Advocate by Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaiche
Advocate by Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaiche

The 30 Anniversary of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City will showcase 13 timely and provocative films, from June 13 to 20, 2019. As racism and xenophobia continue to rise within the highest echelons of power, this year’s festival presents cinematic works that expose and humanize cases of legalized and legitimized oppression of the disenfranchised that demand the world’s attention.

Opening Night features Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s Advocate, which documents the challenges faced by Jewish Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel and her colleagues in their efforts to represent Palestinian clients – from non-violent demonstrators to armed militants – in an increasingly conservative Israel where the government, courts and media seem stacked against them.

The festival closes with Hans Pool’s explosive and riveting Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World, which follows the rise of the controversial “citizen investigative journalist” collective known as Bellingcat, dedicated to redefining breaking news by exploiting open-source investigation to expose the truth behind global news stories.

This year’s edition also features Eunice Lau’s Accept the Call, which charts the struggles of Muslim youth growing up in the U.S. where they confront racism, prejudice and FBI counterintelligence operations; James Jones and Olivier Sarbil’s On the President’s Orders, a shocking and illuminating investigation with stunning access into the inner workings of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs” in the Philippines; and Bassam Jarbawi’s Screwdriver (Mafak), shot entirely on location in the West Bank, which follows a young man returning home after 15 years in an Israeli prison that immerses viewers in a distinctly Palestinian story while tackling the universal trauma of reintegration after incarceration.

With over half the films in 2019’s program directed or co-directed by women, this year’s festival highlights the female directorial voice. The program intimately explores the personal experiences of women filmmakers who confront human rights issues that affect women. Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation is a personal exploration of China’s One Child Policy, including forced sterilizations and abortions, and the collective trauma and generational impact it had on Chinese citizens. In the deeply moving Born in Evin, Maryam Zaree, born inside the infamous Evin prison in Iran, explores the lifelong effects of incarceration on a generation of former political prisoners and their children. Filmmaker Beryl Magoko embarks on a journey towards self-acceptance in In Search…, winner of the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award, in her work about the role of societally imposed shame in the practice of female genital mutilation. Other works by women filmmakers include Accept the CallAdvocateNo Box for Me and The Sweet Requiem.

Extending the festival’s broad span of global films made by filmmakers with roots in the regions they are focusing on, Rehad Desai’s Everything Must Fall challenges the presence of deep-seated discrimination in South Africa. The film is a detailed examination of student protests that coalesce into a national movement, calling for an end to exclusion in the higher education system. Tuki Jencquel’s Está Todo Bien is an incisive look at the current collapse of Venezuelan institutions, and how failing healthcare systems reflect the long-term challenges of a population fighting to survive.

The complete line up is as follows.

Advocate, Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, Israel,-Canada-Switzerland

Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, 2019, Documentary, 108 min., Arabic, Hebrew, fully subtitled in English

“I’m an Israeli occupier, no matter what I do. I ‘enjoy’ the fruits of occupation, both bitter and sweet … Who gave me the moral right to judge the people who resist my occupation… ? So, in that sense, if the act is intended to resist the occupation, as such, I’ll take [the case] on.” – Lea Tsemel, film subject, Advocate

The Jewish Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel and her Palestinian colleagues have been working for decades representing their clients in an increasingly conservative Israel. We meet Tsemel and the team as they prepare for their youngest defendant yet – Ahmad, a 13-year-old boy implicated in a knife attack on the streets of Jerusalem. Together, they must counter legal and public opposition and prepare Ahmad who, like other Palestinians charged with serious crimes, will face a difficult trial in a country in which the government, court system and the media are stacked against him. To many, Tsemel is a traitor who defends the indefensible. For others, she’s more than an attorney – she’s a true ally. New York Premiere

“This is an important film — it raises questions about issues of fair trials, entrenched discrimination and the manner in which political and other considerations factor into cases involving Palestinians.” – Khulood Badawi, Consultant, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

Official selection, Sundance Film Festival 2019

Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World, Hans Pool, Netherlands

Hans Pool, 2018, Documentary, 88 min., English, Dutch, German“

In citizen journalism … trust is generated not by the brand name or the glory of the institution, it’s generated through transparency.” – Jay Rosen, film subject, Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World

Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World follows the revolutionary rise of the “citizen investigative journalist” collective known as Bellingcat, dedicated to redefining breaking news by exploring the promise of open-source investigation. This highly skilled and controversial collective exposes the truth behind global news stories – from identifying the exact location of an Islamic State murder through analysis of a video distributed on YouTube to tracking the story behind the mysterious poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK – Bellingcat hunts down answers using social media, reconstruction techniques and audio analysis. From his home in the English countryside, de facto leader Eliot Higgins and his team of volunteer truth-seekers put newspapers, networks and governments to the test, shedding light on the fight for journalistic integrity in the era of fake news and alternative facts. New York Premiere

Accept the Call, Eunice Lau, U.S.

Eunice Lau, 2019, Documentary, 83 min., English, Somali

“They presume that not only are these boys guilty but the whole Somali community is guilty. They are on trial, but so is the Somali community. So is the black community. So is the Muslim community. So is the immigrant community.” — community activist, Accept the Call

Twenty-five years after Yusuf Abdurahman left Somalia as a refugee to begin his life anew in Minnesota, his worst fear is realized when his 19-year-old-son Zacharia is arrested in an FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Through the eyes of a father striving to understand why his young son would leave his American life behind to attempt to join a terrorist organization in a foreign country, Accept the Call explores racism and prejudice against immigrants, the rise of targeted recruitment by radicalized groups, and the struggles of Muslim youth growing up in the US today. This intimate film captures the story of this father and son attempting to mend their relationship after breaking each other’s hearts. World Premiere

“We don’t, as a society, look for the goodness in people. There’s always two sides to a story, if not more.” – Ikraan Abdurahman, film subject, Accept the Call

Born in Evin, Maryam Zaree, Germany-Austria

Maryam Zaree, 2019, Documentary, 98 min., German, English, French, Farsi

When she was 12 years old, the actress and filmmaker Maryam Zaree found out that she was one of a number of babies born inside Evin, Iran’s most notorious political prison. Zaree’s parents were imprisoned shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, a period in which tens of thousands of political dissidents were arrested and tortured. With Born in Evin, she confronts decades of silence in her family and embarks on an exploration into the circumstances of her birth. On this vulnerable, lyrical journey Zaree considers the impact of trauma on the bodies and souls of survivors and their children, leading her to question how her generation can relate to their own history while also respecting the people they love who prefer to heal in silence. U.S. Premiere

Winner Best Film, Perspektive Deutsches Kino Programme, Berlinale 2019

“This is a personal story yet it touches on the broader struggles of the community for recognition of the pain they went through, and their right to know the truth.” – Tara Sepehri Far, researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

Está Todo Bien – Its All Good, Tuki Jencquel, Venezuela-Germany

Tuki Jencquel, 2018, Documentary, 70 min., Spanish, fully subtitled in English

“A country’s collapse is dramatic and, in hindsight, seems inevitable, but when it’s experienced gradually, on a day-by-day basis, it can almost pass unnoticed, like looking in the mirror each morning and not seeing how you age.” – Tuki Jencquel, director, Está Todo Bien

Venezuela is a country rich in natural resources that, for decades, has prided itself on having one of the best public health systems in the entire region. Today, the near-total collapse of Venezuela’s health system is resulting in severe medicine shortages, a dramatic increase in infant mortality, the reappearance of once-eradicated diseases like diphtheria, and a mass exodus of doctors to hospitals overseas. In Está Todo Bien, Caracas-born Tuki Jencquel asks a pharmacist, trauma surgeon, activist and two patients to confront the same questions millions of Venezuelans are facing: protest or acquiesce, emigrate or remain, lose all hope or hang on to faith? New York Premiere

Everything Must Fall, Rehad Desai, South Africa

Rehad Desai, 2018, Documentary, 85 min., English, Closed Captioning available

“We have a responsibility not just to come here to study, but to go back into our communities and make sure that we are uplifting and empowering them.” – Shaeera Kalla, film subject, Everything Must Fall

When South Africa’s universities raised their fees, a wave of students took to the streets in opposition. Quickly gaining momentum and scope, the battle cry #FeesMustFall burst on to the political landscape and became a national conversation, bringing attention to the exclusion of poorer black South Africans from higher education, ultimately calling for the decolonization of the entire education system. Everything Must Fall features student leaders and their opposition as they unpack how a moment evolved into a mass movement. Demanding that governments be held accountable while also challenging deeper racial, gender, class and sexual identity discrimination, this group of inspiring young people demonstrate the power that comes from collective organizing that embraces intersectionality in order to create lasting change. U.S. Premiere

In Search…, Beryl Magoko, Germany

Beryl Magoko, 2018, Documentary, 90 min., German, English, Kikuria, Swahili, fully subtitled in English

Winner of the 2019 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.

Director Beryl Magoko is embarking on a personal journey to courageously face her past, to accept and love herself and her own body. When Magoko learns of an opportunity for reconstructive surgery for the female genital mutilation she and her friends underwent as young girls, she has a growing community of women to consult, but ultimately, the decision is hers. Hosting frank and raw discussions with women — from friends and family in her rural birthplace in Kenya to new friends in cities around Europe — together they uncover the beauty of collective strength and insight, examine the importance of female pleasure and shed the societally imposed shame around women’s bodies. U.S. Premiere

“When you cut the roots of a tree, it will never blossom. It will wither. That is what happens when you chop off the genitals of a woman. You silence her. You suppress her.” — Beryl Magoko, director, In Search…

No Box for Me. An Intersex Story (Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam. Une histoire intersexe) Floriane Devigne, France

Floriane Devigne, 2018, Documentary, 58 min., French, fully subtitled in English

Deborah, 25, and M, 27, are living in bodies that Western medicine — and often society — deems taboo. Like an estimated 1.7 percent of people, they were born with variations in their sex characteristics that were different from classical understandings of male or female. For M, growing up intersex has also meant grappling with the fact that she underwent medically unnecessary surgeries to “normalize” her body as a very young child. But when M finds Deborah online, she is introduced to new voices, language, and representations that allow her to expand her understanding of who she is beyond medical terms. This beautifully crafted, poetic documentary joins brave young people as they seek to reappropriate their bodies and explore their identities, revealing both the limits of binary visions of sex and gender, and the irreversible physical and psychological impact of non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants. U.S. Premiere

“No Box for Me. An Intersex Story is a gem. It is engaging and smart, and treads lightly, too, which makes it all the more powerful.” — Graeme Reid, director, LGBT Division, Human Rights Watch

On the President’s Orders, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, UK and U.S.

James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, 2019, Documentary, 72 min., English, Tagalog, fully subtitled in English

In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a “war on drugs” in the Philippines, setting off a wave of violence and murder targeting thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. With unprecedented, intimate access both to police officials implicated in the killings and the families destroyed as the result of Duterte’s deadly campaign, On the President’s Orders is a shocking and revelatory investigation into the extrajudicial murders that continue to this day. Entering a murky world of crime, drugs and politics, the filmmakers have managed to capture the clear trajectory of what depths those who wield excessive power can reach, when attacking those who have the very least. U.S. Premiere

“On the President’s Orders is an unflinching exploration of President Duterte’s brutal “drug war” and its devastating impact on thousands of mostly poor Filipinos.” – Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher, Human Rights Watch

One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, U.S. and China

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, 2019, Documentary, 85 min., English, Mandarin

“We are fighting a population war” was a common slogan used by the government during the One-child Policy. China started a war against population growth, but it became a real war against its own people.” – Nanfu Wang, director, One Child Nation

From Academy Award-nominated documentarian Nanfu Wang, Hooligan Sparrow (HRWFF, 2017) and Jialing Zhang, One Child Nation explores China’s One Child Policy, which made it illegal in most circumstances for couples to have more than one child. Nanfu digs fearlessly into her own life, using her experience as a new mother and first-hand accounts of her family members, along with archival propaganda material and testimony from victims and law-enforcers alike, composing a revelatory record of China’s drastic approach to population-control. The severe law that led to forced sterilizations and abortions, abandoned newborns, and government abductions may have ended in 2015, but the process of dealing with the impact of its enforcement is only just beginning.

“One Child Nation is an intimate, honest and courageous look into an unprecedented social experiment by the Chinese Communist Party that has traumatized countless Chinese citizens and will shape generations to come.” – Yaqiu Wang, China researcher, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch US

Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2019
Grand Jury Award, Full Frame 2019

Screwdriver (Mafak), Bassam Jarbawi, Palestine, U.S. and Qatar

Bassam Jarbawi, 2018, Drama, 108 min., Arabic, Hebrew, fully subtitled in English

Young Ziad is the star of the Al-Amari Refugee Camp basketball team in the outskirts of Ramallah, Palestine. When his best friend is shot and killed in crossfire, his teammates seek revenge, with results that will affect Ziad for the rest of his life. Shot entirely on location in the West Bank with a largely Palestinian crew, award-winning director Bassam Jarbawi’s debut feature follows Ziad as he returns home after 15 years in an Israeli prison. Hailed as a hero, with high expectations to settle back quickly into work and love, he is lost in a world he barely recognizes. Effectively capturing this unsettling inability to distinguish reality from hallucination and the haunting of memory, Screwdriver immerses us in a distinctly Palestinian story while addressing the universal trauma of reintegration after incarceration. New York Premiere

‘Solitary prisoners’ reliance on fantasy as a technique for survival captured my attention, and largely influenced the story of Screwdriver. This stagnant everwaiting hopelessness pervades [the] Palestinian psyche. The result is an inability to define self without occupier, to organize and feel life without restriction.” – Bassam Jarbawi, director, Screwdriver (Mafak)

Official Selection, Giornate Degli Autori 2018
Official Selection, Toronto International Film Festival 2018

The Sweet Requiem, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, India and U.S.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, 2018, Drama, 91 min., Tibetan, fully subtitled in EnglishAt age eight, Dolkar and her father fled their home in Tibet, escaping Chinese armed forces in an arduous journey across the Himalayas. Now 26, she lives in a Tibetan refugee colony in Delhi, India, where an unexpected encounter with a man from her past reveals long-suppressed memories, propelling Dolkar on an obsessive search for the truth. With stunning cinematography and skillfully subdued tension, The Sweet Requiem, from the filmmaking team behind Dreaming Lhasa (HRWFF, 2006) and The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (HRWFF, 2010), is an unforgettable reflection on an ongoing but too often forgotten refugee crisis. New York Premiere

“The Sweet Requiem shows carefully and respectfully the pain of Tibetan exiles and the pressures they’re under.” – Sophie Richardson, China director, Human Rights Watch

Official Selection, Toronto International Film Festival 2018

When We Walk, Jason DaSilva, U.S.

Jason DaSilva, 2019, Documentary, 78 min., English, Closed Captioning available

New Yorker Jason DaSilva is facing the life-changing decision of whether to relocate to Austin, Texas, to be closer to his young son who has moved in with his mother following their recent divorce. Facing a rapidly progressing form of multiple sclerosis and experiencing a swift decline in his motor skills, DaSilva soon learns that the harsh restrictions of the U.S. Medicaid system would prevent him from accessing the services he needs to live life as fully as possible and from being the dad he wants to be for his young son. Left with this heartbreaking choice, When We Walk, the follow-up to DaSilva’s Emmy Award-winning film When I Walk, reflects on Jason’s own childhood and relationship with his father, making his fight to keep his son resonate even more powerfully. New York Premiere

“As an authentic, first-hand experience of a person with a disability, When We Walk is a refreshing, essential perspective that achieves what we strive for in our own research and advocacy.” – Jane Buchanan, deputy director, Disability Rights Division, Human Rights Watch

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