CAIRO: “Cinema as a platform for human rights formed the theme of a press conference held as part of the Cairo International Film Festival on Friday.
Seven films are being shown from India, Spain and Turkey as part of the festival’s newly-created human rights films section.
Actors, producers and human rights figures spoke during the press conference which was moderated in a school ma’am-ish fashion by the formidable Aleya Hammad from the National Council for Human Rights.
Hammad instructed the audience to sit down and turn off mobiles, before informing us that it is rude to talk when she is speaking. The penalty for doing so would be that she would stop speaking, we were told.
She then instructed video cameramen to turn off their lights, explaining that she had a problem with her eyes.
The fact that none of the cameramen responded might be explained by the fact that bafflingly, Hammad spoke in English despite the overwhelmingly Egyptian composition of the press conference. (In fact two members of the audience requested that she speak in Arabic).
This was a fractious start to a press conference attended by journalists already antagonized by the fact that some of them had arrived at the venue at 11:30 am, as per the schedule supplied in a press kit.
A festival organizer appeared at 12 pm and announced that the press conference would begin at 1 pm “as stated in official invitations. It actually began at 1:45 pm.
Hammad opened the conference by declaring that “human rights is the only universally accepted doctrine before giving extremely lengthy introductions of a sycophantic nature to the panel members.
Disappointingly, very few of the nine panel members addressed the theme of the press conference, most choosing instead to expound on human rights themes in a way which never really got to grips with the relationship between human rights and the cinema.
An exception to this was Indian producer Premendra Mazunder who described the role of cinema in spreading awareness of human rights in India.
He said that cinema “acts as a platform for the propagation of human rights and that as a result, Indian democracy “is strong because of the film industry.
Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, whose film “Salt of the Sea is showing in this year’s festival, described the difficulties she faced making the film.
Hammad interrupted Jacir almost immediately after the latter started speaking in order to say, “she’s a woman producer, by the way – in case we hadn’t noticed – before initiating a round of applause.
Jacir says she was advised against making the film at the beginning of her career.
“I wanted to tell a story I thought was very simple when I first started writing it but was very disappointed when I tried to find funding, Jacir explained.
“I was told, ‘it’s not right to discuss Palestinians’ right to return now – do it later if you become famous.’ But I don’t care: if it’s the last film I make, it’s the last film I make.
Jacir explained that films form part of Palestinians’ efforts to “resist being made invisible.
“We’re being prevented from telling our stories . or people don’t want to hear it, saying that ‘they’re sick of Palestine.’
Egyptian actor Mahmoud Qabil drew strong applause when he called for the abolishment of state censorship of films, television programs and books in Egypt, describing this as integral to human rights.
Qabil spoke of the 10 years he spent farming in Texas after he was placed on a blacklist by the Arab League and prevented from acting in Arab countries.
He explained that the ban was handed down after he wrote what he described as a “human and non-political story about an Israeli army pilot who survives a plane crash in Egypt.
Qabil also stressed the importance of educational reform in Egypt and the need to “educate our teachers how to deal with children.
Egyptian actress Youssra told the press conference that “cinema is the fastest way to send a message to the heart and said that education alone is not enough.
“If education had succeeded in getting the message across we wouldn’t have to do it through art.
Youssra has recently appeared in a number of soap operas which tackled themes such as child trafficking and rape.
Khaled Abol Naga, an actor and goodwill ambassador who has been active in the fight against AIDS in Egypt, discussed the misinformation surrounding the transmission of AIDS and Hepatitis in Egypt, and gave something of a rambling speech about love.
“We write movies about love, but every now and again there’s something wrong in that love story which we must confront.
“When we see street children we shouldn’t say ‘poor thing,’ we should say, ‘I love you.’
The panel’s two American guests, Michael Corey Davis and Mira Sorvino, discussed human trafficking.
Both have been involved in film projects tackling the issue, and recounted the disturbing personal experiences of its victims.
Sorvino said that her 2005 film, “Human Trafficking, “woke the US up to the issue . a million people are brought into the US every year and still more are trafficked within its borders.
The actress – who is Amnesty International’s ambassador on violence against women – stressed that cinema is “very useful in shining a light.
Lawyer Laila Takla, head of the People’s Assembly foreign affairs committee and a board member of the Suzanne Mubarak International Women’s Movement for Peace, considered the clash between religions and the common features which Islam and Christianity share.
Takla’s concluded her speech – which made no reference to cinema – by saying “I’m proud of Egypt’s progress in human rights under President Mubarak.
Hammad opened the floor for questions from the audience with the proviso that she “would not accept people making statements, prompting an audience member to remind her that freedom of expression is one of the central pillars of human rights.