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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opening address at the Bergen International Film Festival

By Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre -

Dear friends (film makers, human rights defenders, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, audience), Checkpoints – the human rights programme under the Bergen International Film Festival – brings to mind artificial borders between people. Checkpoint Charlie – the crossing point between East and West in Berlin during the Cold War. A crossing point that could be passed (by some), but not easily. The word checkpoint also makes me think of road blocks: the Balkans during the wars in the 90s, and the Middle East today – between Israel and Palestine.
Checkpoints may be something you’d prefer to avoid. You may have to spend several hours in uncertainty and anticipation at a checkpoint. But checkpoints can also represent a positive challenge – they can be exciting, there may be new views, opportunities and new people, on the other side.
And yet, another association is the lack of checkpoints: the long border between Norway and Sweden, where there is just a signpost for public information that says: “The border follows the river.”
And here we are, dear friends, at the opening of the Checkpoints programme in Bergen. Thank you for inviting me. Now, some 18 Checkpoints films will be screened, many of them documentaries: films that hopefully will reduce borders and bring people closer together; films that will increase our knowledge, our understanding of living conditions in other parts of the world – the realities that people face in their daily lives.
In some countries this includes dictatorship – as recently documented in the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ. In other countries people who fight for fair elections and changes in governance are persecuted and brought to silence by authoritarian regimes – as demonstrated in Iran last summer. During the turmoil that followed the elections, thousands of mobile phones and small digital cameras documented the repression by the regime.
We see that the new digital technology is making censorship increasingly difficult. I am quite sure that many authoritarian regimes will eventually have to relinquish control.
However, we are not there yet, and I am convinced that documentary films have – and will continue to have – a crucial role to play in bearing witness to human rights violations. Films document what happens. Films can reveal and provide evidence of human rights abuses. In this way, film can be a strong tool for human rights defenders around the world, as demonstrated by the Norwegian film maker Maria Warsinski’s documentaries on war crimes in the Balkans.
I am also tempted to mention that the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir made a strong impression on me. It illustrated what war can do to people. A brave and timely film that has deservedly attracted a great deal of attention and fostered debate around the world. In a nightmarish landscape of war, we witness a young soldier who is almost unable to recall events from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. For me, Waltz With Bashir is the ultimate anti-war film. I know that one of the Checkpoints 2010 films – Gaza’s tårer, Vibeke Løkkeberg’s new film – has also been described by the international press as the ultimate anti-war film.
I could mention other films that have made a strong impression on me, for example Cry Freedom about Steve Biko’s fight against apartheid, and Hotel Rwanda, which used fiction to bring the genocide in 1994 to the attention of a broad public worldwide.
Dear friends,
The films presented here during Checkpoints 2010 give voice to the struggle for human rights in many different forms. For example the right not to be abused as a child soldier. I am referring here to the film Grace, Milly and Lucy. And the right to decent living conditions even if you are born in a poor country – as in the film Hunger.
Human rights films expand our understanding of how wide-ranging human rights are. They show us that personal commitment can make a real difference. Their stories are at once personal and universal in significance.
Therefore, I think that film is one of the most effective tools for reaching out to people - both within and beyond the borders of repressive regimes. Human rights films demonstrate that no regime in the world can deprive human beings of the right to think, dream and hope.
And hope fosters new and powerful alliances of film makers, human rights defenders, artists, journalists and others who can use independent documentary film to bring about social change in their communities. The day-to-day struggle to protect human rights is a struggle to make these rights a reality for those who are suffering abuse.
Films enable us to do just that – to make connections between our own lives and the lives of people who suffer human rights abuses. And once these connections have been made, we can better advocate international human rights standards for people in other parts of the world. Furthermore, film is an oral medium – it reaches out to illiterate and literate alike.
We know that promoting human rights through art can also be dangerous – yes, even deadly. On 25 August 2010, the Guatemalan (Maya) teacher, artist and human rights defender Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax was kidnapped on his way to work. He had just turned 32. He was tortured and killed and his body was found the next day. Leonardo promoted human rights through art, theatre, music and dance, and he was a tireless promoter of indigenous art at the national level. He had many friends in Norway.
Norway is a staunch defender of human rights for all and the principle of non-discrimination is at the core of all our efforts. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is no exception. It is a shocking fact that homosexuality is prohibited by law in over 60 countries in the world today. Yet in many of these countries, there is a dynamic gay community that expresses itself in various ways, including through film. At least two of the films in Checkpoints 2010 touch on this issue.
Film can open our minds to different perspectives. We remember Dustin Hoffman dressed in women’s clothing in Tootsie, challenging gender stereotypes. Last year, Sean Penn was awarded an Oscar for his role in the film Milk, about Harvey Milk, an openly gay politician in the US in the 70s. It shows how a charismatic leader can help to bring about important changes in a country. A modern-day Harvey Milk in the developing world lives in Nepal. Sunil Pant is an openly gay member of parliament. He is the leader of Blue Diamond Society, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. In just a few years, Sunil Pant and his organisation have helped to reduce homophobia in Nepalese society. There are now laws against discrimination against this group, and the introduction of a same-sex marriage law is being considered.
So, dear friends,
Film can challenge our stereotypes about gender and open our minds to the variety of individual expressions of gender. Challenging and changing biased attitudes is an essential part of our human rights efforts. Changing attitudes is rarely easy, but always possible. And – checkpoints can be passed. I see that the ambition of Checkpoints 2010 is to do just this. I wish you every success with the festival.


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