The 27th Human Rights Watch Film Festival co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center will take place June 10 to 19, and showcase 18 topical and provocative feature films and three special interactive programs.
The Opening Night selection is Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, which documents Chinese activist Ye Haiyan (aka “Hooligan Sparrow”) as she protests against a school headmaster’s sexual abuse of young girls, leading both the director and Sparrow to become targets of government intimidation. In recognition of her work, Nanfu Wang will receive the festival’s 2016 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.
Closing the festival is the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Sonita, in which filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami follows a determined Afghan teenager who overcomes living as a refugee in Iran (where female singers are banned from singing solo) and her family’s plans to sell her into marriage to follow her dreams of becoming a rapper.
Five other outstanding documentaries broaden the theme of women’s rights at this year’s event. Jackson takes a close look at the politics of reproductive rights at Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic; Ovarian Psycos follows a defiant Latina bicycle gang fighting to take back the streets for women in East Los Angeles; film festival favorite Starless Dreams is an intimate portrait of young women in a rehabilitation prison in Tehran; Tempestad artfully renders the difficult life paths of two women amid the chaos and impunity in today’s Mexico; and The Uncondemned is a gripping portrayal of a young group of lawyers and activists who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime in a landmark trial in Rwanda.
Three festival titles revolve around the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Inside the Chinese Closet exposes the difficult decisions young lesbian and gay Chinese people are making—including fake marriages—when forced to balance their quest for love with parental and cultural expectations. From the United States, Growing Up Coy, shown in its world premiere, sensitively portrays the struggles of a Colorado family who take on a highly publicized legal battle to fight for their 6-year-old transgender daughter’s rights to use the girls’ bathroom, while HBO’s Suited explores the transformative work of a Brooklyn tailor company that creates bespoke suits for clients across the gender spectrum.
Four more films from the US explore some of the most pressing human rights issues in the country today. Almost Sunrise exposes the growing epidemic of soldier suicides through the story of two friends who embark on an epic journey to heal from their time in combat; the drama Chapter & Verse focuses on a former gang leader who struggles to restart his life in Harlem after eight years of incarceration; Do Not Resist, winner of the top documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, is an alarming investigation into the increasing militarization of American police departments, and how it overwhelmingly affects black Americans; and HBO’s Solitary is an unprecedented portrait of life inside solitary confinement at a supermax prison.
A selection of international titles rounds out this year’s screening program. The Crossing follows the journey of a group of middle-class Syrian families forced into harsh choices in a desperate bid for freedom; the multi-award-winning drama The High Sun interweaves three love stories from the Balkans region with a long history of inter-ethnic hatred; P.S. Jerusalem details the filmmaker’s highly personal return to Jerusalem after two decades living in the US; and the Sundance prize-winner When Two Worlds Collide charts the dramatic standoffs between indigenous Amazonians and the Peruvian government intent on exploiting their resource-rich ancestral lands.
2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Lineup
Opening Night Film
HOOLIGAN SPARROW (New York premiere screening + panel discussion)
Nanfu Wang—2016—83m—doc—In English and Mandarin
A group of activists protesting the alleged rape of six girls by a school headmaster and a government official quickly become fugitives. Filmmaker Nanfu Wang and super-activist Ye Haiyan (“Hooligan Sparrow”) must avoid government thugs and arrest. Sparrow becomes an enemy of the state, but detentions, interrogations, and evictions can’t stop her protest from going viral. A thriller set across southern China featuring friends who will go to any lengths to expose the truth.
NESTOR ALMENDROS AWARD
Renowned cinematographer and filmmaker Nestor Almendros (1930–1992) was a founder of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, actively involved in the selection of films and the promotion of human rights filmmaking. Even while deeply immersed in his own projects, he took the time to call the Festival team to mention a strong documentary or promote a work-in-progress. Believing in the power of human rights filmmaking, Nestor devoted himself to becoming a mentor to many young filmmakers. It is in the Festival’s loving memory of Nestor and our desire to celebrate his vision that we proudly bestow this award to filmmakers for their exceptional commitment to human rights.
Closing Night Film
SONITA (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami—2015—90m—doc—In English and Farsi
Winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, Sonita is about a determined and animated Afghan teen living in Tehran, who dreams of being a famous rapper. But in Iran, the government doesn’t let girls sing solo. And in her Afghan home she is expected to become a teenage bride. With her family keen to marry her off to receive her dowry, tradition bears down on Sonita. Armed with nothing but passion and persistence, she must turn obstacle into opportunity.
ALMOST SUNRISE (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker & film subject Tom Voss)
Michael Collins—2016—94m—doc—In English
Two friends, in an attempt to put their haunting combat experiences behind them, embark on an epic 2,700-mile trek on foot across America seeking redemption and healing as a way to close the moral chasm opened by war. Their odyssey across snowy mountains and vast deserts inspires an inner journey that culminates in a remarkable spiritual transformation that could light the way for other veterans seeking to reclaim their lives. Suicide among military veterans has reached epidemic proportions and can be the result of what mental health professionals call “moral injury”—lasting wounds to the soul caused by participation in events that go against one’s deeply held sense of right and wrong. Almost Sunrise is an intimate, vérité film that eschews stereotypes, and instead, captures an unprecedented portrait of veterans—one of hope, potential and untold possibilities.
CHAPTER & VERSE (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Jamal Joseph—2015—97m—drama—In English
After serving eight years in prison, reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram re-enters society and struggles to adapt to a changed Harlem. Living under the tough supervision of a parole officer in a halfway house, he is unable to find a job that will let him use the technological skills he gained in prison, and is forced to deal with racism, gang violence, and the gentrification of the historic New York City neighborhood in which he was raised. Directed by Jamal Joseph, a leader of the Black Panther Party who spent time in prison as a result of his involvement in the organization, Chapter & Verse pulls you into its vibrant world and reflects upon what it means to forge your own destiny in an outwardly harsh society.
THE CROSSING (US premiere screening + Q&A with director)
George Kurian—2016—55m (65m w. featured shorts)—doc—In English and Arabic
A first-hand account of the perilous journey made by a group of Syrian refugees. Traversing land and sea on an old fishing boat manned by smugglers, the nail-biting journey leads to Europe where the refugees disperse. Each must battle to stay sane and create an identity among the maze of regulations and refugee hostels. The Crossing shows us the lengths to which people go to find safety and forge their own destiny.
*Preceded by MALAK (5m) and MUSTAPHA (5m), two beautifully rendered short films about two young Syrian children’s personal experiences journeying from their homeland to the shores of Greece. Produced by Dovana Films.
DO NOT RESIST (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Craig Atkinson—2016—72m—doc—In English
Winner of Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Do Not Resist opens with shocking scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, to introduce an array of stories that collectively detail the disturbing realities of American police culture. The film depicts a high-end weapons expert who instructs police departments around the nation on the need for force and intimidation; a growing number of small towns and cities being armed with expensive military-grade equipment; and the development of face-recognition technology that makes the automated scanning of cities for wanted offenders a likely reality. Director Craig Atkinson presents a unique and powerful portrait of the individuals and institutions each playing their part in a growing billion-dollar industry. Do Not Resist begs the question—who is it we “protect and serve.”
GROWING UP COY (World premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Eric Juhola—2016—86m—doc—In English
Growing Up Coy follows a landmark transgender rights case in Colorado where a 6-year-old transgender girl named Coy has been banned from the girls’ bathroom at her school. Coy’s parents hire a lawyer to pursue a civil rights case of discrimination, and the family is thrust into the international media spotlight, causing their lives to change forever. A timely topic as states across the US battle with this particular civil rights issue. The film also asks a universal question that every parent may face: How far would you go to fight for your child’s rights?
THE HIGH SUN
Dalibor Matanić—2015—123m—drama—In Croatian
The High Sun shines a light on three love stories, set in three consecutive decades, in two neighboring Balkan villages with a long history of inter-ethnic hatred. Through these stories, Dalibor Matanić highlights how dangerous hatred towards “the other” can be. It is a film about the fragility—and intensity—of forbidden love. Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard, 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
INSIDE THE CHINESE CLOSET (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Sophia Luvara—2015—70m—doc—In English and Mandarin
In a nondescript lounge somewhere in Shanghai, men and women giggle, eyeing prospective partners, visibly nervous about making the first move. This isn’t your average matchmaking event—it’s a “fake-marriage fair” where gay men and lesbian women meet in an attempt to make matrimonial deals with members of the opposite sex to satisfy social and familial expectations of a heterosexual marriage. And pretend marriages are just the start. Touching and troubling in equal measure, Inside the Chinese Closet exposes the difficult decisions young LGBT individuals must make when forced to balance their quest for love with parental and cultural expectations.
JACKSON (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker and film subject Shannon Brewer)
Maisie Crow—2015—90m—doc—In English
What is life like in a place where the anti-abortion movement has made access to legal abortion almost impossible? Since the ruling in Roe v. Wade over four decades ago, the self-labelled “pro-life” movement has won significant legal, cultural, and political battles. Now, the stigma of abortion is prolific in the American South, leaving women in poverty and women of color particularly vulnerable. Set against the backdrop of the fight over the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, Jackson takes a close look inside the issues surrounding abortion.
OVARIAN PSYCOS (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker and film subjects)
Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle —2016—72m—doc—In English and Spanish
Riding at night through the streets of Eastside Los Angeles, the Ovarian Psycos are an unapologetic crew of women of color. Founded by Xela de la X, a single mother and poet, the Ovas cycle for the purpose of healing, reclaiming their neighborhoods, and creating safer streets for women. At first only attracting a few local women, the Ovarian Psycos have since inspired a crowd of locals to challenge the stereotypical expectations of femininity and be a visible force along the barrios and boulevards of Los Angeles. The film intimately explores the impact of the group’s brand of feminism on neighborhood women and communities as they confront the injustice, racism, and violence in their lives.
P.S. JERUSALEM (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Danae Elon—2015—87m—doc—In English, Arabic and Hebrew
Danae Elon exposes a deep, complex, and painful portrait of Jerusalem today. The filmmaker relocates her young family from New York City to her childhood home of Jerusalem, a decision prompted by the death of her father. Danae’s camera captures her three young boys growing up, asking endless questions and confronting the reality around them. She sends them to the only school in the city that teaches Arab and Jewish children together, a respite from the conflict enveloping her surroundings. But can she keep her family together—and keep a cool head—in the political and cultural heat of Jerusalem?
SOLITARY (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Kristi Jacobson—2015—80m—doc—In English
Solitary tells the stories of several inmates sent to Red Onion State Prison, one of over 40 supermax prisons across the US, which holds inmates in eight-by-ten foot solitary confinement cells, 23 hours a day. Profoundly intimate, this immersive film weaves through prison corridors and cells, capturing the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of the prison. With unprecedented access, award-winning filmmaker Kristi Jacobson investigates an invisible part of the American justice system and tells the stories of people caught in the complex penal system—both inmates and correction officers—raising provocative questions about punishment in America today. HBO Documentary Films.
Mehrdad Oskouei —2016—76m—doc—In Farsi
Murder, drug addiction, hijacking cars, running away from home: these are just a few of the crimes that the girls from the rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents in Tehran have committed. For seven years, director Mehrdad Oskouei sought permission from the Iranian authorities to allow him to film an imprisoned population, otherwise hidden from the public eye. The result is an incredibly personal documentary about the dreams, nightmares, and hopes of the women in this all-female facility. Their individual stories show their desire to return to freedom and live a normal life, but also the fear of what is waiting for them on the outside.
SUITED (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker and film subjects)
Jason Benjamin—2016—77m—doc—In English
Suited tells the story of Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn tailoring company that caters to a diverse LGBTQ community. Clothier duo Rae and Daniel take a holistic approach to their work, considering each client’s personal narrative, which becomes inextricable from the creation of the perfect custom-made suit. From Derek’s emotional journey as he prepares for his wedding to Everett, a law student in a conservative environment, or Melissa, who simply wants to look good for a 40th birthday party—the need for well-fitting garments represents deeper issues of identity, empowerment, and the importance of feeling happy in one’s body. HBO Documentary Films.
TEMPESTAD (US premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Tatiana Huezo—2016—105m—doc—In Spanish
Two women, their voices echoing over the landscape and highways of Mexico from North to South, tell how official corruption and injustice allowed violence to take control of their lives. The film is a meditation on corruption and on the notion of “impunidad,” the impunity or unaccountability of those in power, whether part of the Mexican government or the country’s drug cartels. An emotional and evocative journey, steeped not only in loss and pain, but also in love, dignity and resistance.
THE UNCONDEMNED (Screening + Q&A with filmmaker and film subject Sara Darehshori)
Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel—2015—86m —doc—In English, French and Kinyarwanda
Both a real-life courtroom thriller and a moving human drama, The Uncondemned tells the gripping story of a group of young international lawyers and activists who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime, and the Rwandan women who came forward to testify and win justice for the crimes committed against them. This odyssey takes the crusaders to a crucial trial at an international criminal court, the results of which changed the world of criminal justice forever.
WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE (New York premiere screening + Q&A with filmmaker)
Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel—2016—103m —doc—In Spanish
What happens when the thirst for power and riches takes priority over human life? The Amazon Rainforest, one of the planet’s most valuable natural resources, is being auctioned off, and its people condemned. Alberto Pizango, a young indigenous leader fighting to make the voices of indigenous Peruvians heard, stands up to political leaders and is accused of conspiracy and inciting violence. Set against the backdrop of a global recession and climate crisis, When Two Worlds Collide, winner of a World Cinema documentary competition prize for best first feature at Sundance, reveals the human side to the battle of conflicting visions and political wills working to shape the future of the Amazon, and of an already debilitated global ecosystem. Opens at Film Forum on Aug. 17.