The 10th Human Rights Watch Film Festival with a 10-film lineup of “politically charged, inspiring and empowering stories covering themes of oppression, struggle and resilience” opens on February 26, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox with Lise Birk Pedersen’s Putin’s Kiss (2012), a documentary/coming-of-age story about life in contemporary Russia as experienced by Masha Drokova, a middle-class youth activist and member of the anti-fascist group Nashi. The festival runs until March 7.
Highlights include a focus on women’s issues with Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012), set in a rural African village poised at the outer edge of the modern world where a girl hatches a secret plan to rescue her 11-year-old sister from an arranged marriage, and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone (2012), a gripping film about a woman in an unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country who delivers an engrossing, liberating monologue to her comatose husband.
The full lineup of films:
Putin’s Kiss, dir. Lise Birk Pedersen
Denmark | 2012 | 85 min. | PG
Meet Masha, a 19-year-old who grew up in the Putin era, on her journey through the Kremlin-created Nashi youth movement. This coming-of-age tale focuses on Masha’s personal political struggle and paints a grim picture of the Russian political climate. Many see Putin as the one leading Russia back to being a global superpower. Masha grows up with this belief, wholeheartedly supporting Putin’s policies and seeking to rid Russia of what Nashi believes are Russia’s “enemies”—the political opposition, investigative journalists, and human rights defenders. But when Masha, a journalist, starts socialising with colleagues in the circle of her friend, investigative journalist OIeg Kashin, she also begins to question Nashi and its leaders. Soon Masha finds herself closer with this circle of friends than her Nashi comrades. And ultimately, she faces a choice between the two groups. A shocking event pushes Masha to take a decision in the end, highlighting the costs of her internal struggle as well as the ever-increasing political stakes in Russia today.
Camp 14 – Total Control Zone, dir. Marc Wiese
Germany | 2012 | 104 min. | 14A
Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is a fascinating portrait of a young man who grew up imprisoned by dehumanizing violence yet still found the will to escape. Born inside a North Korean prison camp as the child of political prisoners, Shin Dong-hyuk was raised in a world where all he knew was punishment, torture, and abuse. Filmmaker Marc Wiese crafts his documentary by quietly drawing details from Shin in a series of interviews in which Shin’s silence says as much as his words. Weaving anecdotes from a former camp guard and a member of the secret police with powerful animated scenes capturing key moments in Shin’s life, Wiese pulls audiences into Shin’s world. Shin escapes and becomes a human rights ‘celebrity,’ but as we see, his life outside the camp is often just as challenging as it was inside it.
The People of the Kattawapiskak River, dir. Alanis Obomsawin
Canada | 2012 | 78 min.
Chief Theresa Spence’s decision to go on a hunger strike was propelled by a long history of struggles for Canadian aboriginal peoples, and in very recent history was preceded by her declaration of state of emergency in the community of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. The shocking housing conditions combined with the Canadian government’s gross mismanagement of the situation and the presence of a lucrative diamond mine operating on the land, has led iconic filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin to investigate the stories and the slow court cases behind the media-storm. In The People of the Kattawapiskak River, we meet the mothers, fathers, children who live in conditions worse than had been imagined. We see toddlers crawling in houses that are falling apart, parents who can’t afford the few groceries available at an exorbitant cost, and the residents’ challenges to find clean, drinkable water. Ultimately, we are exposed to a resilient community holding on to its life and future. A crucial film to see in the midst of a media-heavy public dialogue that often leaves the affected people in isolating shadows, it is at once a radical exposé of an ongoing issue plaguing Canada as a nation, and a major call to action.
No, dir. Pablo Larraín
Chile/USA | 2011 | 117 min. | 14A
2013 Academy Award
® Nominee Best Foreign Language Film
In 1988, succumbing to international pressure, General Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile called for a national referendum on the proposal to extend the dictator’s presidency a further eight years. The ballot presented two choices: Yes (extend Pinochet’s rule) or No (no more Pinochet). Much of the population believed that the referendum would be rigged, and was merely a front to placate the international community. There was also the problem for many that participating in the referendum would legitimize it. Recruited by the “No” side to design their campaign strategy and make use of their designated fifteen minutes per day of airtime, savvy adman René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) realizes that not only do they have to convince voters to vote “No” — they also have to convince the disparate, isolated segments of the population to go to the polls in the first place. As their campaign begins to gain ground, the tension begins to mount between the men as Saavedra and those in the opposition begin to receive death threats. With No, director Pablo Larraín chronicles the fall of the dictatorship, toppled by its own cynical democratic farce that unwittingly released the real democratic yearnings it had managed to suppress for so many years. Engaging, suspenseful and breathlessly paced, No is both a tense political thriller with a profound message, and a vibrant document of Chile’s triumphal return to democracy.
The Act of Killing, dirs. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn
Denmark/Norway/UK | 2012 | 116 min. | 14A
A true cinematic experiment, The Act of Killing explores a chapter of Indonesia’s history in a way bound to stir debate — by enlisting a group of former killers, including Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo, to re-enact their lives in the style of the films they love.
When the government of President Sukarno was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his cohorts joined in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. Now, Anwar and his team perform detailed reenactments of their crimes with pride, holding numerous discussions about sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics. Their fixation on style rather than substance — despite the ghastly nature of the scenes — makes them mesmerising to watch. But as movie violence and real-life violence begin to overlap, Anwar’s pride gradually gives way to regret. And we see a man overwhelmed by the horrific acts he has chosen to share with the world.
No Place on Earth, dir. Janet Tobias
USA/UK/Germany | 2012 | 81 min | PG
No Place on Earth brings to light an extraordinary true tale of survival that remained untold for decades. In 1993, Chris Nicola, an American cave enthusiast, was exploring the Ukraine’s “gypsum giants,” some of the longest horizontal caves in the world. Within this labyrinth, he came across signs of former human habitation: buttons, an old house key, a woman’s dress shoe. Locals told him that during World War II, there were rumours of Jewish families hiding from the Nazis in the caves. No one knew what happened to them; over 95 per cent of the Jews in this region of Ukraine perished in the Holocaust. It took Nicola nine years to uncover the secret that the cave survivors had kept to themselves after emigrating to Canada and the United States. Now, they were ready to tell their story. Built upon interviews with five former cave inhabitants, No Place on Earth is a testament to ingenuity, willpower and endurance against all odds. In total, 38 people of all ages wound up living in the caves for nearly 18 months, until the region was liberated by Soviet Army —the longest underground survival in recorded human history. The survivors recount their harrowing experiences in this harsh environment as they learned to find food, water and supplies and built secret escape routes to evade capture or being buried alive.
Director Janet Tobias brings their memories to life with artful re-enactments that vividly recreate this unimaginable existence beneath the earth.
A World Not Ours, dir. Mahdi Fleifel
UK/Lebanon/Denmark | 2012 | 93 min. | PG
A World Not Ours hits notes on a wide emotional scale, from tears to laughter, as filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel makes us feel for his family, friends, and home as strongly as if they were our own. His themes are universal, yet they are also rooted in a specific place: the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh in Lebanon. The camp’s name translates as “Sweet Spring”—a place hastily built in 1948 that now houses 70,000 refugees in one square kilometre. Fleifel spent his formative years in the camp in the 1980s before his family settled in Denmark. For years, he’s been returning and keeping a video diary. At the heart of the film is Fleifel’s relationship with his friend Abu Eyad. They share an obsession with World Cup football and Palestinian politics, but Fleifel comes and goes while Abu Eyad stays in the camp. As we eavesdrop on Fleifel’s conversations with the camp residents, we hear an unfiltered take on life there and their grievances with their own political leaders, Lebanon, and Israel.
The Parade, dir. Srdjan Dragojevic
Serbia/Croatia/Macedonia/Slovenia | 2011 | 111 min. | 14A
Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Parade takes a comedic look at Serbia through the lens of one group’s fight to hold a Gay Pride parade in Belgrade. When a bulldog is shot, an improbable alliance develops. We meet Pearl and Mickey, a couple about to be married, and Mirko and Radmilo, a couple involved in the gay pride parade. Mirko happens to be Pearl’s wedding planner and Radmilo, his partner, turns out to be the veterinarian who saved Mickey’s dog’s life. After a lover’s quarrel, Mickey — who is less than accepting of gay pride— makes a deal to protect the participants in the parade in order to win Pearl back. Mickey and Radmilo embark on a road trip across Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo as Mickey attempts to assemble a fearsome security team for the parade. As they gather Mickey’s old friends from the war, it becomes clear to all that so-called enemies are often your greatest allies.
Tall as the Baobab Tree, dir. Jeremy Teicher
Senegal | 2012 | 82 min | PG
Tall as the Baobab Tree poignantly depicts a family struggling to find its footing on the edge of the modern world fraught with tensions between tradition and modernity. Coumba and her little sister Debo are the first to leave their family’s remote African village, where meals are prepared over open fires and water is drawn from wells, to attend school in the bustling city. But when an accident suddenly threatens their family’s survival, their father decides to sell 11-year-old Debo into an arranged marriage. Torn between loyalty to her elders and her dreams for the future, Coumba hatches a secret plan to rescue her younger sister from a future she did not choose.
The Patience Stone, dir. Atiq RahimiFrance/Germany/Afghanistan | 2012 | 98 min. | 14A
What does it mean to be a woman in a world ruled by religion and violence? A poetic and politically charged allegory, The Patience Stone focuses on the plight of women ruled by archaic laws and traditions. In a war-torn neighbourhood in Afghanistan, a woman cares for her husband, who has been in a coma for over two weeks. Sitting in silence hour after hour, the woman takes the advice of her aunt and begins a one-sided conversation with her comatose husband. For the first time in her life, she feels he is listening to her. And she begins to reflect on her life. Slowly but surely, the reflections become confessions. And we learn to what lengths a woman will go to avoid abandonment and rejection. Based on his 2008 novel of the same name, Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone reveals the complicated inner workings of one woman’s mind and her secret life in a world circumscribed by patriarchy and custom.