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  • Country USA
  • Language English

After weeks of chit-chat about what celebrities are going to win, wear and say at the Oscars, tonight's opening of the fourth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival offers the opportunity for more meaningful movie discussion. The small but well-rounded program includes eight dramatic or documentary features, each followed by a guest speaker and audience discussion about the film and the human-rights issues explored on the screen. (U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which has offices in Toronto, conducts research, publishes reports and seeks media attention to influence governments to stop human-rights abuses in their countries.)

The festival's star attraction is 2006 Palme d'or winner at Cannes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, an exploration of the human cost of civil war, set during the 1920s Irish uprising. The Monday screening, which includes an appearance by its veteran British director, Ken Loach ( Riff-Raff, My Name Is Joe), is sold out. The film opens elsewhere in Canada on March 16.

There is a second Irish film being featured, offering a decidedly different slice of Eire life. The award-winning Pavee Lackeen (Sunday, 3 p.m.) has a fresh documentary feel thanks to the performances by amateur actors who play a mother and daughter living in a trailer in an impoverished, marginalized traveller community. Globe and Mail television critic and author John Doyle speaks after the screening.

The opening-night film, Laurent Herbiet's engrossing and topical drama Mon Colonel (tonight, 8:30 p.m.), was co-written by Greek director Costa-Gavras ( Missing, Hanna K., Z etc.). Set mostly during the Algerian 1954-1962 war of independence with France, Mon Colonel opens like a standard whodunit -- an old man, retired Colonel Duplan (Olivier Gourmet), is shot dead while alone in his study.

The contemporary investigators, a dishevelled French detective and a pretty female military officer, start receiving anonymous packages containing excerpts from a diary written by young French lieutenant (Robinson Stévenin) during his tour of duty in Algeria. The lieutenant's story, filmed in black and white, focuses on his strained relationship with the colonel, whose rationale for using torture as a counterinsurgency tactic has a chilling resonance in the context of the current war on terror. CBC Radio's Anna Maria Tremonti and Julia Hall, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, co-host a post-film discussion.

Other HRW films include: The Dignity of Nobodies (Mon., 8:45 p.m., at NFB Mediatheque, 150 John St.), an ambitious yet intimate documentary about Argentina's underclass; Source (Tues., 6:30 p.m.), about the oil industry's influence in Azerbaijan; Offside (Tue., 8:30 p.m.), a topical feature (given the recent Quebec soccer hijab kerfuffle) by Jafar Panahi about Iranian female soccer fans; John and Jane (Thur., 8:30 p.m.), a rich, cinematic and often hilarious doc following six young Indians working late-night shifts at call centres.

The slow-moving yet utterly captivating character study Dry Season, screening tomorrow at 8 p.m., sends the most subtle yet powerful message. After a truth-and-reconciliation process in Chad offers amnesty to former civil-war fighters, a young man leaves his village seeking revenge against his father's killer, now a baker. The two form a tentative bond in a story in which a gunshot, surprisingly, is the sound of hope.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, March 2-8, $10.14 ($5.90 for Cinematheque members). AGO's Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas St. W., 416-968-3456, http://www.cinemathequeontario.ca.

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