Documentary film directors are often inspired by a dose of idealism, and even by the belief that their exposure of some atrocity or injustice can stir public outrage and government action. But rare is the case in which filmmakers actually set out to do good and can claim to have achieved it. Eric van den Broek and Katarina Rejger are two such directors.
Five years ago, having already made several movies about the aftermath of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the Dutch couple embarked on an extraordinary project called Videoletters, designed to further reconciliation among people from the former Yugoslavia who had once been friends and who had been separated and even alienated by the bloody nationalist conflict.
The idea was simple: Someone who had lost touch with, say, a childhood friend or a lifelong neighbor from a different ethnic group was invited to record a message. The directors then traced and showed the video letter to the "lost" friend, who was usually eager to reply. In most cases, the exchange resulted in an emotional reunion.
What has given these experiences political weight, however, is that since April, nine of these video letters have been broadcast by television stations in each of the six nations that were once Yugoslavia -- Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia -- as well as Kosovo.
"I think in general the reaction has been very positive," van den Broek said in a telephone interview from Montenegro, a stop on a bus tour across the former Yugoslavia in which he and his partner are showing video letters in villages. "It's about people and that's what they recognize. It's not about politics."
Six of these video letters were to be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (hrw.org/iff), opening yesterday at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York.
The festival's program includes films set in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Iraq, Brazil, China, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Palestine as well as the former Yugoslavia -- movies that might otherwise never reach a wider public. More fundamentally, though, the festival is itself a declaration of cinema's power to expose human rights abuses and to celebrate those who combat them.
Rather than revisiting horrors, the project seeks to demonstrate that reconciliation is possible, starting with individuals for whom ethnic differences were unimportant -- many former Yugoslavs are themselves of mixed extraction -- until the conflicts convulsed their lives.
Van den Broek said that at first many people were unwilling to make video letters for fear of being rebuffed or of being thought traitors. "It was easier to deliver them because we would tell people they'd received a video letter and ask if they'd like to see it," van den Broek recalled. "We wouldn't say who sent it, so they were curious. And when they saw it, they'd break down in tears."
Only in two cases, he said, did recipients refuse to respond. In the divided city of Mostar, a Muslim sent a video letter to a Croatian friend who lived nearby but whom he had not seen in nine years. Van den Broek said the Croatian consulted a Catholic priest, who ordered him not to respond. And in a second case, he said, a Serb refused to answer a video letter from a Muslim friend because he feared it would become known that he had fought alongside the Muslims.