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Meeting Vaclav Havel

Sunday, Mar 21, 2010
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Ritu Sarin, Vaclav Havel and Tenzing Sonam in Prague.

We left Prague yesterday. The previous evening was the Closing Night ceremony of the One World Human Rights Documentary Film Festival and a most memorable one for us. Not only did we receive the Vaclav Havel Award from President Havel himself, we won another award, the Rudolf Vrba Award, which is given to the best film in the Right to Know category. The jury for this award is deliberately made up not of filmmakers but of individuals working in the field of human rights, and this year’s jury included Burmese activist, Ko Maung, and Chinese human rights lawyer and Charter ‘08 signatory, Li Xiongbing.

President Havel is a much loved and respected figure in the Czech Republic. People still address him as Mr President even though it’s been years since he left office. He is a much smaller man than we expected and his recent illness has left him looking frail. But there is a naughty sparkle in his eyes and you can still feel his drive and energy. At the award ceremony, he read out a brief statement explaining why he had selected our film for the special award. The way it works is that a jury pre-selects a small number of films that it believes will be of interest to Havel, and then he watches the short list and makes the final decision. His main reason for selecting our film was that it showed the complexity of the Tibet situation in a human way and for the first time made him understand the heart of the Tibetan people. We will post the English translation of his remarks and those of the Right to Know jury as soon as we get them from the festival.

After the ceremony, there was a party at the bar of the Lucerna Cinema, a beautiful old theatre built by President Havel’s grandfather. The bar was packed with people and – in a sight that is increasingly rare these days – full of smoke as the Czechs puffed away with abandon! Havel sat at a corner table and we had the honour of sitting with him. Our executive producer, Francesca von Habsburg, had joined us for the award ceremony and was as excited as us to meet him. One of the questions I asked him was what he thought about the division between His Holiness’ Middle Way Approach and those calling for independence. His response was that he felt it was important for His Holiness to have his way but equally important for the people to follow their own path. He told us that his hope for instituting the award in his name was that it would bring greater awareness to the causes the films represented.

Earlier, we had met Li Xiongbing. He told us that he felt it was really important for Chinese people to see our film. For him, it opened his eyes to the fact that the Chinese government was lying about His Holiness’ sincerity in not wanting independence. It was brave of Li Xiongbing to back our film for the Right to Know Award considering he has to go back to Beijing, and an encouraging sign that there are people in China who are willing to listen to our point of view when it comes to Tibet.

The One World Film Festival is a great example of how meaningful films that tackle a host of pressing global issues can be presented in a way that reaches out to all kinds of people. The audiences in Prague were mostly young and the screenings were all packed. This is an encouraging sign that documentary films about human rights issues are shedding their fuddy-duddy image of being only for activists or well-meaning supporters of causes, and have the potential to appeal to a more general audience.

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