The Human Rights Watch Film Festival will take place in London from March 6 to 17, 2017, featuring 16 award-winning international documentary feature films that grapple with the challenges of defending human rights around the world today. Audiences will also have an opportunity to watch selected festival titles online thanks to the continuing partnership with MUBI.
“In an era of global advances by far-right forces into the political mainstream, it’s more urgent than ever for the program to highlight individuals and groups exhibiting courageous resilience in challenging times”, said John Biaggi, creative director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “Whether it’s Chinese migrant workers, a teenager from Hong Kong, internet sleuths, the indigenous Mayan population in Guatemala, elderly women revealing historic sexual exploitation, a female squash player from Pakistan or ‘the Egyptian Jon Stewart’, I am proud that more than half this year’s program celebrates collective action and revolutionary voices, and tells of activists’ triumph over oppression.”
Biaggi added, “Over the past 20 years the Festival has featured virtually the entire body of work by the distinguished filmmaker Raoul Peck and it’s a great pleasure to announce that the Opening Night film is his latest, the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro. Three festival titles – including our Closing Night film, the 2016 IDFA winner for Best Documentary Nowhere to Hide – explore the reality of life for people seeking refuge from conflict and terror. I am delighted that 7 out of the 16 films screening this year are made by women, and that Maria Toorpakai, who became Pakistan’s finest woman squash player despite Taliban death threats, will attend the screening of Girl Unbound”.
The Human Rights Watch fund-raising Benefit Gala on 6 March at the British Museum will shine a timely light on the integrity of journalism with the award-winning filmmaker Fred Peabody’s All Governments Lie, followed by an on-stage discussion. Peabody explores the life and legacy of the godfather of independent journalism, I.F. Stone, and examines how Stone’s successors – among them the filmmaker Michael Moore, the Democracy Now founder Amy Goodman, The Intercept founders Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, and Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone – are exposing government and corporate deception, just as Stone did decades ago.
The Festival will open on 9 March at Picturehouse Central with Raoul Peck’s powerful I Am Not Your Negro. This latest work from the great director combines rich archival footage with the words of James Baldwin – narrated by Samuel L. Jackson – for an up-to-the-minute examination of race in America. The film will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by writer and broadcaster Gaylene Gould.
For closing night on 17 March at the Barbican, the filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed will present his immersive and uncompromising Nowhere to Hide, with a first person account from a male nurse, Nori Sharif, who is from one of the world’s most dangerous and inaccessible areas, Jalawla in Iraq. After US troops left Iraq in 2011, Ahmed gave Sharif a camera asking him to capture the reality of life in his community, for his family and in the hospital where he worked. The result reveals extraordinary resilience and fortitude in the face of extreme danger and displacement.
Throughout the festival, which includes two world premieres, eight UK premieres, two London premieres and one exclusive preview, many filmmakers and Human Rights Watch experts will take part in in-depth post-screening Q&A and panel discussions.
Four titles, including the closing night film, connect directly to current US policy regarding the movement of refugees, as well as Israeli settlers. The British sisters Sophia and Georgia Scott will present the world premiere of their new film, Lost in Lebanon, which follows four Syrians whose lives become increasingly desperate due to the devastating consequences of new visa laws implemented by the Lebanese government. Through these stories the film highlights the reality for displaced Syrians who are being left without education and health care and are stateless.
Ivan is The Good Postman who is running for mayor and campaigning to bring life to his aging and increasingly deserted Bulgarian village, by welcoming refugees and their families to settle there. With warmth, humor and humanity, the filmmaker Tonislav Hristov’s often surreal documentary, set in a forgotten village on a route for asylum seekers making their way through Europe, provides valuable insight into the evolving discussions that dominate international politics.
With uninhibited access Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers cracks open the world of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank: their daily lives, their world-views, and their position within Israel. The film captures the casual zealotry, racism, and untroubled certainty of many settlers in this contentious and controversial space. Dotan lays out the facts with extraordinary care and lucidity, allowing viewers to see the progression of actions and reactions that have led to the current volatile situation.
Two festival titles give pause for thought regarding the human cost of people’s dependence on electronic devices and the Internet. Heather White and Lynn Zhang will present the world premiere of their film Complicit, which follows factory workers harmed by exposure to chemicals in their work as they fight the Chinese electronics giant Foxconn. Led by migrant worker, Yi Yeting, who is struggling to survive his own work-induced leukemia, he equips and empowers other sick factory workers to try to save lives and improve working conditions for millions of Chinese people, in the process confronting some of the world’s most profitable and recognised brands, among them Apple and Samsung.
Ideas of citizenship, privacy, and democracy are challenged to the very core in Nicholas de Pencier’s gripping Black Code. Based on Ronald Deibert’s book of the same name, the film follows international cyber stewards from the Toronto-based group Citizen Lab, who have documented how exiled Tibetan monks are attempting to circumvent China’s surveillance apparatus; Syrian citizens have been tortured for Facebook posts; Brazilian activists are using social media to livestream police abuses; and Pakistani activists have opposed online campaigns for violence against women.
Individual and collective voices are heard in three documentaries from Hong Kong, Guatemala and Egypt. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which just won the audience award for World Cinema documentary at Sundance 2017 – follows Hong Kong’s most dissident teenager, Joshua Wong, now 20-years-old. Since 2011, Wong has rallied thousands of students to occupy the streets. Following teargas attacks, multiple arrests and an exhausting 79-day campaign to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district, Joshua moves on to the next phase of the movement – facing down the superpower from inside the government itself.
Pamela Yates’ gripping courtroom drama, 500 Years, documents the first trial in the history of the Americas to prosecute the genocide of an indigenous people, in this instance the majority Mayan population of Guatemala. Threatening the powerful and empowering the dispossessed, the trial exposed a world of brutality, entrenched racism and impunity, subverting the historical narrative of Guatemala.
In Tickling Giants, the director Sara Taksler follows Bassem Youssef (known as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart”) who in the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring changed his career path from heart surgeon to full-time comedian. In a country where freedom of speech is becoming increasingly restricted with each regime change, Youssef and his courageous staff of young writers develop creative methods to non-violently challenge abuses of power. Enduring physical threats, protests, and legal action, the team members test how far they can take the joke.
Two titles consider the devastating psychological impact of age-inappropriate trial and incarceration: children tried as adults in the US prison system, and adults tried as children in the Russian care system. In Ben Lear’s powerful documentary They Call Us Monsters, Juan, Jarad and Antonio, ages 14-16, face decades in prison in California, where juveniles older than 14 can be tried as adults for violent crimes. While incarcerated, they sign up for a screenwriting class and collaborate on a short film that collectively fictionalizes their lives and dreams, allowing a remarkable insight into their minds and experiences.
The director Alexander Kuznetsov’s photographer’s eye and immense sensitivity for his subjects are beautifully evident in We’ll Be Alright, which reveals life inside Russian care and court systems. Yulia and Katia, now both adults, have lived their entire lives in care institutions in Siberia. Based on reports written when they were children living in orphanages, they had been labelled as unfit for life in the real world. Their dreams are simple – to gain independence and leave the neuropsychiatric institution that has become their prison – but a long and painful bureaucratic process forces them to meet nearly impossibly high standards for release.
The voices of women young and old are cause for celebration, inspiration and admiration in another three festival titles. In Erin Heidenreich’s Girl Unbound, the squash player Maria Toorpakai disguises herself as a boy in defiance of a Taliban law forbidding women to play sport. But when she hits puberty her gender is revealed, forcing her to leave her home after repeated death threats to herself and her family. The film follows Maria over several months as she represents Pakistan on the national team standing firm in her mission to carve her own identity and destiny with the support of her progressive father and family.
In The Apology and Child Mother we hear from the largely unheard voices of elderly women who share hidden stories of past exploitations.
In Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, the courageous resolve of Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines moves them to seize their last chance to share with their families and the world their first-hand accounts of the truth about theirs and others sexual exploitation and imprisonment as so-called “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Despite multiple formal apologies from the Japanese government issued since the early 1990s, there has been little justice. These women seize their last chance to share first-hand accounts of the truth to ensure that this horrific chapter of history is neither repeated nor forgotten.
In Ronen Zaretzky and Yael Kipper’s Child Mother, conversations between mothers and their families reveal haunting histories of women forced into marriage as young children. Born into Jewish communities in Yemen and Morocco where child marriage was a culturally sanctioned custom, they were married as young as 12 and began to have babies of their own, often working day and night to support growing families and aging husbands. Through their children’s difficult but enlightening questions, the film exposes an aspect of child marriage and trauma that is rarely discussed: the impact on the family as a whole, an open wound passed on to subsequent generations.