Tag Archives: human rights

Aming’s X Appeal


The superhero tradition gets a radical makeover in a new movie, with its filmmakers squaring off against homophobia and conservatism in Indonesia today.

Sara Veal

Under a bright spotlight, a white-haired, black cat-suited superhero strikes a fierce pose, her beautifully painted face solemn and sultry. Her manicured talons are enough to make you think twice about crossing her, but it’s her spike-stiletto boots that are the real concern.

Unexpectedly, the Lady Gaga-like dominatrix struts over and flops down beside me on the couch,  where I have been watching, entranced and intimidated.

“My feet are killing me! I’ve had to wear this outfit every day for a month!” Underneath all that pomp and pleather is the lovable Aming, down-to-earth even in sky-high heels.

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Jeff Daniels: Life lessons on screen


Sara Veal

“The moment I knew I wanted to make films for the rest of my life, was when I learned how to edit on a computer…

…And I put what was in my head on the screen. The first time I saw what was in my head on the screen, I cried,” says Jeff Daniels, a Melbourne-based filmmaker and high school teacher.

Throughout the past decade, the 31-year-old has pursued this love for film in various ways, working as a researcher and assistant editor at New York production houses and teaching video production at a Melbourne high school, along with history.

At this year’s Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), Daniels presented his first full-length documentary, 10 Conditions of Love, which profiled Uighur human rights activist and prominent businesswoman — once the wealthiest entrepreneur in China — Rebiya Kadeer and explored her personal sacrifices throughout her relentless fight for her people’s autonomy, gaining the label of “terrorist-separatist” from the Chinese government.

The documentary is the culmination of a seven-year US$250,000 process, set in motion when Daniels first heard about the Uighur people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that had lived in the far west of China for more than 1,000 years, from a friend teaching English in Beijing.

The native New Yorker said his subsequent research into the Uighur challenged his perspective on 9/11. Several people he knew had died in the Twin Towers and at the time it was mentioned that Osama Bin Laden might be in China, which he accepted without question, eager to assign blame.

“I eventually understood that the Chinese government was persecuting the Uighur, their religious practices, their political freedoms, in the name of a global war on terror. And I felt manipulated. I didn’t want other people to be as misinformed.”

So began his mission to tell the Uighur’s story, without any idea of anyone would ever see the final product, using his teacher’s salary to fund the bulk of the project, as broadcasters were wary of a first-time director and the controversial topic.

Four years into making the film, after gaining the trust of Uighur exiles in New York, he was introduced to Kadeer.

“It was then that I realized that I didn’t just have a news story, a five-minute piece for CNN, I had a film, and it was about Rebiya… she embodied her people’s struggle with her own history,” he says.

Although he had found his star, the challenges continued, especially with the language barrier.

Kadeer, who was only released from prison three years ago, is still learning English and many Uighur translators felt too intimated to interpret their icon’s words, so he’s grateful to her American colleagues and daughter Rey “who speaks perfect English”.

Daniels’ perseverance has paid off, as his film was selected for this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). The film is an Australian production.

MIFF’s announcement came shortly after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, which was instigated by 1,000 Uighurs and led to 200 deaths, most reportedly Han Chinese.

The Chinese government called on the festival to ban the film, describing Kadeer, the president of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) and the Uighur American Association, as their “Osama bin Laden”.

MIFF’s organizers declined, and received death threats, by email, phone and fax. In a single day, 75,000 Chinese citizens hacked into MIFF’s website, leading to the festival losing AUS$60,000 in online ticket sales, as every film had been marked as “sold out”.

Daniels assumes he won’t be able to return to China, but stills hopes people in China will be able to view his film and “see a point of a view that the government does not want them to see”.

To this end, he is working on a Mandarin version of the film.

He was surprised that considering the influence China has over Indonesia, JiFFest’s screening of 10 Conditions of Love didn’t seem problematic. Still, he was on the verge of pulling out, following the ban of fellow Australian production Balibo.

“I called the director about this – Bob Connolly – and spoke to him about it. And after really thinking about it, I just felt it was more appropriate for me to show the people in Indonesia, a story about a strong Muslim woman standing up to her government… to fight for her people’s basic human rights, including freedom of speech.”

Aside from her human rights work, 10 Conditions of Love considers Kadeer as a wife and a mother, roles that have often conflicted with the former.

The title refers to Kadeer’s 10 conditions for remarriage, after her first husband divorced her in favor of a promotion and allegiance to the Communist Party.

Her conditions were: “He must be moral; he must have a literature degree; there must be two years’ age difference; it must be love at first sight; he must have gone to prison for his beliefs; we must truly love each other; loyalty; we must fight for the same goal; and he must be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of our people.”

“Love should be unconditional… but because of the position Rebiya was put in, she had to have these conditions in order to love, and I felt that story… and the title… really said a lot about what Rebiya had been through, what her people were going through,” Daniels says.

Kadeer found these qualities in her second husband Sidik Rouzi, an associate professor and human rights activist who had in fact had been the one to convince Kadeer that it was possible to do more for one’s people. Their love story offers several of the film’s standout moments, from Kadeer charismatically describing how they met, to Rouzi shedding tears when recalling his wife’s 6-year imprisonment.

The film is further characterized by Kadeer’s conflict with her daughter Rey, who, due to her mother’s eventful life, had to raise her 11 siblings.

Rey resents the high price the family has had to pay, particularly with the 2006 and 2007 imprisonment of her two younger brothers, for their involvement in “secessionist activities”, which many see as punishment for Kadeer’s crusade.

“It’s a battle that you want fought, but by somebody else… it was very difficult for Rey,” he says.

Daniels sees his two occupations – filmmaking and teaching – as comparable and overlapping, and tries to make history topics personal, enlivening them with multimedia.

He wants to be able to continue teaching, but is open to what the future holds.

“I’m very happy at the moment because someone asked me, where do you see yourself in 15 years? And I see myself exactly where I am now.”

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Petr Lom: Finding his place in the world


Sara Veal

Six years ago, if you had told Petr Lom that he’d be presenting a documentary at the Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), he wouldn’t have believed you.

“Are you kidding? I had no idea what you could do with films, with documentaries,” says the Czech-Canadian who has a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard University.

Many might consider an Ivy League doctorate and a lecturing position at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest an enviable career, but Lom, now 41, found it “very narrow”, “too lonely” and “self-centered”.

Through academic visits to Central Asia, he encountered a more fulfilling occupation, one he entirely taught himself, and to which he could apply his thesis-editing skills: freelance filmmaker.

“Basically, I had the idea for a film and I just went and made it. Bought a camera, all that. I spent several months in Kyrgyzstan, researching the subjects, finding contacts… I was very scared, I almost didn’t do it,” he says, referring to what became Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, which won the jury award at the 2005 United Nations Festival and was screened at festivals in the US, Asia and the Middle East.

His first film met with protest in Kyrgyzstan because of concerns about the filming of real kidnappings. This combination of acclaim and controversy has characterized his subsequent films, which have been internationally screened, garnering prestigious awards like the Grand Prix at Chicago International Documentary Festival.

At JiFFest, Lom introduced his latest film Letters to the President, which follows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on trips to the countryside, focusing on the letters poor Iranians write to him, requesting everything from sheep to prayer gowns – and the bureaucratic processing of these millions of letters.

Via this device, Lom’s documentary depicts a side of Iran not usually visible to outsiders, exposing deep class divisions, and allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether the populist president is as bad as he’s usually represented in the West.

Another two of his films were screened at JiFFest: You Cannot Hide From Allah, about a Pakistani taxi driver who won US$54 million in the US lottery and returned to his hometown to become mayor, and On a Tightrope, featuring Uygur orphans learning to tightrope. Lom also taught a masterclass, sharing tips and techniques of working in conflict situations.

Lom prefers making films about ordinary people, a preference that is clear even in Letters to the President, in which the most memorable scene is two women bemoaning the price of strawberries and the standout character is a charismatic propaganda-poster painter who is patiently waiting for a response to his letter.

His films are observational verite, with no narration, minimal title cards and no set ups, with the only interventions being questions from himself and his translator. His subjects relax and open up remarkably in front of his camera, which is all the more astonishing considering that the 1.83-meters-tall blond filmmaker is likely prone to attracting attention in the countries he has filmed in.

“Sometimes spending a lot of time with your subjects helps you be invisible, because it makes you accepted by them, and other times, it’s just the energy you exude,” he says.

Letters to the President is notable for the rare access Lom had to Ahmadinejad. He succeeded where others failed, including Oliver Stone, which he attributes to his proposal to focus on the letter-writing, a request the authorities likely found a refreshing antidote to applications related to Iran’s nuclear technology – as well as his invaluable network of contacts.

“The smart approach to working in any authoritarian country is to work officially. Don’t try to sneak around, it’s a bad idea, it won’t work. So you have to try and find a subject for which you can get official permission, which is going to have to be something relatively positive.”

The promised access wasn’t completely delivered – his planned interviews with Ahmadinejad never happened due to the latter constantly rescheduling – and his five months in Iran were mostly spent “fighting for permissions”, rather than filming.

This thwarted his original intention, which was “to make a film that’s respectful, that shows the point of view of the so-called enemy”.

“I didn’t have proper access… so how could I make that movie if the only narrative line I had was to set it up as a propaganda film and then undermine it as the film goes along?”

The Iranian response to the footage was mixed, and he doubts he’ll be able to re-enter the country under the current government.

“The vice president… he’s in the film and he doesn’t like how he comes across… Ahmadinejad didn’t like it because he said it makes Iran look like a poor country,” he says, adding that was inevitable as he was only allowed to follow the president to the poorest areas of the country.

“In a way they were happy that the film got a lot of international publicity. They put in the newspapers, ‘Ahmadinejad goes to Berlinale’.”

Lom also planned to focus more on ordinary Iranians, such as the painter, whom he thought could be “the main character”. However, as the film took a more critical shape, he realized a character-driven film could be dangerous for those involved.

“Now it’s a vignette film, you meet people here or there, but it’s not really about anyone in particular… so nobody’s really affiliated.”

Lom describes Ahmadinejad as “chaotic”, but otherwise reserves his views.

“I only filmed what you see so my opinion is the same as yours. He seems like a very religious person, he’s a very good politician, he seems like he genuinely cares about poor people. Is that just an act because he’s a politician? I don’t know.”

He is currently looking for his next project, as his plan to film Uyghurs in Palau who were released from Guantanamo, fell through two weeks ago. The former prisoners were worried about angering either the US, China or Palau.

“I told them, I won’t release the film until you find a new home somewhere… they still didn’t want to be in the movie.”

Although he’s usually “depressed for a month” by such setbacks, he accepts them as part of the work.

“The bigger the film, the bigger the risk. You never know things are going to work out.”

Despite the international recognition his films have received, Lom says it remains challenging to realize new projects and secure funding.

“In the broadcast world a lot of it about trust; most films don’t get made, so your reputation helps a lot, when you’re looking for work. But is it that much easier? No, you’re always starting from zero; you always have to convince people.”

Nonetheless, Lom intends to remain a freelancer, as it allows him “to make creative documentaries, the way I want to make them”.

Having so successfully made a dramatic switch from one profession to another, one wonders if there’s anything else Lom might want to tackle?

“Nothing. I am naturally fitted to what I do. I’ve found my place in the world,” he says.

“When I was an academic, I was always asking, well what am I going to do with myself? Now I just ask, what film am I going to make next? And how am I going to be able to make that film?”

Visit http://www.letterstothepresidentmovie.com for more information.

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Mu Sochua: One of Cambodia’s precious gems


Sara Veal

When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly insulted an unspecified female politician recently, he got more than he bargained for: His implied target turned around and sued him.

The prime minister’s insult might be considered typical in a country with continuing gender inequality, but that didn’t mean Mu Sochua was going to take it lying down.

For 20 years, Mu Sochua has been a voice for exploited Cambodians. As the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia in 1972, the then 18-year-old was exiled, with no chance to say goodbye to her parents, who later vanished under the Khmer Rouge regime. She spent 18 years overseas, studying and working in Paris, the US and Italy and in refugee camps along the Thai–Cambodian border.

Since her return in 1989, she has been hands-on in rebuilding her homeland, first as an activist and now as a politician, focusing on women’s and children’s issues.

“I had the choice of being part of the reconstruction of Cambodia and I took that choice,” said Sochua, a member of parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the leading opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

In 1991, Sochua formed the first Khmer women’s organization, Khemara, and joined the FUNCINPEC political party, winning a national assembly seat representing Battambang in 1998. She soon became the first female minister for women’s and veterans’ affairs.

“What prepared me for the job was my early return, before the country was even officially open to the Western world, which put an embargo on it during 1975 to 1990.”

Her first ministerial act was to launch a national campaign for gender equality, Neary Rattanak (Women Are Precious Gems), which transformed an old Khmer proverb, “A man is gold; a woman is a white piece of cloth” into “Men are gold; women are precious gems.”

The rewritten proverb argues that women are as valuable as men; if “dirtied”, they can shine again like gems, rather than be stained forever like a muddied cloth.

However, in July 2004, she resigned, claiming corruption hindered her work. She joined the SRP, becoming the party’s first female secretary-general in 2006.

Her struggle has been recognized by several nominations and awards, including a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nomination and the 2005 Vital Voices Human Rights Global Leadership Award, presented by then US senator Hillary Clinton.

Sochua, who is fluent in English, French and Khmer, and holds degrees in psychology and social work from US universities,  says her international background enhances her work, but only to a point.

“The Western education allows me to know what the international standards are for human rights, for gender equality and for quality of life, and it allows me to set these standards for the women of Cambodia, but in a modified way in order to keep in balance values and culture.

“I am very clear about what can work in Cambodia and what is totally from the West.”

She believes the key to positive change lies in giving people the right to participate in national development without discrimination.

“[Development] must be based on the preservation of the country’s resources, which are plentiful but so badly managed because of corruption and lack of rule of law.”

Sochua’s three daughters have all followed in her humanitarian footsteps. Although she says Asian people look at her with “sorry eyes” when they hear she has no sons, she is fiercely proud of her girls, saying they inspire her to fight even harder for equal access to education and healthcare and for gender equality.

“[Each time] I go to the police station and work with survivors of gender-based violence, I imagine myself a victim and that my daughters are caught in this cycle of violence.”

Her struggle led to her decision to sue Hun Sen for defamation, after he allegedly called her “cheung klang” (strong leg), an offensive term for women, during a speech in her Kampot constituency. He immediately responded with a countersuit, a threat to remove her parliamentary immunity and a request that the Cambodian Bar Association investigate her lawyer, Kong Sam Onn.

Without immunity, Sochua faces imprisonment and her lawyer faces disbarment. However, she is determined to proceed with the case.

“If no action was taken against [his] words, the people will never want to seek assistance from me again,” she says, adding his comments violated her rights and generally devalued women.

While she believes she has little chance of a fair trial, with the courts said to be under the influence of the executive, she hopes her case will publicize the weaknesses of the judiciary and demonstrate that no one is above the law.

Whatever the outcome, Sochua continues to look to the future. She hopes Cambodia can eventually be economically independent and a key player in ASEAN, citing Indonesia as a model to follow.

“For that we need to be accountable to our people first and be credible in the eyes of the ASEAN community,” she says. “That is the long-term investment I am working on and why I intend to remain in politics: To give what it takes to bring new leadership for Cambodia and to give our youth of today a chance to have what youth in neighboring nations are enjoying.”

This determination shows she cannot be stained by any dirty words, no matter who throws them.

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