Festival Watch: Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London

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I have had no better crash course in the problems facing the world today than the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at London's Ritzy cinema.

I have had no better crash course in the problems facing the world today than the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at London's Ritzy cinema.

The smiling, brilliantined, Robert McNamara was the centre of attention at the first night, in the extraordinary documentary, The Fog of War. At 85, McNamara presents himself as ready to talk about his seven years as the American secretary of state during the Vietnam War. He was responsible for - by his own estimation - more than three million Vietnamese deaths (and those of 56,000 Americans) but now wants us to see him as an intelligent, reflective man, who can admit his errors and feel remorse.

For the first half-hour, he almost persuades us. He explains how he masterminded excesses in the Second World War, like the dropping of fire-bombs on Tokyo which killed more than half the civilian population. But he now admits he was behaving as a war criminal, and that "proportionality should be a guideline in war".

But then we - and McNamara - are sucked into South-East Asia. A tape of President Johnson's private conversations with McNamara slaps us in the face: "Kill some of 'em, that's what I want to do," the president says about Vietnamese civilians. Then we see McNamara, with graphs and pie-charts, explaining how he is incinerating Vietnam. He now admits the Vietnamese were engaged in a legitimate anti-colonial struggle. Yet, when asked if he feels guilty, he waves his hand, saying, "I don't want to go into further discussions."

Even with this remarkable film, the festival had not peaked. In The World Stopped Watching, the celebrated photographer Bill Gentile and the columnist Randolph Ryan are taken back to Nicaragua for the first time since they covered the civil war there in the 1980s. Then, 30,000 Nicaraguans died in an attempt by the Reagan-backed Contras to overthrow the democratic-socialist Sandinistas. Here, as in Vietnam, the pretext of a war against communism was used to wage a horrific campaign against anti-colonial movements and in favour of US business interests. The Nicaraguan people did not want American intervention - but they got it, in in the form of bullets and butchery.

Gentile's images of Carmen Recanez, a peasant farmer whose family - including her two sons - was slaughtered, became internationally famous. She and one relative survived in the wreckage of her farm. She explained then: "We hid. That's why they could not kill us. We don't know what we will do now. We don't know." Now, 17 years on, Gentile pulls up at the same farm, and which is now rebuilt. "I've been waiting for you," Carmen says, as she bursts into tears. "We used to have work and clothes for our children. Now we have nothing but misery," she explains.

The wreckage of that war is still everywhere: Nicaragua has been turned into a passive, IMF-approved, slum. The two men stumble through a grief-soaked country, finding one familiar face after another. We also see footage from the 1980s of a crazed Contra thug called Jimmy Leo, whose atrocities included massacring a wedding party, bride and groom included. Ryan decides to track Jimmy down, and finds him now in the Nicaraguan parliament, where he is an MP. Fatter, but no less thuggish, he dismisses the massacre as "a mistake", and barks, "The propaganda against us was grotesque. Anyway, that"s war. They assassinated our families too." He is one of 11 former Contras now sitting in the 93-member national assembly. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the US should not be giving aid to the Nicaraguans. It should be paying reparations.

Other highlights included Route 181, another journey, this time along the border proposed in 1947 (in United Nations resolution 181) to divide Israel and the Palestinian state that never came into being. It is a road trip along a line that bisects a Middle East that might have been, an imaginary border in a land obsessed with borders. The film-makers - one Israeli, one Palestinian - engage with whoever they find, bigot and peacenik alike.

Another highlight was State of Denial, a study of the 4.2 million South Africans living with HIV/Aids, and of how Thabo Mbeki is squandering the glorious history of the African National Congress with his bizarre denial that HIV causes Aids. The country with the best prospects in Africa now has the worst Aids epidemic, thanks to a pair of hideous conjoined twins: Mbeki's holocaust denial and the West's refusal for over a decade to allow cheap, generic, anti-retroviral drugs to be manufactured within South Africa for those who desperately need them.

Perhaps this sounds perverse, but these films inspire hope, not despair. They are not feel-bad, cinema-as-abyss movies to endure in order to make yourself feel virtuous. On the contrary, they show that, even in the most depraved circumstances, many people become heroes. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival was a chance to see the best, as well as the worst, of humanity.