Movies with real meaning 

The eighth consecutive Human Rights and Film series gets under way Thursday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The six-film series is rich with activist-oriented documentaries of high artistic merit.

YBCA’s film-video curator Joel Shepard explains that in prior years, the festival’s content was chosen by the Human Rights Watch organization. Given HRW’s recent budget cutbacks, Shepard has taken charge of programming.

“What is different this time,” he says, “is that I wasn’t bound by a predetermined set of films chosen by a panel. I was able to open up the programming, focusing it toward films with more artistic or controversial content than some straight-ahead political documentaries. I also try to find things you wouldn’t be able to see any other way than by coming here.”

A case in point is Susan Sontag’s “Promised Lands” (7:30 p.m. March 25). Dating from 1974, and out of distribution for decades, the obscure film by the great literary theorist and activist was recently restored by someone who managed to get a hold of a rare print.

Another hard-to-see film is the closer of the series, David Ridgen & Nicolas Rossier’s “American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein” (2 p.m. March 28). Its focus, a notorious critic of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy who is also the son of Holocaust survivors, has sparked such furious debate that many promoters steer clear of it.

Shepard discovered Zhao Liang’s “Petition” (7:30 p.m. March 18) at a film festival in South Korea. The film examines “petitioners,” Chinese people who come to Beijing in order to plead their case against injustices, and who find themselves homeless and impoverished.

Other films include “8” (7:30 p.m. Thursday), a compilation of eight shorts that address different United Nations “Millennium Development Goals.” One of the shorts, Gus Van Sant’s “Mansion on the Hill,” was shot in San Francisco while he was working on “Milk.” From halfway around the world comes Hamid Rahmanian’s “The Glass House,” which opens a window on a little-
understood situation in Iran.

Nor has Shepard eschewed all of Human Rights Watch’s choices. “Youth Producing Change” (7 p.m. March 11) is a collection of short films assembled by HRW. “Mozambique” centers on three of Mozambique’s 500,000 AIDS orphans. Beautifully filmed, and presented with grace, it had me in tears.  

Human Rights and Film

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room, 701 Mission St., San Francisco
When: Thursday evenings, alternate Sunday afternoons; closes March 28
Tickets: $6 to $8
Contact: (415) 978-2787,

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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