Festival Director Matthew Benetti speaks to SBS Film about this year's program and striking the right balance between information and entertainment.
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15 May 2012 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 15 May 2012 - 11:45 AM

Festival directors the world over struggle with the public perception that their programs are too niche. And when your festival also carries a gravitas and politicised agenda, the battle for attention is that much harder. For Matthew Benetti, director of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), the very nature of his five-year-old festival makes it a fight worth fighting.

“There is certainly a perception amongst some that our content is going to be overwhelming and confronting and we don't deny that,” Benetti tells SBS Film. “For a lot of it, that perception is accurate. But what we try to highlight and celebrate more than anything, is people's resilience and capacity to overcome hardships, to help and support one another and to fight back when injustices occur.

“Our stories are evocative and stirring and offer an intimate insight into the hardships people are facing. We hope that those working in human rights in more legal or academic circles, for example, can take away some inspiration and insight for the work they do in their everyday lives.”

Benetti also points to organisation's overriding artistic focus. “Before being a human rights organisation, first and foremost, we consider ourselves a film and art festival,” he explains. “If the content is not entertaining, if the storylines are not captivating, if films are not shot well or if the art is below par, the festival will fall flat on its face.”

The 12-day event kicks off in Melbourne on May 15, before touring other states with condensed, best-of programmes. The festival opener is Joe Berlinger's Under African Skies (pictured), a retrospective on the cultural and political environment from which Paul Simon's Graceland album emerged. “Graceland is an album many people love and there are still a lot of questions about how it was made and whether or not breaking the cultural boycott that was in place at the time by making the album was justified. The film seeks to answer those questions head on,” says Benetti, “and also touches on the complex relationship between art and social justice, which, of course, is particularly relevant to a festival like ours.”

Benetti programs the schedule in close collaboration with a board of directors that includes festival founders Evelyn Tadros and Naziath Mantoo, and considers securing Berlinger's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) a highlight of his tenure. “He is a filmmaker the HRAFF has great respect for and one we are always excited to include as part of the program. We were delighted to feature his astonishing film Crude in 2010,” recalls Benetti. “Joe Berlinger is an exceptional filmmaker and storyteller who has been very committed to exploring social justice issues throughout his career.”

The festival team is particularly enthused by the closing night film, Jon Shenk's The Island President, a rousing call-to-action by the former head of a nation on the road to ruin due to global warming. The screening of the 2011 TIFF Audience Award winner will be accompanied by a Q&A with the film's subject, ex-Maldives President Mahammed Nasheed. Its resonance with Australian audiences is assured, believes Benetti, “given its focus on climate change and the debate currently taking place in Australia around the carbon tax.”

Benetti admits to being conflicted on Australia's place in the human rights-themed film world. “From a festival point of view, too many films are being made for a TV format and not for film festival and theatrical markets,” he states. “Australian filmmakers have such a unique voice, our filmmakers have been creating exceptional works that reveal and provide incredible insight to social justice issues present in today's society. We love to support local talent.”

He points to the strand of Australian Shorts as an indication of just how dedicated local filmmakers are to social issues. “Australian filmmakers are not only engaging in content that explores human rights, but are also engaging in the process of making and creating with a human rights focus in mind. There are films that, on the surface, based on the subject matter, are not what you would consider a human rights film. However, the process in making the film, the relationships of collaboration, inclusion and engagement, all point to a culture that respects and engages with human rights.”

Highlights of the shorts program include James Khetie's The Telegram Man (with Gary Sweet, Jack Thompson and Sigrid Thornton), Lucy Hayes' bio-pic of transgender icon, Carmen Rupe, and the Yanyuwa-language animated short, The Chicken Hawk and the Crow (Malrrkarrka kula a-Wangka).

When asked for his favourite titles this year, Benetti cites The Netherlands' filmmaker Simone de Vries' post-traumatic stress disorder documentary, Beer is Cheaper Than Therapy, Emad Burnat's and Guy Davidi's 5 Broken Cameras, a chronicle of systemic brutality against Palestinians on the West Bank and winner of 2012 Sundance Directing Award for World Documentary, and the Gala Night presentation of Lucy Walker's Waste Land.

For more information on the festival visit the official website.