Now in its 22nd year, the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns to New York from June 16 to 30 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Nineteen of the best human rights themed films from 12 countries will be screened, 17 of them New York premieres.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival program this year is organized around four themes: Truth, Justice and Accountability; Times of Conflict and Responses to Terrorism; Human Dignity, Discrimination and Resources; and Migrants’ and Women’s Rights.

The festival will launch on June 16 with a fundraising Benefit Night for Human Rights Watch, featuring the Bosnia-set political thriller The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz. The main program will begin on June 17, with the Opening Night presentation of Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, the latest documentary from Pamela Yates, here with her sixth film in the festival. Another highlight is the Festival Centerpiece on June 25, Sing Your Song, an inspiring portrait of Harry Belafonte, with the legendary entertainer and activist present to discuss the film. On June 26 the festival will feature a special program, No Boundaries: Tim Hetherington, a tribute to the visionary work of the late photographer, filmmaker and journalist. The Closing Night screening on June 30 will be Life, Above All, a moving coming-of-age drama set in a South African township ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

Truth, Justice and Accountability

Part political thriller, part memoir, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator illustrates how an individual filmmaker’s long-term relationship with a topic and an archive of footage can shape not only the course of a human rights investigation but the interpretation of history. It is a story of destinies joined together by Guatemala’s past and of how Pamela Yates’ 1982 documentary When the Mountains Tremble, which will also be shown during the festival, emerges as an active player in the present by becoming forensic evidence in a genocide case against a military commander. In a twist of fate, Yates was allowed to shoot the only known footage of the army as it carried out the mass killings. Twenty-five years later, this footage becomes evidence in an international war-crimes case against the army commander who permitted her to film. (Opens theatrically in Fall 2011 through International Film Circuit. Premieres on PBS’s POV series in 2012.)

Hollman Morris and Juan José Lozano’s Impunity documents the hearings in which Colombian paramilitary members describe atrocities they have committed as the families of their victims listen and watch on computer screens. Through this testimony, footage of the crimes, and interviews with victims and experts, the brutal history of paramilitary violence comes to light. Yet due to serious irregularities in the justice and peace process, many families express their fear that they will never know the truth surrounding the deaths of their loved ones, and that the perpetrators will escape punishment.

La Toma captures the November 6, 1985 siege of Bogota’s Palace of Justice, home to Colombia’s Supreme Court by 35 heavily armed M-19 guerrillas. The military moved in and close to a 100 people were killed—including nearly all of the Supreme Court Justices—and 12 others remained unaccounted for. The family of Carlos Rodriguez, like many others, believe their loved ones were “disappeared”—removed from the building by government forces, accused of aiding the guerrillas, tortured, and then killed. Twenty-five years later they demand answers, and filmmakers Angus Gibson and Miguel Salazar expertly record the events that lead to the highly charged trial.

Times of Conflict and Responses to Terrorism

A story of idealism, loyalty and betrayal, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s Better This World goes to the heart of the “war on terror” and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in the US after 9/11. When two teenagers, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, seek to “make a difference” by participating in the anti-war movement, they are introduced to a local activist 10 years their senior. Months later at the volatile 2008 Republican Party Convention, the two cross a line that radically changes their lives. The result: multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high-stakes entrapment defense hinging on the actions of a controversial FBI informant. (Premieres on PBS’s POV series on September 6.)

By providing a backdrop for the urgent blog posts and tweets that became a lifeline to Iranian pro-democracy activists, The Green Wave recounts the dramatic events of one of the most severe domestic crises in the history of Iran. Filmmaker Ali Samadi Ahadi takes viewers into the world of Iranian citizens who risked their lives in the hopes of a better future. Interweaving online posts, video footage caught by those present, and extensive interviews, the film is an artistic portrait of modern political rebellion, an exposé of government-sanctioned violence, and a vision of hope that continued resistance may galvanize a new future.

Patrick Reed’s remarkable The Team brings us behind the scenes of an innovative television soap opera that aims to ease Kenya’s volatile ethnic tensions and set the stage for dialogue and understanding. The story line focuses on a tribally diverse soccer team whose members must find ways to overcome deep-rooted hatred and work together to succeed. Thousands of viewers across Kenya gather around their TV screens to watch the story unfold—building mutual understanding and acceptance with each episode. Yet the message may come too late, as the actors themselves may become victims of the discrimination they have been so passionately seeking to combat.

In If A Tree Falls director Marshall Curry (Street Fight) and co-director Sam Cullman turn their attention to the group the FBI calls America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat”—the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). In December 2005, Daniel McGowan, a New York City social justice organizer, was arrested by federal agents for his links to the organization that carried out arson, from Oregon to Long Island, against businesses they accused of destroying the environment. The filmmakers provide a closer look at the group’s disillusionment with strategies of nonviolent protest, while posing difficult questions about trying to effect change in a post-9/11 world. (Opens theatrically on June 22 through Oscilloscope Laboratories.)

Hebron is home to 160,000 Palestinians and 600 Israeli settlers in the city center—plus 2,000 Israeli soldiers to defend them. The conflict between neighbors in This is My Land… Hebron is fueled by the determination to conquer one more meter of the city, keep the enemy at bay, and simply stand one’s ground. Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson’s controversial film includes interviews with both Israelis and Palestinians living in Hebron, as well as activists on both sides, members of the Israeli parliament, and prominent Ha’aretz journalists, to lift the lid on a city fraught with violence and hate.

Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s shocking You Don’t Like The Truth – 4 Days Inside Guantanamo uses seven hours of declassified security camera footage from the Canadian government to show the interrogation of 16-year-old Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and Guantanamo detainee. The film delves into the unfolding high-stakes game of cat and mouse between captor and captive as it analyzes the political, legal, and psychological aspects of the interrogation through interviews with Khadr’s lawyers, a psychiatrist, an investigative journalist, former Guantanamo detainees, and a former US interrogator.  (Opens theatrically on September 28 at Film Forum.)

Human Dignity, Discrimination and Resources

In 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary, 45 prison inmates in Lebanon’s largest prison work together to present their version of the classic play 12 Angry Men under the direction of a drama therapist, Zeina Daccache. The choice of the play, which touches upon the themes of forgiveness, self-development, stigma, and hope, was no accident. Daccache added monologues, songs, and dance routines created by the prisoners to the original text. Her documentary includes rehearsals, drama therapy sessions, and interviews, revealing the tremendous dignity and despair of the prisoners as well as Daccache’s boundless energy and patience.

Exploring cultural taboos, adolescence and religion through the lens of HIV/AIDS, Oliver Schmitz’s deeply affecting drama Life, Above All brings viewers into the life of 12-year-old Chanda as she struggles to maintain the facade of a normal life amid utter instability. The spread of HIV/AIDS appears to be ravaging Chanda’s South African township even though no one will speak the actual words. When her mother’s illness becomes apparent, the community turns against Chanda’s family. Her mother chooses to leave home on the advice of a well-meaning but overbearing neighbor, who has her own secrets. (Opens theatrically on July 15 through Sony Pictures Classics.)

Thomas Napper’s revealing documentary Lost Angels introduces viewers to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, home to many of the city’s estimated 48,000 homeless people. The residents include a former Olympic runner, a transgendered punk rocker, and an eccentric animal lover and her devoted companion. Their stories paint a multifaceted portrait of life lived on the streets. Residents face challenges, including mental illness and drug addiction, with hope and a strong sense of community, while the local welfare officers see the roots of these problems in a political context.

Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song intimately surveys the life of entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. From his rise to fame as a singer and his experiences touring a segregated country, to his crossover into Hollywood, Belafonte’s groundbreaking career personifies the American civil rights movement. Rostock reveals Belafonte to be a tenacious activist, who worked intimately with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mobilized celebrities for social justice, participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and took action to counter gang violence, poor prison conditions, and youth incarceration.  (This HBO Documentary Film premieres on HBO in Fall 2011.)

Migrants’ and Women’s Rights.

The poignant documentary Familia observes one matriarch’s decision to go to work as a hotel maid in Spain and the impact that choice has on her family in Peru. Working with a family they have known for over 35 years, filmmakers Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits (Compadre, HRWFF 2005) take an emotional look at family members’ separation due to economic circumstances, providing insight into the experience of thousands of families who do the same each year. The film develops the double plot line of Nati’s lonely life as a maid in Spain and the lives of the loved ones she leaves behind in Peru.

Love Crimes of Kabul is a fascinating look inside Afghanistan’s Badam Bagh women’s prison, where half the inmates are jailed for “moral crimes.” Kareema awaits trial for pre-marital sex with her fiancé; Aleema ran away from a violent home; Sabereh stands accused of having slept with her neighbor. In a society where behavior is strictly controlled by an ideology of honor, and transgression can bring ruin to an entire family, these young women are seen as threats to the very fabric of society. Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian (Be Like Others) follows each case to trial, giving voice to those seen by the court only in terms of blame and embarrassment. (This HBO Documentary Film premieres on HBO on July 11.)

Intimate and revealing, The Price of Sex focuses on young Eastern European women who have been drawn into a world of sex trafficking and abuse. The award-winning photojournalist Mimi Chakarova, who grew up in Bulgaria, takes viewers on a personal journey, exposing the shadowy world of sex trafficking from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Western Europe. Filming undercover and gaining extraordinary access, Chakarova illuminates how, even though some women escape to tell their stories, the trafficking of women continues to thrive. Chakarova is the recipient of the festival’s 2011 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.

Based on true events, Larysa Kondracki’s compelling political thriller The Whistleblower tells the story of Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) who discovers a deplorable cover-up and carries out a fight for justice in the former Yugoslavia. Bolkovac accepts a UN peacekeeping job through a private security contractor, but when she arrives in post-war Bosnia expecting a harmonized international effort, she finds chaos and disorder instead. When a brutally injured young woman lands in the UN’s care, Bolkovac unearths an underworld of trafficking and traces the path of criminality to a shocking source. (Opens theatrically on August 5 through Samuel Goldwyn Films.)

In conjunction with this year’s film program, the festival will present Exiled: Burma’s Defenders, the renowned photographer Platon’s portraits of Burmese former political prisoners, civil society leaders, ethnic minority group members, journalists, and other people in exile from their repressive homeland. The exhibit will be featured in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater for the duration of the festival.

No Boundaries: Tim Hetherington pays tribute to photographer, filmmaker (Restrepo, Liberia: An Uncivil War), journalist, human rights activist, and artist Tim Hetherington, who was killed while covering the armed conflict in Libya in April 2011. Tim was a visionary who used photos, video, memoir, and testimony to explain and humanize conflicts as well as to simply illuminate the human condition. The festival will present a screening of Diary, a highly personal and experimental film that expressed the subjective experience of his work, followed by a discussion with friends and collaborators, including Carroll Bogert (Human Rights Watch) and James Brabazon (Liberia: An Uncivil War), who will discuss Hetherington’s work and legacy.

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