A film festival with a difference, the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival features two weeks of thought-provoking, challenging and uplifting cinema spanning a gamut of human rights-based issues, including some that might surprise. We spoke to HRAFF’s programming manager Sari Braithwaite about the challenges involved in putting together film festival with a human rights focus, and picked up some film recommendations along the way.

Hayley Inch: When programming a film festival with a focus on human rights, what do you look for?
Sari Braithwaite: Human rights are often popularly imagined as these stale, solid ideas that are written down in law. The beauty of the festival is that we have the opportunity to explore the fact that these ideas are actually complicated, changing and often compromised by each other in interesting ways. We can use storytelling to put these ideas into a real life context [and] suddenly they become a lot more dynamic. We are constantly challenging these ideas of what our rights are and how we realise them. Film can be a great way of harnessing that conversation.

HI: HRAFF’s programming often highlights issues in which you might not think human rights plays a factor, such as a film like Rawer, where an individual’s chosen diet becomes a human rights issue.
SB: There’s always new terrain to push. Many of our films have forums and events afterwards because people want to have a conversation about the issues raised. Something like Rawer is exciting because it touches on food rights, child rights, the role of the family and the state, which are all very important to the way so many people live their lives here. It’s compelling, challenging and it’s going to be a really interesting debate afterwards.

HI: What are some of the films you would recommend?
SB: I’ll start with the International Shorts. What I love about this program is that it’s got such buoyancy to it and features such exceptional filmmaking. You have the opportunity to have a program that will move people, but also make them feel lifted.

I’m excited about some of the narrative features we have. Ombline, for example, is a French film that just won a spate of awards at the Rome Independent Film Festival… It’s about a woman who has a child while in prison, and the experience of raising her child in such an environment.

HI: I was personally impressed by the documentary High Tech, Low Life. It’s very timely, especially with its focus on human rights issues in China and how technology can become a tool of individual liberation or a means of oppression.
SB: It really touches on what I think audiences are interested in right now. It’s about the changing technological landscape and is an uncritical examination of activist blogging. You see the limitations of it, the enormous power of it, but also the problems that arise.

HI: What about the closing night film?
SB: In the Shadow of the Sun is a very special film. Since 2007, there has been a wave of attacks against people with albinism in Tanzania, with the result that people with albinism have been driven out of their communities. The story revolves around a man called Josephat, who has albinism himself. He feels this obligation to act and embarks upon a journey to villages in order to educate people. It’s all about using reason and conversation to end superstition. It’s powerful when you see him go into these communities, knowing that he is actually being hunted.

HI: And Josephat is going to be a guest at the screening?
SB: Yes! I think that that’s going to be a very special moment, because it’s one thing to feel connected to someone on the screen, but it’s the most remarkable feeling to watch someone’s story and then meet them.

HI: What keeps you programming at HRAFF?
SB: I think the greatest joy is pulling together the program with the programming team, watching films together, talking about them, debating them. We have the opportunity to bring together so many perspectives. The thrill of seeing a full cinema watch a film that you programmed is such a wonderful feeling, and to know that HRAFF has an audience that really loves the festival and loves what it does. To be able to further push and define what the festival is about is really dynamic and changes every year – that’s what keeps you going.

The Human Rights & Arts Festival runs from May 9 to 23. For the full program and session times, visit the website.