that can always be trusted to provide a box full of tasty titbits. Since 1996 it has given a popular platform to the cream of documentaries, many of which manage both to be engaging and to highlight vitally important global issues.
This year's festival of 25 films opened in London in March with Persepolis, an animated film based on the hugely successful graphic novel of the same name by Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. It tells the moving, autobiographical tale of young Marjane's life in Iran after the fall of the Shah and at the start of the rise in fundamentalism. In black and white, shadowy, and with no attempt to fool the audience into believing they are watching real life, it still manages to be more gripping than any big-budget Hollywood cartoon. Satrapi candidly describes Iran's deterioration under successive regimes, each promising freedom but delivering only pain, prison and death to the people she loved.
It is the kind of subject that can get depressing, but she relieves the tension by weaving in comic anecdotes of being a teenager in post-revolution Iran, trying to enjoy punk music and parties while escaping nosy passers-by. Creative animation, Persepolis also proves, has a special power in being able to offer an insight into someone's dreams, thoughts and memories in a way that actuality struggles with. The look on Marjane's face as a girl, when she spies her dead neighbour's hand in a pile of rubble after a bombing, looks hauntingly like Munch's Scream retreating into shadows.
One of the other juicy offerings at this year's festival was Manufactured Landscapes by Canadian filmmaker, Jennifer Baichwal. This follows the work of celebrated photographer Edward Burtynsky as he snaps mind-blowingly grand industrial scenes, from factory floors that stretch out into the horizon to hollowed-out metal canyons left behind by extractive mining companies. Burtynsky provides only a thin web of narrative, but the scale and natural noise of the industrial vistas that he silently photographs fill the calm completely.
iIt makes perfect, logical sense that billions of people consuming the resources of our giant planet would leave behind rivers of waste and football fields of cogs and wheels, but seeing them in their simple vastness is nevertheless awe inspiring. It feels like looking at a field of crops - except none of it is natural.
This is strange fruit with strange colours, all entirely the product of man. Most disconcerting are the hundreds of Chinese factory workers who open the film, like identical worker ants, buzzing away at their tiny allocated tasks on a gigantic assembly line. Nature and person, person and machine all melt into one.
As well as delivering unique films such as this, one of the other claims of the Human Rights Watch film festival is to 'celebrate the power of the human spirit and intellect to prevail'. Iron Ladies of Liberia is a documentary that fulfils this promise completely. In a continent written off by some as a basket case, Liberia has become a symbol of progress, largely thanks to its inspirational new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Liberian journalist Siatta Scott Johnson and Daniel Junge followed Sirleaf closely during her first year in power, along with her other appointed 'iron ladies', including the national chief of police and finance minister.
The result is an honest account of their struggle to repair a country in social and economic ruin, which suffers under a
cancer of corruption infecting even the highest echelons of government. Sirleaf tackles this challenge with the force of a rock star, turning those around her into quivering wrecks by using the pure strength of her no-nonsense personality.
From Chinese diplomats to George Bush, everyone seems to be a fan. Filmmaker Siatta Scott Johnson is clearly among them, railing against the sexism and arrogance of Sirleaf's opponents. Whether this means that we only get to see the president in her most positive light is unclear. But the film is nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the real Liberia, from someone who has a vested interest in its future.
The Human Rights Watch international film festival took place in London from 21-30 March. Persepolis and Manufactured Landscapes are currently showing around the UK and available on DVD. Iron Ladies of
Liberia is due for release this summer. www.hrw.org/iff