The 9th Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens on February 29, 2012 in Toronto Canada at TIFF Bell Lightbox with Fernand Melgar’s documentary Special Flight, a portrait of the legal limbo that faces thousands of detainees in Switzerland’s Frambois detention centre as refugees anxiously await confirmation of their requests for asylum. The festival is a co-presentation between TIFF and Human Rights Watch, and will run until March 9.

Festival highlights include Jon Shenk’s The Island President (2011), winner of the Cadillac People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011, which follows Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed as he tries to save his country from being inundated by rising sea levels – the result of global warming; Pamela Yates’ Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011), a haunting tale of genocide and delayed justice that spans four decades, two films, and director Yates’ own career; Mimi Chakarova’s The Price of Sex (2011), a startling exposé of sex trafficking in Europe and the Middle East; and Sundance and Emmy Award-winning director Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project (2011), which acts as a catalyst for change by confronting the prejudices which spark bullying and giving voice to those who work tirelessly to protect the vulnerable.

“The lineup of timely films in this festival inform and remind audiences of human rights issues being faced around the world,” said Helga Stephenson, chairperson of the festival. “The themes that emerge this year – the plight of refugees, the trafficking of young women, bullying among teens – are extremely relevant. We hope the films will provide a springboard for discussion and increase awareness of human rights issues – both locally and globally.”

The full line-up of films follows.

Special Flight (Vol spécial)   Dir: Fernand Melgar

Wednesday, February 29 at 8pm  *OPENING NIGHT*

In Switzerland’s Frambois detention centre, refugees anxiously await confirmation of their requests for asylum while living in fear of the “special flights” that face those who are rejected, returning them to their countries of origin and crushing their dreams of a new life. Fernand Melgar’s film is a deeply affecting portrait of the legal limbo that faces thousands of detainees every year. Melgar evocatively captures the atmosphere of agonizing tedium and sudden, shocking rupture that characterizes these institutions: deportation notices arrive swiftly, with no option for appeal, and the physical removals from the centre are even more harrowing as the wardens often develop deep connections with the detainees.

Habibi   Dir: Susan Youssef

Thursday, March 1 at 8pm

While shooting her documentary Forbidden to Wander, Susan Youssef travelled the Gaza Strip and observed how restricted access impeded development and stability, deepened poverty and radicalized the political conflict, with the resulting violence and despair permeating communities and individual psyches alike. This experience informed the making of Habibi, a tragic romance about Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashef), university students whose blossoming passion is interrupted when they are forced to
return home to their families, their student visas having been revoked during the latest wave of restrictions. The young lovers find themselves trapped between the physical barriers of political oppression and the restrictive, patriarchal ideology of the oppressed.

The Bully Project   Dir: Lee Hirsch

Friday, March 2 at 8pm

News stories across North America attest to the destructive impact of bullying, as dozens of teens every year commit suicide following histories of emotional and physical violence from their peers that went unchecked and unchanged. Sundance and Emmy-award winning director Lee Hirsch spent a year documenting the lives of tormented teens and their families, exposing shocking scenes of verbal and physical abuse and vividly depicting bureaucratic indifference or impotence, parents who are powerless to help, and innocent kids on the cusp of adulthood who desperately cling to the slim hope that “things will get better.” The Bully Project acts as a catalyst for change by confronting the prejudices which spark bullying and giving voice to those who work tirelessly to protect the vulnerable.

Color of the Ocean (Die Farbe des Ozeans)   Dir: Maggie Peren

Saturday, March 3 at 8pm

Located off the coast of northwest Africa, the Canary Islands are both a tourist paradise and a purgatory for refugees. Border guard José (Alex González) is cynical about his work, but his weary attitude is put to the test when he encounters Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo), a German tourist assisting a boatload of refugees she discovered landing on the coast. When one of the refugees, a Congolese man named Zola (Hubert Koundé), is placed in an internment camp with his son, Nathalie determines to help them escape – but the two soon find themselves in yet another precarious situation, in which they are dependent on nefarious smugglers.

Burma Soldier   Dirs: Nic Dunlop, Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern

Sunday, March 4 at 8pm

Myo Myint’s decision to enlist in the Burmese army at the age of seventeen was not motivated by ideology, but simply because it was the only path to employment, respect and security. In this capacity he supported the brutal military junta that dominated the nation for nearly half a century until he lost a limb to a mortar explosion, and emerged from this trauma as an activist determined to bring democracy to his country. Speaking from the Umpeim Mai refugee camp in northern Thailand as he awaits refugee status, Myint gives a sobering record of his experiences and his suffering at the hands of the military regime he once served, including over a decade in solitary confinement for voicing his disapproval of the junta. Myint’s story, illustrated by archival footage smuggled out of Burma, is a vivid account of an individual’s sacrifice to help change the lives of millions.

This Is My Land… Hebron   Dirs: Giulia Amati & Stephen Natanson

Monday, March 5 at 8pm

The largest city in the occupied West Bank and the site of one of the first Israeli settlements there, Hebron is populated by 160,000 Palestinians and 600 Israeli settlers who require a garrison of 2,000 Israeli soldiers for protection. For these unwilling neighbours, conflict has become a way of life, and directors Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson capture this charged situation through the multiple, interweaving narratives of residents and observers. Featuring interviews with ordinary Israelis and Palestinians living in the city, activists on both sides, prominent Ha’aretz journalists and members of the Israeli parliament, This Is My Land… Hebron is a vivid portrait of a chasm between cultures.

The Price of Sex   Dir: Mimi Chakarova

Tuesday, March 6 at 8pm

Award-winning photojournalist Mimi Chakarova delves into the world of international sex trafficking in this startling exposé, revealing the cruel conditions that have forced thousands of women into a life defined by fear, shame and violence. With brutal honesty and courageous perseverance, these young women relate how they were bought, sold, and taken far from home to toil in brothels across Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East. The culmination of an eight-year investigative journalism project that took Chakarova through Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Dubai, The Price of Sex boldly brings this ever more pressing issue into stark relief, and was awarded Human Rights Watch International’s 2011 Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator   Dir: Pamela Yates

Thursday, March 8 at 8pm

Part political thriller, part memoir, Granito takes us through a haunting tale of genocide and delayed justice that spans four decades, two films, and director Pamela Yates’ own career. While filming in Guatemala, then under the harsh military dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt, to make her 1982 documentary When the Mountains Tremble, Yates managed to capture the only known footage of the Guatemalan army as it carried out its genocidal campaign against the indigenous Mayan population. Twenty-five years later, this footage becomes evidence in an international war crimes case against the very army commander who permitted Yates to film. Conducting new interviews with activists, witnesses and forensic experts, Yates herself joins this disparate movement of truth-seekers, each of them contributing their own granito, or grain of sand, to the reconstruction of collective memory and the pursuit of justice.

The Island President    Dir: Jon Shenk

Friday, March 9 at 8pm  *CLOSING NIGHT*

Cadillac People’s Choice Documentary Award, Toronto International Film Festival 2011

Mohamed Nasheed spent two decades leading a pro-democracy movement against a cruel dictatorship in the Maldives, suffering imprisonments and torture until groundswell support elected him president at age 41. Suddenly he found himself facing a new crisis: the possible extinction of his own country. If ocean levels continue to rise at their current rate, over a thousand coral islands of the Maldives will be submerged like a modern Atlantis. Obtaining remarkable access to Nasheed during his first year in office, director Jon Shenk offers both an inspiring personal story and an insider’s look at the dirty business of political deal-making during the 2009 climate change summit at Copenhagen. Featuring stunning cinematography and a haunting score by Radiohead, The Island President is one of the year’s most essential documentaries.

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