The 18th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London will run  from March 18 to 28, 2014 with a lineup of 20 award-winning documentary and feature films. The festival will take place at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Soho, Ritzy Brixton and for the first time at the Barbican. This year’s program is organized around five themes: Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring; Human Rights Defenders, Icons and Villains; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights; Migrants’ Rights and Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights.

The festival opens on March 20th at the Curzon Soho with the UK premiere of DANGEROUS ACTS STARRING THE UNSTABLE ELEMENTS OF BELARUS attended by the director Madeleine Sackler, the director. The Belarus Free Theatre is an acclaimed troupe that defies Europe’s last remaining dictatorship. With smuggled footage and uncensored interviews, Sackler’s film conveys not only the group’s great emotional, financial, and artistic risks but also their risk of censorship, imprisonment, and exile. 

The festival will close on March 28th at the Ritzy with the UK premiere of RETURN TO HOMS, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2014. Tamara Alrifai, Middle East/North Africa advocacy and communications director at Human Rights Watch, will discuss the film with a special guest.

This year’s centrepiece event is a special preview of Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny’s E-TEAM, winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award, Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2014. When atrocities are committed in countries held hostage by ruthless dictators, Human Rights Watch sends in the E-Team (Emergencies Team), a collection of fiercely intelligent individuals who document war crimes and report them to the world.

Other titles within Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring include Rachel Beth Anderson & Tim Grucza’s First to Fall, a story of friendship, sacrifice, and the madness of war. Hamid and Tarek leave their lives as students in Canada and travel to Libya, their homeland, to join the fight to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi although neither of them has ever picked up a weapon. A second-hand video camera becomes Hamid’s ticket to the front, where he documents battles to liberate the city of Misrata. He eventually earns a gun and becomes a fully-fledged soldier with an AK-47 in one hand and his video camera in the other. Meanwhile Tarek joins a training camp and eventually a katiba  — a freedom fighter battalion — in Misrata. In a battle to liberate Zawya, his hometown, Tarek’s life will change forever.  Rachel Beth Anderson & Tim Grucaz will attend festival screenings. 

Sara Ishaq, filmmaker of The Mulberry House, (UK premiere) is Yemeni-Scottish. In 2011, after 10 years away, she travels back to Yemen and takes her camera along. She hopes to feel at home in the place that was once so close to her heart, but the complications soon become clear. Outside the gates of her family home, people are protesting President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s authoritarian rule, and Ishaq and her family quickly become caught up in the movement. Ishaq contributes by acting as a local correspondent, sharing news with the international press. In this personal film, Ishaq captures events in her own home throughout this tumultuous period, when multiple changes are afoot. Sarah Ishaq will attend the festival screenings.

In addition to E Team, three other titles play within Human Rights Defenders, Icons and VillainsWatchers of the SkyNelson Mandela: The Myth and Me and Big Men.

Inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘A Problem From Hell’, Watchers of the Sky  (UK premiere) (winner of the Documentary Editing Award / US Documentary Special Jury Award for Use of Animation, Sundance Film Festival 2014), is the latest documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Edet Belzberg. In her characteristic cinéma vérité style, Belzberg interweaves the stories of five exceptional humanitarians  — Benjamin Ferencz, Raphael Lemkin, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Samantha Power, and Emmanuel Uwurukundo — whose lives and work are linked together by the on-going crisis in Darfur. Through the stories of these contemporary characters, the film uncovers the forgotten history of the Genocide Convention and its founder Raphael Lemkin, the international lawyer who dedicated his life to preventing genocide.

In Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me, (UK premiere) (winner of the Special Jury Award, IDFA 2013), the filmmaker Khalo Matabane uses conversations with politicians, activists, intellectuals, and artists to question the meaning of freedom, reconciliation and forgiveness—and challenges Mandela’s legacy in today’s world of conflict and inequality. The film juxtaposes Matabane’s inner quest for coherence with the opinions both of people who knew Mandela and of those whose political perspectives were shaped by him. Matabane weighs equally the words of his subjects, leading viewers to question these concepts as well. Khalo Matabane will attend the festival screenings.

A cautionary tale about the toll of American oil investment in West Africa, Big Men reveals the secretive worlds of both corporations and local communities in Nigeria and Ghana. The director, Rachel Boynton, gained unprecedented access to Africa’s oil companies and has created an account of the ambition, corruption, and greed that epitomize Africa’s ‘resource curse.’ The film uncovers the human impact of oil drilling and contains footage of militants operating in the Niger Delta.  Rachel Boynton will attend festival screenings.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights:

Cameroon has more arrests for homosexuality than any other country in the world. For Born This Way (UK premiere) the filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann gained intimate access to the lives of four young gay Cameroonians, to offer a portrait of day-to-day life in modern Africa. This is a story of what is possible in the global fight for equality. Shaun Kadlec will attend festival screenings.

Can Candan’s My Child introduces a courageous group of mothers and fathers in Turkey, who are parents of LGBT individuals. They have not only gone through the process of accepting their children for who they are personally, but have taken the next step: to share their experiences with other LGBT families and the public. Seven parents intimately share their experiences as they redefine what it means to be parents and activists in a homophobic and transphobic society. Two of the film’s subjects and two producers will attend festival screenings.

Migrants Rights:

Mano Khalil’s The Beekeeper (UK premiere) relates the story of Ibrahim Gezer, a displaced Kurdish beekeeper from southeast Turkey, and his experience of integration into Switzerland. The turmoil of the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the armed Kurdish guerrilla movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), robbed Gezer of everything he had: his wife, two of his children, his country, and over 500 bee colonies—his means of making a living. He has been left only with his love for bees and his unshakeable faith in humanity. 

A visual essay in five parts, Evaporating Borders, looks at what it means to be displaced and examines the idea of belonging and notions of diaspora, exile, and migration. Filmed on the island of Cyprus, one of the easiest points of entry into Europe, the film explores the lives of asylum seekers and political refugees. Through the microcosm of the current situation on the island, the filmmaker Iva Radivojevic explores tolerance and immigration practices throughout Europe and the Western world—where migrating populations have become subject to a variety of human rights abuses.  Iva Radivojevic will attend the exclusive preview screenings.

Women’s Rights & Children’s Rights:

Scheherazade’s Diary (UK premiere) is a tragicomic documentary that follows women inmates through a 10-month drama therapy/theatre project set up in 2012 by the director Zeina Daccache, at the Baabda Prison in Lebanon. Through ‘Scheherazade in Baabda’, these ‘murderers of husbands, adulterers and drug felons’ reveal their stories—tales of domestic violence, traumatic childhoods, failed marriages, forlorn romances, and deprivation of motherhood. In sharing their stories, the women of Baabda Prison hold up a mirror to Lebanese society and all societies that repress women.  Zeina Daccache will attend the festival screenings.

Berit Madsen’s Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars, introduces viewers to a young Iranian woman who dares to dream of a future as an astronaut. At night, she stares up at the universe. At home, full of hope and longing, she watches recordings of the first female Iranian in space, Anousheh Ansari. When her father died suddenly six years earlier, Sepideh discovered that she could feel closer to him by watching the stars. And so her dream was born. But not everyone appreciates her boundless ambition. As we follow Sepideh, it becomes clear just how much at odds her dreams are with her current reality and the expectations of those around her.  

Jasmila Zbanic’s drama For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (UK premiere) is inspired by the play ‘Seven Kilometers North-East’ written by Kym Vercoe who plays herself in the film. A summer holiday in Bosnia-Herzegovina leads Vercoe, an Australian tourist, to discover the silent legacy of wartime atrocities in a seemingly idyllic town on the border of Bosnia and Serbia. An overnight stay at the Viilina Vlas hotel in Visegrad inexplicably gives way to anxiety and sleepless nights. Back in Australia, she finds out that the hotel was used as a rape camp during the war. Questions around the region’s atrocities begin to haunt her, as does the question of why the guidebook, or the town itself, made no mention of the event. The testimonies she later finds online compel her to return to Visegrad and investigate this hidden history for herself.

Richie Mehta’s drama Siddharth is set in New Delhi. Twelve-year-old Siddharth is sent away by his father, Mahendra, to work in a trolley factory to help support their family. When he fails to return for the Diwali festival, his distraught father begins a desperate search to find his missing son. The authorities believe that Siddharth may have been abducted and trafficked.  Mehta brings to life Mahendra’s moving, tangled, and often futile-seeming journey with a touch that transforms it into both a commentary on modern India and a portrait of one family within that society.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, from the acclaimed Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, enlists a cast of non-professionals to reconstruct a harrowing personal ordeal that became a national scandal. Struggling to make ends meet as a scrap-metal forager in the remote Roma community of Poljice, Nazif Maujic has a routine that becomes a desperate fight for survival when his partner, Senada, suffers a miscarriage. Without medical insurance or the means to pay the couple are denied admittance to the local hospital. So begins a hellish 10-day odyssey pitting the couple against social prejudice and a callous bureaucracy, exposing the institutional discrimination faced by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Roma minority.

In Hisham Zaman’s Before Snowfall (UK premiere) Siyar, the oldest son in his household, confronts the question of family honour after his older sister, Nermin, flees an arranged marriage.  The film is a look at killing in the name of honour, at the intricate web of connections that sustain the brutal tradition, and the unbelievable lengths to which some will go to see it through.

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