This is an article I submitted to the Estonian newspaper, Postimees. It covers a range of events, especially Pöff, the annual Black Nights Film Festival, but does include a dance project towards the end.
Human Rights in Fact and Fiction
The past two weeks 21 November - 6th December, 2008, saw a flurry of activity in Tallinn around the theme of human rights: the “Human for Real” strand in the Black Nights Film Festival, two seminars, and on the related topic of integration, Zuga dance company's “EAST VIRUMAA REPORT”. There is a strong tradition of artists, such as Goya, Picasso, novelists and even choreographers addressing human rights issues, alongside the witness of journalists and activists. Indeed, acclaimed American writer, David Simon, believes that while fiction and documentary both have their place in depicting reality, sometimes the former can best describe social truths.
Pöff celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with ten films in a special programme, but given the times we live in, similar themes also came up in the rest of the Festival schedule. “Letter to Anna” is a melancholy documentary devoted to the famous Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaja. The director, Eric Bergkraut, made a series of interviews with Politkovskaja shortly before her politically motivated murder, and he uses this footage as the core for the celebration of a vibrant, courageous personality, concerned for those suffering abuse. The Editor of Novaya Gazeta recalled the contrast between her volcanic outbursts in staff meetings and her gentleness with victims of oppression.
Another documentary, “Operation Homecoming”, by Richard Robbins, provides a platform for US serviceman in Iraq to describe the reality of fighting on the front line: the dull routine of service, punctuated by high drama, the accidental killing of a civilian, or the escort of a dead soldier's body to his home town. In the main Festival programme, “Hurt Locker” covers similar ground in an exciting, well-crafted fictional film by Kathryn Bigelow, concerning a bomb disposal team in Baghdad. However, by focusing only on the US soldiers, both these films lack the resonance of Nick Broomfield's docudrama, “Battle for Haditha”, which I saw earlier this year, and provides equal time to the opposing combatants and, crucially, the civilians caught in the middle.
“The Shadow of the Holy Book” tackles the extraordinary story of the “Ruhnama”, a book about life, the universe and everything, by Turkmenistan's megalomaniac leader, Saparmurart Niyazov. Given equal status to the Koran in its home country, we hear that maths lessons in the schools have now been replaced by the rote learning of its mish-mash of musings. Director, Arto Halonen, also strips the veil from the Western companies who have cynically paid for translations of the “Ruhnama” into Turkish, French, Czech and many other languages in order to win multi-million dollar contracts. Halonen and his colleague, Kevin Frazier, tour the world desperately trying, and usually failing, to secure interviews with executives about their complicity with a vicious dictator who squandered the wealth of his rich country on self-aggrandisement, while his people suffer hardships. Niyazov died two years ago, but his successor retains the “Ruhnama” as a valuable control mechanism. While addressing a serious topic, the film's humour accords with the craziness of the story.
The many and varied abuses taking place in the central asian republics also provided the main theme of the human rights seminar linked to the Pöff programme. Perhaps saddest to hear was that even a country with a better record than many, Kazakhstan, is currently moving further away from democratic norms. Activists, Adil Jalilov and Sardar Bagishbigov, braved the wrath of their governments to address the meeting. In the second half of the seminar there was a wide ranging discussion on human rights, including the situation in Estonia. While I acknowledge successes, such as Estonia's high rating in international indices for press freedom, I was disappointed that both Marina Kaljurand, Estonian ambassador to Kazakhstan, and Prof. Evhan Tsybulenko of the Tallinn Technical University Human Rights Centre, dismissed criticism of discrimination in Estonia from organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.
An unrelated seminar two weeks earlier, organised by the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights and supported by the EU Commission and the European Network Against Racism, focused on discrimination against minorities in the Russian Federation, Hungary and elsewhere, and presented sociological research and specific examples supporting the argument that Estonia still has some way to go to meet the highest international standards of anti-discrimination policy.
Also away from Pöff, united dancers of ZUGA presented their “EAST VIRUMAA REPORT in the form of a concert”. After the Bronze soldier disturbances, the company had won a grant to “foster integration of youth in East Estonia into the Estonian society” and chose the demanding option of visiting five centres and spending three days in each place making performances with young people, reflecting the participants' wishes and concerns, using an expressive dance process rarely seen in North-East Estonia. The performance in the Kanuti Gildi Saal gave some excerpts performed by the members of Zuga, which ranged from jolly tricks to a slow meditation with unison movement, all ably accompanied by Kalle Tikas. In a frank discussion afterwards, they described the problems they had faced, such as not enough time to win the confidence of the performers, and well-intentioned but unhelpful interventions from some local organisers; overall the assignment was so tough that they are not likely to repeat it. But there were successes: a performance with mixed Russian and Estonian community participants, when they had been told that it would be impossible for the two groups to work together, and the great satisfaction of those who took part.
The concept of human rights has become a cornerstone of democracy in the 60 years since the signing of the landmark UN Declaration. It was gratifying to see this anniversary celebrated in Tallinn, where much has been already been achieved, but where there is still more to be done in the view of several well-informed, international human rights organisations.