refugee crisis

A Film Festival’s Fight for Human Rights

l'abri film refugee arms cineman
The hardships of life as a refugee were on show, such as in "L'abri" a night shelter.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Nuremberg Film Festival reminds visitors that Europe has a long history of dealing with war and dispossessed people.

  • Facts


    • This year was the ninth bi-annual film festival for human rights in Nuremberg.
    • The winning films were “The Look of Silence,” a documentary about killings in Indonesia, and “Maidan,” a documentary about the protests in Ukraine.
    • The world’s biggest human rights film festival is in Prague, while New York hosts another significant one.
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Women making sandwiches, men building barricades, fires burning in the night and the sound of missiles exploding.

This is Europe in turmoil. These scenes are from “Maidan,” Sergei Losnitza’s documentary film about the protests in Ukraine’s capital Kiev which won the main prize at Nuremberg’s international human rights film festival.

The bi-annual festival, which closes today, is meant to showcase several aspects of human rights, but it is little wonder that many of the 58 films shown this year focused on war and the plight of refugees.

Other winners include Joshua Oppenheimer, who won the audience award for “The Look of Silence,” the second of two films about the killers and victims of the military killings in Indonesia, produced by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Andre Singer.


Maidan courtesy of NIHRFF
A scene from the winning film about the Maidan protests. Source: courtesy of NIHRFF


“Something better to come,” by Danish filmmaker Hanna Polak, about the lives of children living on Europe’s largest rubbish dump, near Moscow, won a prize awarded by a youth jury.

There were several other films that took refugees and war victims as individuals and went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to tell their stories.

In “Mediterranea,” the filmmaker Jonas Carpignano followed two refugees as they left Burkina Faso and headed to Europe, across desert and seas. After a storm hits in the Mediterranean, they are rescued and make their way to Italy.

Another film about the dangers of the Mediterranean is “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” a surreal film about a refugee who dies on the way to Europe but whose ghost visits the lives of refugees in Europe in limbo, waiting in temporary accommodation suspended between fear, hope and freedom.

Some of the films take an experimental approach to ask what makes people leave their countries.

In “Homeland,” Abbas Fahdel’s study of Iraqi families, children talk about their experience of war and destruction, in a movie that shows them at home, in their garden, and playing on the banks of the Tigris.

“Destination Home” introduces a Liberian refugee who spends ten years working in a hospital at a camp in Ghana, then reaches the United States and is reunited with his family. “This isn’t heaven but it’s a hundred times better than where I come from,” he said sitting with his daughter eating Chinese food in wintry New York State. “But one day I will go home. I have to; it isn’t a choice, one day when I’m able to return.”

“If you look at the media, the news these days is all about the bad Hungarians, poor refugees, good Germans – we wanted to shape the discourse with the films we show.”

andrea kuhn, director, film festival

Andrea Kuhn, director of Nuremberg’s International Human Rights Film Festival said it was clear at the end of the last festival two years ago, that refugees was becoming an important issue.  “Back then we were hearing about people packed on boats and seeing images of dead bodies washing up on the shores. It seems as though nothing has changed,” Ms. Kuhn said.

“We wanted to enter the debate. If you look at the media, the news these days is all about the bad Hungarians, poor refugees, good Germans – we wanted to shape the discourse with the films we show.”

There are references to recent history. “Horse Money” by Pedro Costa, for example, is a nightmarish set of impressions and dark memories that reflect the experience of immigrants in Portugal during the carnation revolution.


Video: Maidan, the winning film about the protests in Kiev, Ukraine.


Human rights film festivals tend to be run either by NGOs or by people from a film background. A film expert by training, Ms. Kuhn said the Nuremberg festival aimed to present films that are aesthetically challenging as well as engaging in terms of their content.

The festival in Nuremberg has its roots in a prize for human rights activities that was established in 1999. “This city has a dark past,” Ms. Kuhn said. “So many events connected with the Nazis happened here.”

One film that touched on that wartime past was “Every face has a name,” by Magnus Gertten, who created a film based on an older documentary of people arriving on a ship in Malmö, Sweden, after World War Two. The filmmaker found some of the people and showed them the film of their past selves and asking them to recall what they were thinking as they started a new life.


Video: Every Face Has a Name.


In Mr. Gertten’s film, the older documentary made after the war showing smiling faces, young and old, of people who can’t believe they are free, is interspersed with shots of the police in southern Italy as they wait to receive a boat full of refugees expected to land.

The festival included lighter-hearted films too, such as Iran’s “Atomic Heart” is a playful road movie set in Tehran during a night that takes a troubled turn, and “Light fly, fly high,” tells of a Tamil girl who wants to become a boxer.

Video: Something Better to Come, winner of the young jury’s prize.


The festival included further sections about Bangladesh and another about the garment industry in a section that encompassed a film about a fabric factory in Burkina Faso, “The Siren of Faso Fani,” and a study of the social and environmental effects of fast fashion, “True Cost.”

This year, the festival hit a new record number of 11,000 viewers. From among its fans, one brought six refugees who are now living with her.

As Germany grapples with questions about asylum, perhaps there’s inspiration from on and off the screen.

Video: Look of Silence Official Trailer 2 (2015) – Joshua Oppenheimer.


Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author:

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