The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 16, 1998
Mar. 16 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 26


Public Health Group Shows Human Rights Films

Festival: Series of rarely-seen films includes Oscar-nominated documentary that premiered at Sundance

Joanne Cavanaugh
Special to The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Warnings of genocide in Rwanda. The mystery of Russian conscripts likely buried in Chechnya. The story behind the Branch Davidian conflagration in Texas. And a Salvadoran girl's daily struggle with California's anti-immigrant laws.

Ten films will evaluate these and other issues this month in a Human Rights Watch Global Showcase International Film Festival at the School of Hygiene and Public Health. The documentaries, while focusing on the overall issue of human rights, portray such abuses through personal tales.

"The films put a very personal spin on issue-oriented stories," says Andrea L. Holley, a master's candidate in international health and co-chair of the school's Health and Human Rights Group, which is organizing the festival. "The films provide new information."

One controversial film that gives such insight is Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. The film analyzes the 1993 FBI standoff with the Branch Davidian sect outside Waco, Texas, and the fiery deaths of the complex's 76 occupants.

That documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, led last year's eighth annual Human Rights Watch film festival at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater in New York. Hopkins is picking up 10 of those 23 films for this first-time festival; subjects include events in Brazil, Guatemala, Cuba and Palestine. Some showings will include speakers, who will discuss efforts to end rights violations.

"We want to show that people are trying to do things," says Holley, who led the effort to bring the festival to Hopkins. "There is hope."

The films' sober messages are provocative. In the Waco film, producers Dan Gifford and Amy Sommer Gifford underscore deep doubts about some of the FBI's official version of the story. Dan Gifford (who has a tenuous tie to Hopkins and Peabody Institute, having taken classes here in the 1960s) is a former television news reporter for CNN, ABC News and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

"It is a very political film and a very political subject," said Gifford from his home in Los Angeles. "It's about a typical government coverup, the ability to obfuscate things, [as well as] the failure of the press in our country.

"The cold, hard reality is that this is a subject that doesn't interest people. It rocks their beliefs," he continued. "Part of the problem for us was determining what the facts really were."

Among other things, the film incorporates home-video footage of the siege, which to some viewers reveals the Branch Davidians as a group of terrified families, not the extremist martyrs portrayed by the FBI and the press. The $1 million film was funded by the Giffords' company, SomFord Entertainment, and directed by William Gazecki.

The original version, which was shown at Sundance, was trimmed back by Dan Gifford from 165 minutes to a more marketable 136 minutes; cuts were also made with balance in mind. "It was more strident, more manipulative [before]; it was a political diatribe, although in a quiet way."

Other award-winning documentaries to be featured in the festival, which runs from March 23 through March 28, address international cases of abuses by governments, military dictatorships and patriarchal societies, as well as debates over conflicts between black and Jewish Americans.

The Health and Human Rights Group is presenting the series of rarely seen films to raise consciousness about human rights abuses in the United States and abroad. Health professionals, who are often assigned to politically volatile or poverty-stricken nations, often witness abuses, Holley says.

"They deal with acute violations and insidious daily violations. Some local doctors in the countries may turn a blind eye, signing off on paperwork saying a prisoner has not been tortured," she says. "But there is also the ethics of information: Do the patients understand drug treatments and the full effects of the medicine they may be taking?"

People's lack of control in their lives is the subject of several of the films, including The Betrayed, a story of 3,500 untrained Russian conscripts who in 1994 were ordered to take the Chechen town of Grozny and disappeared, as well as the frustrations of family trying to find out what happened.

"We don't ever really get the full story, even in the film, yet the footage is unbelievable," Holley says. "There's a Russian commander calling back and forth to Grozny; even he doesn't know what's going on. That's contrasted with families and mothers who are trying to find out."

Another film, Chronicle of a Genocide Foretold, reveals the roots of the 1994 ethnic war in Rwanda and how the slaughter of 500,000 Rwandan men, women and children might have been prevented.

And Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary shows how California's Proposition 187 denies public education and health care to illegal aliens. The story focuses in part on Mayra, a confident, ambitious 9-year-old from El Salvador who must navigate her life through the legal barriers.

Human Rights Watch is an advocacy group that investigates charges of violations--including inhumane treatment in prisons and discrimination against women or disenfranchised groups--and publicizes its findings. Members challenge governments and other forces to end abusive practices and respect international human rights laws, and press U.S. officials and others to act.


All films will be shown in the East Wing auditorium at the main building of the School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe St., East Baltimore, during the days and evenings from March 23 to 28. Admission is $1 for students, $2 for JHU employees and $3 to the public.

Synopses of the films can be found on the Web at

Monday, March 23
Noon. The Betrayed.

Tuesday, March 24
Noon. Stories of Honour and Shame.

Wednesday, March 25
Noon. It Ain't Love.
7 p.m. Ricardo, Miriam and Fidel.

Thursday, March 26
Noon. Devils Don't Dream.
7 p.m. 15 Children and The Betrayed.

Friday, March 27
Noon. Fear & Learning at Hoover High.
7 p.m. Waco: The Rules of Engagement.

Saturday, March 28
Noon to approximately 7 p.m. (back-to-back showings). Blacks and Jews, Waco: Rules of Engagement and Chronicle of a Genocide Foretold.