Culture & Conversation

Activism On Display

IN SOME CITIES, TEN DAYS of films about human rights violations, narco-states, and death squads might not be greeted with open arms. But in Montreal, where activists and political progressives form an integral part of the community, an event like the Montreal Human Rights Film Festival seems a perfect fit. Particularly since some of the films hit close to home, such as a program of documentary shorts focusing on issues of homelessness in Quebec, screening March 17th.

Other Quebec films selected by the festival, currently in its fourth year, include Martha qui vient du froid, a feature-length documentary about the Cold War-era relocation of a Quebec Inuit community, and Le magicien de Kaboul, which follows a father who travels through Afghanistan following his son’s death in the attacks of 9/11.

The festival began last Thursday with the North American premiere of 8, a film that explores the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals through eight short films. Some segments, like Mira Nair’s plea for gender equality How Can It Be?, take a straightforward narrative approach. But other directors bring an experimental flair to their stories, as in Gus Van Sant’s Mansion on the Hill, a blend of skateboarding videos and infant mortality statistics that infuses its message with an abstract poetry.

Other films at the festival, like the French documentary Faces (playing March 21), adopt a more direct approach, tackling the Israeli/Palestinian in a cinema verité style. Rather than framing the issue as a polemic argument, the film documents a photography project in which paired images of Israelis and Palestinians are displayed on both sides of the divisive West Bank ‘security barrier.’

Along with international crises like the invasion of Iraq, the 6th anniversary of which is commemorated on March 20th with a screening of two documentaries, and six short films by Baghdad students, environmental issues are also addressed. In Quebec’s Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, the lasting effects of the famously catastrophic 1989 oil spill are examined. While the film naturally deals with the environmental damage caused by the accident, it focuses primarily on the human aspect of the disaster, presenting the psychological, economic, and physical trauma endured by local community members.

Accompanying the MHRFF’s screenings, an exhibition will examine human rights through the lens of photojournalism, featuring a workshop led by photographer Jacques Nadeau of Le Devoir. As well, a conference dealing with violence against reporters in Latin America will be held on Thursday, March 19th. Both the conference and the exhibition take place at the UQAM’s Coeur des Sciences.

Granted, with a decided lack of star-studded galas, the MHRFF may not be as glamorous as some of the city’s other festivals. But it manages to distinguish itself by virtue of its activism, and its relevance. It’s certainly not Montreal’s most cheerful film event, but it may well be one of its most important.

The Montreal Human Rights Film Festival runs until March 22nd. Screenings take place at the NFB and the Cinéma du Parc. For more information about films and schedules, visit

  • Leave a Reply

    Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

    Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS