Nadia Murad and Murad Ismael appear in On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach.
Nadia Murad and Murad Ismael appear in On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach.

This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival will showcase 15 timely and provocative documentary and narrative works, screening June 14 to 21, 2018 in New York City. In a year when women collectively raised their voices against discrimination and abuse, Human Rights Watch will present films offering incisive perspectives and critical insights on human rights issues impacting people around the world. Twelve of the 15 films are directed or co-directed by women.

Now in its 29th edition, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center. All screenings will be followed by in-depth Q&A sessions with filmmakers, film subjects, Human Rights Watch researchers, and special guests.

“This year’s festival focuses on strong women who take great risks to push back against powerful forces within their respective societies. And, at a time when the use of personal data by institutions is front-page news, this year’s program explores governmental and corporate regulation of information, and how, by burying the truth and creating their own narratives, these gatekeepers are uniquely positioned to abuse their power and control the populace. ”

“In a year when women have spoken out against abuse, harassment and oppression, the festival highlights the outstanding work of women filmmakers telling epic stories of women fighting injustice with resilience and courage.” said John Biaggi, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival creative director. “The festival will also probe the headline-breaking questions of corporate and government control of information at a time when the use of personal data has outrun the limits of the law and ethics.”

The Opening Night documentary On Her Shoulders introduces Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi survivor of atrocities by ISIS who makes it her life’s mission to fight for justice and freedom for her people.

Two documentaries highlight women’s rights in Afghanistan. A Thousand Girls Like Me follows a young mother seeking justice from a legal system designed to criminalize sexual abuse survivors like her. Facing the Dragon (winner of the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award) profiles two intrepid Afghan women — a member of parliament and a journalist — who risk the safety of their families to bring change and accountability to their country.

Naila and the Uprising features courageous Palestinian women activists who played a pivotal role in the First Intifada, and in Women of the Venezuelan Chaos, five resilient women find creative ways to defend their fellow citizens, their families, and their own lives amid the national crisis that has enveloped their country.

In the profoundly moving and poetic Angkar, a filmmaker traces her father’s journey home to Cambodia to seek out his Khmer Rouge persecutors while confronting his country’s collective amnesia regarding their horrifying past. In The Silence of Others, survivors of the Franco dictatorship’s crimes against humanity refuse to relent in their pursuit of justice, despite Spain’s “pact of forgetting,” which has denied Franco’s victims legal recourse. The Cleaners reveals a murky world of digital “cleaning,” in which giant social media companies employ workers to delete Internet content deemed inappropriate, raising essential questions over Internet control and the life-threatening impact of erasing entire resistance movements from the world’s gaze.

As always, the festival features critical human rights issues in the U.S., this year with three timely films. Charm City moves between community members, police and local officials during a period of heightened violence in Baltimore, exposing layers of disconnect and distrust that need to be addressed to move their city forward. TransMilitary focuses on the largest employer of transgender people in the country – the U.S. military – and the efforts of four brave people as they come forward to demand much-needed change. The Closing Night film, The Unafraid, introduces three high school students in Georgia, banned by the state from attending top state universities due to their unauthorized immigration status, and their passionate fight to pursue their dreams of higher education.

2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Film Lineup

Opening Night Film and Reception*
On Her Shoulders
Alexandria Bombach, 2018, 94 min., Arabic, English, Kurdish

Nadia Murad is a 23-year-old lifeline to the Yezidi community. A survivor of the 2014 atrocities against the Yezidi in northern Iraq, Nadia escaped sexual slavery at the hands of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and witnessed the murder of those closest to her. With the love of her people propelling her forward, Nadia is determined to turn her pain into international action. She now shoulders immense burdens as a key public figure whose supporters are pushing her further into the spotlight – from testifying at the United Nations Security Council and having endless meetings with government officials to giving soul-baring media interviews and emotionally draining speeches. On Her Shoulders tells the story of a multi-layered and selfless activist who once dreamed of opening a beauty salon in her village as she becomes an essential voice in the fight to bring ISIS to justice and save her people from extinction. New York Premiere

“This moving film highlights the journey for justice, and how elusive it has been and continues to be for Yezidis, despite the world acknowledging their suffering.” – Rothna Begum, Researcher, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch

US Documentary Directing Award, Sundance Film Festival 2018. Opening in theaters this October from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Closing Night Film
The Unafraid
Anayansi Prado and Heather Courtney, 2018, 85 min., English, Spanish

“We have years of activism under our belts. Now we just fight harder, we fight smarter, and we fight as one.” – Alejandro, film subject, The Unafraid

High School seniors Alejandro, Silvia and Aldo, like most of their friends, are eager to go to college and pursue their education. However, their home state of Georgia not only bans them from attending the top five public universities, but also deems them ineligible for in-state tuition at public colleges due to their immigration status as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. In response, these three ambitious and dream-filled students divert their passions toward the fight for education in the undocumented community. As President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric against immigrants gains momentum, and with the three students under constant threat of losing their DACA status and being deported, The Unafraid follows these inspirational members of the generation of “undocumented, unapologetic and unafraid” young people who are determined to overcome and dismantle oppressive policies and mindsets. New York Premiere

A Thousand Girls Like Me
Sahra Mani, 2018, 76 min., Farsi

“Every woman in this country has a hundred owners. Fathers, brothers, uncles, neighbors: They all believe they have the right to speak on our behalf and make decisions for us. That’s why our stories are never heard, but buried with us.” – Sahra Mani, director, A Thousand Girls Like Me

When Khatera, a 23-year-old Afghan woman, forces her father to stand trial after a lifetime of sexual abuse, she risks her family, freedom and personal safety to expose a judicial system that incriminates the very women who seek protection. In a country where the systematic abuse of girls is rarely discussed, Afghan filmmaker Sahra Mani presents an awe-inspiring story of one woman’s battle against cultural, familial and legal pressures as she embarks on a mission to set a positive example for her daughter and other girls like her. U.S. Premiere

Angkar
Neary Adeline Hay, 2018, 71 min., French, Khmer

“We called it the Angkar, ‘The Organization’ in Khmer. The nebulous wielder of power. Something shapeless, without a head, without a face. Angkar made the rules. Angkar had eyes everywhere.” – Khonsaly Hay, film subject, Angkar

Khonsaly Hay returns to his lush, serene village in Cambodia after over 40 years living in France and comes face-to-face with his former Khmer Rouge persecutors. Pol Pot’s regime of extreme violence and torture between 1975-1979 turned neighbor against neighbor and resulted in the deaths of nearly 2 million people. Decades later, survivors find themselves living next door to the very people responsible for their suffering. In this beautifully personal and artfully crafted testimony of survival, Khonsaly travels the country, confronting his past and seeking what remains of the family and friends he was forced to leave behind. Directed by Khonsaly’s daughter, Neary Adeline Hay, this deeply immersive film juxtaposes past and present to tenderly reveal unreconciled traumas haunting Cambodians today. New York Premiere

Anote’s Ark
Matthieu Rytz, 2018, 77 min., English, Kiribati

“I want to emphasize that climate change is not a political issue. It’s not entirely an economic issue. It’s an issue of survival. Maybe today for countries like mine. But in the future, for the planet as a whole.” – Anote Tong, film subject, Anote’s Ark

What if your country was swallowed by the sea? The idyllic Pacific nation of Kiribati will be submerged within decades due to climate change. As President Anote Tong passionately embarks upon a race against time to save his people and 4,000 years of Kiribati culture, islanders are already feeling the pressure to relocate. Sermary, a young mother of six, must decide whether to use a sought-after lottery visa and leave her children behind to build a future for her family overseas. Set against the backdrop of international climate negotiations and the fight to recognize climate displacement as an urgent human rights issue, Anote’s Ark presents personal stories that serve as cautionary tales for the entire world. New York Premiere

Official Selection, Sundance Film Festival 2018

Charm City
Marilyn Ness, 2018, 106 min., English

During three years of unparalleled violence in Baltimore, Maryland, award-winning filmmaker Marilyn Ness takes viewers beyond the headlines and into the lives of community members, police and government officials as they attempt to reclaim the future of their city. A young City Councilman, Brandon Scott, calls for diverting funds from policing to programs that build opportunities and combat poverty. A Senior community leader, “Mr. C,” and his colleague Alex Long spend their days in the streets working with youth to provide a positive environment and safety. Charm City speaks to a nationwide crisis, where the grit and compassion of citizens offer humanity as a way forward.

“This film is extremely well made. It asks, rather than answers, questions, and doesn’t tell the viewer how to think.” – John Raphling, Senior Researcher, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch

The Cleaners
Hans Block and Moritz Riesewiek, 2018, 88 min., English, Tagalog

“The companies have more and more power … They take advantage of our desire for ease, our resistance to effort, our resistance to challenge, and I think, over time, if we’re not already there, it will interfere with our ability to have critical thinking.” – David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, film subject, The Cleaners

Who controls what you see on the internet? Welcome to a hidden industry of digital cleaning where content determined as inappropriate is deleted from the internet. This fascinating documentary follows five “cleaners” in the Philippines whom social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter, hire to undertake the highly sensitive work of viewing and removing millions of images and videos from online platforms every day. Exposing the extreme and often life-threatening impact of censorship capable of disappearing entire conversations, perspectives and events from world view, The Cleaners expertly reveals the impact on critics of the U.S. president, activists in Turkey and the Rohingya in Myanmar from Silicon Valley’s control over free speech. New York Premiere

Please be advised this film contains material that may be disturbing to some viewers.

Official Selection, Sundance Film Festival 2018

The Distant Barking of Dogs
Simon Lereng Wilmont, 2017, 90 min., Ukrainian

This film is fully subtitled and ASL interpretation will be provided for the Q&A.

“We have days of silence. But they are so deadly – even worse than explosions. It’s the lull before the storm.” – Grandmother Alexandra, film subject, The Distant Barking of Dogs

The life of a 10-year-old child includes a healthy dose of curiosity and adventure. But the days of Oleg, who lives in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine – just minutes from where Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces are at war – are often interrupted by echoes of anti-aircraft fire and missile strikes. Oleg and his cousin Yarik are young boys whose play fights and restlessness often lead them toward dangerous discoveries. But, as this touching and intimate film evolves, it bears witness to the unique pressures that come with living adjacent to a war zone, and the gradual erosion of innocence under intense psychological burdens. As the world shakes around Oleg and Yarik, the beauty of childhood friendship becomes ever more important for survival. New York Premiere

First Appearance Award, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2017

Facing the Dragon
Sedika Mojadidi, 2018, 80 min., Dari

“We have a responsibility to speak on behalf of every woman, from the remote mountains of Pamir to Nuristan. Advocating for women’s rights should not be a political game.” – Dr. Nilofar Ibrahimi, film subject, Facing the Dragon

As the U.S. withdraws forces and aid from Afghanistan, the Taliban are regaining their hold and the stability of the country’s fragile democracy is unclear. Afghan-American filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi joins two awe-inspiring women on the front lines: Nilofar, a successful doctor-turned-member of parliament, driven in her mission to secure peace and well-being for women; and Shakila, a top investigative journalist committed to exposing the truth about what is happening in her troubled country. Under increasing threats of violence, these two women are soon forced to choose between their sense of duty and love for Afghanistan, and the safety of their families. New York Premiere

Winner of the 2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Nestor Almendros award for courage in filmmaking.

Naila and the Uprising
Julia Bacha, 2017, 76 min., Arabic, English, Hebrew, French

“We can’t be free as women unless we’re in a free country. And even if we are free of the occupation, we can’t know freedom as long as we are subjugated in our own society.” – Sama Aweidah, film subject, Naila and the Uprising

When an uprising breaks out in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 1987, a young woman in Gaza must make a choice between love and family and freedom. Naila and the Uprising chronicles the remarkable real-life journey of Naila Ayesh, a key figure in the First Intifada, which forced the world to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination. Using evocative animation, intimate interviews, and exclusive archival footage, this film tells the story the mainstream media missed: of a courageous women’s movement at the head of Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, bringing out of anonymity the bold women activists whose contributions and sacrifices changed history, but whose stories have remained untold until now.

The Silence of Others
Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, 2018, 96 min., Spanish

A 1977 amnesty law in Spain known as “the pact of forgetting” prohibits legal action related to the oppression, torture and murder of an estimated 100,000 people during Franco’s 40-year dictatorship. But for much of the population – including the survivor who passes his torturer’s home every day on the way to market, the children of forcibly disappeared parents found buried in mass graves, and parents still searching for their children seized at birth and handed to Franco’s allies – there is no peace in silence. Taking strength and inspiration from justice-seekers in Chile and Guatemala, the characters in The Silence of Others fight an urgent battle to get recognition and admissions of guilt against state-imposed amnesia. From award-winning directors and Executive Producer Pedro Almodovar comes a powerful film about a country still divided four decades into democracy. New York Premiere

“The film shows why victims need justice, even decades after the crimes, and why forgetting simply isn’t an option.” – Param-Preet Singh, Associate Director, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch

Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary and Peace Film Prize winner, Berlin International Film Festival 2018

TransMilitary
Gabriel Silverman and Co-director Fiona Dawson, 2018, 92 min., English

“It is our time now to step forward and say, ‘OK, it’s not about what gender I am, it’s about if I can get the job done. And we for years have shown that, so why not acknowledge us?’” – Laila Villanueva, film subject, TransMilitary

The military is the largest employer of transgender people in the United States. Amid rapidly changing policies that technically bans them from serving, 15,500 troops identify as transgender. TransMilitary documents four brave men and women who risk their families’ livelihoods by coming out to the Pentagon’s top brass in the hope of attaining the equal right to serve. With a new commander-in-chief at the helm, they must traverse a series of successes and defeats, as their careers hang in the balance. New York Premiere

Audience Award for Documentary, South by Southwest Film Festival 2018

Voices of the Sea
Kim Hopkins, 2018, 99 min., Spanish

“‘For the humble, by the humble.’ … That was the goal. But the humble don’t have access to anything that other people have. It will improve for those on top. And for us down here it will be the same or worse.” – Mariela Mora Quintana, film subject, Voices of the Sea

In this tiny, remote Cuban fishing village, Mariela, a mother of four young children, longs for a better life. The families in her village are utterly dependent on the day’s catch, which changes with the tide. The shops are empty, school is repeatedly shut down due to a lack of resources, and basic transportation is non-existent. With the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba in flux, Mariela, like many Cubans, is afraid that her only chance to escape to the U.S. will soon close. Her husband, Pita, loves his community, cherishes his friendships, and is loyal to his craft as a fisherman. The tension between husband and wife — one desperate to leave, the other content to stay — increases after her brother and neighbors flee the country, risking their lives to chase the American Dream. New York Premiere

What Will People Say?
Iram Haq, 2017, 106 min., Norwegian, Urdu

Sixteen-year-old Nisha lives a double life. At home with her conservative Pakistani family, she is the perfect, compliant daughter. But when out with her friends, she is a typical Norwegian teenager – partying and exploring relationships. When her father discovers her deception, Nisha’s two worlds brutally collide. Trapped between countries and perceptions of honor, Nisha is forced to find her own way in life. This gripping and powerfully acted drama from Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq untangles the complex relationship between a father and daughter and presents an empathetic perspective on family, community and culture. New York Premiere

“This film powerfully highlights some of the abuses Pakistani women and girls face, which include forced marriage, barriers to education, and violence, including in the name of family ‘honor,’ which all too frequently goes unpunished.” – Heather Barr, Senior Researcher, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch

Official Selection, Toronto International Film Festival 2017

Women of the Venezuelan Chaos
Margarita Cadenas, 2017, 83 min., Spanish

This film is fully subtitled and ASL interpretation will be provided for the Q&A

Embodying strength and stoicism, five Venezuelan women from diverse backgrounds each draw a portrait of their country as it suffers under the worst crisis in its history amid extreme food and medicine shortages, a broken justice system, and widespread fear. The women share what life is really like for them and their families while the government repeatedly denies the country’s difficulties. Featuring stunning visuals and creative soundscapes, Women of the Venezuelan Chaos presents a uniquely beautiful country and people, who remain resilient and resourceful despite the immense challenges they face. New York Premiere

“This is one of the best films I have seen on Venezuela. It is extraordinary, very accurate, very balanced, moving, powerful. It delves into all the issues Human Rights Watch covers in Venezuela: the humanitarian crisis, lack of medicines and food, exile, police abuses, lack of justice, impunity, abuse of power, violence.” – José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch

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