The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, now in its 27th year in London, presents a line-up of 10 award-winning, international documentary films at the Barbican from March 16-24, 2023, and digitally across the UK and Ireland on the festival website from March 20-26, 2023.
The festival opens with the timely film Delikado (London Premiere) which follows three environmental defenders who are risking their lives to stop corporations and governments seeking to steal the increasingly valuable natural resources of their home, Palawan, an island in the Philippines. With its rich biodiversity and natural beauty, Palawan is one of Asia’s most visited tourist destinations, but for a small network of environmental crusaders, it is more akin to a battlefield. The battles fought by these climate activists are shared by allies worldwide – but the abusive regime of former President Rodrigo Duterte adds urgency to this deepening human rights crisis. The filmmaker and journalist Karl Malakunas, who has been based in Asia for two decades, will attend the festival.
The festival’s Closing Night film Theatre of Violence (UK Premiere) raises complex questions about new forms of colonialism and definitions of justice in the landmark International Criminal Court trial of Daniel Ongwen. A former Ugandan child soldier, Ongwen was just 9 years old when he was abducted – as were an estimated more than 20,000 other children – by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Intimidated and indoctrinated, he quickly learned to kill or be killed. In the unfolding debate his defence lawyer, Krispus Ayena, grapples with questions of accountability when someone is both victim and perpetrator, and the underlying issue of what justice looks like when being conducted in an international court, far away from key cultural and historical context. The filmmakers Lukasz Konopa and Emily Langballe will attend the festival.
In his debut documentary No U-Turn (London Premiere) the celebrated filmmaker Ike Nnaebue takes viewers on a journey with fellow Nigerian citizens leaving their country, traveling north through Africa and beyond, in search of work and the opportunity to build a future in Europe, despite the known and unknown challenges lying ahead. As he retraces his own stalled journey, made over 20 years ago, this self-reflective travelogue is overlaid with a powerful poetic commentary and insight into the impact of a colonial past, to unpack the deep longing of an entire generation in search of opportunities.
Body autonomy and personal autonomy, and the impact on mental and physical well-being is the focus of four films in this year’s program.
Written and directed by a former Olympian, Phyllis Ellis, Category: Woman (European Premiere) focuses on four women athletes from the Global South who are targeted and forced out of competition by regulations imposed by World Athletes, stirring relentless debates on their “legitimacy” as athletes and as women. Using women’s naturally varying androgen levels to evaluate their performance advantages, the sporting institution creates new rules, declaring that certain female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies to compete in their sport. The film exposes an industry that puts women’s lives at risk, and raises issues of racism, sexism, and the right to determine another persons’ biological sex.
As a person with a disability navigating the world from a wheelchair, the filmmaker Reid Davenport is often either the subject of unwanted gaze — gawked at by strangers — or paradoxically left invisible, ignored, or dismissed by society. In I Didn’t See You There (London Premiere), Davenport sets out to make a film about how he sees the world without having to be seen himself, capturing indelible images informed by his disability. This is a personal, political, and unflinching account – offering a perspective and stylistic approach rarely seen in film. I Didn’t See You There will have two relaxed screenings at the festival, which are open to all audience members.
With candor, humor and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos, and build a road to individual and collective healing in Koromousso, Big Sister (European Premiere). Working with co-director Jim Donovan, Habibata Ouarme combines her own experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) with personal accounts from some of her friends, to begin a journey of personal discovery, with discussions on the importance of female pleasure and the complexity of the female anatomy, while working to shed long-held feelings of shame and loneliness. While finding strength and joy in their own frank and intimate conversations together, Habibata and her friends continue to advocate for wider access to restorative surgery and facilitate community conversations in Canada and worldwide.
Seven Winters in Tehran (UK Premiere), directed by Steffi Niederzoll, unpacks the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a young Iranian woman who became a symbol of resistance and women’s rights worldwide. In 2007, Reyhaneh, 19, is sentenced to death in Iran for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. Using secretly recorded videos provided by her family, their testimony, and the beautiful, lyrical letters she wrote from prison, voiced by Holy Spider actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Seven Winters in Tehran opens a window into the many ways women are oppressed and silenced in Iran, and the immense risks taken by those who defend and support them.
Structural discrimination is the focus of two films in the program.
If The Streets Were On Fire (London Premiere) introduces BikeStormz, a movement of young cyclists that attempts to offer a safe and welcoming space for youth in London. Starting as a protest against violent crime with the slogan “knives down, bikes up,” BikeStormz, founded by a social activist, Mac Ferrari-Guy, has grown into a movement and safe space for young people around London to freely express themselves. The filmmaker Alice Russell beautifully captures groups of young people as they glide through the city, doing wheelies, tricks, and acrobatics and cheering each other on as they travel through the postcode-neutral space of central London. Yet as they come together and find liberation through cycling, they are threatened with arrest and accused of anti-social behavior.
Marek Kozakiewicz’s Silent Love (UK Premiere) is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story about embracing new roles and redefining old ones. Aga, 35, is legally adopting her teenage brother, Milosz, after their mother’s death – a process that probes into her life choices. However, there’s something she can’t share in their conservative Polish village: her long-term relationship with her girlfriend, Maja. Aga has always hidden her relationship from friends and family, and must continue to hide it from the social workers for fear of losing her case for Milosz. Silent Love delicately captures this trio’s discreet struggle as they begin to live as a family, against the prejudices of an ultra-conservative and viscerally homophobic society.
The impact of war on the day-to-day lives of citizens of a small town in Ukraine is profiled in When Spring Came to Bucha (UK Premiere), which poignantly captures how a small community continues with life amid trauma and loss, while war rages on close by. After a month of intense fighting, the Russian army withdrew, leaving the town destroyed in its wake. Yet in the midst of suffering, a young couple gets married, and life must go on. This heart-rending yet empowering documentary tells stories of loss, hope, and resistance, as the spring flowers of Bucha begin to bloom.
Philippines, Hong Kong, Australia, USA, UK / 2021 / Karl Malakunas / 94m
In English and Tagalog with English subtitles.
In Delikado, three environmental defenders are tested as never before in their battle to save their home, Palawan, an island in the Philippines, from the illegal destruction of its forests, fisheries, and mountains.
Theatre of Violence
Denmark / 2023 / Lukasz Konopa and Emil Langballe / 90m
English, Swahili and Luo with English subtitles.
Dominic Ongwen is the first former child soldier prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Theatre of Violence follows Ongwen’s lawyer and his team as they investigate, build a defence strategy, and try to answer the central question: how do we define “justice” when the perpetrator is also a victim?
Canada / 2022 / Phyllis Ellis / 76m
English, Hindi, Swahili with English subtitles.
Sport has a long and problematic history of policing women athletes’ bodies. Category: Woman focuses on four women athletes from the Global South who are required to undergo medical intervention to compete in their sport, despite being in perfect health, and explores what happens when sexism and racism collide.
“I was inspired and deeply affected by this story far beyond that of a filmmaker. I had experienced many challenges as an Olympian and as a woman in high performance sport, but I may have collapsed under the pressure these phenomenal athletes have endured. The devastation to their bodies, and their lives, but equally arresting was their passion and joy for sport, the dedication to their communities, families, and country.” – Phyllis Ellis, director, Category: Woman
France / Nigeria / South Africa / 2022 / Ike Nnaebue / 94m
Igbo, French, Bambara, Pidgin, English, with English Subtitles.
No U-Turn, by the celebrated Nigerian director Ike Nnaebue, takes viewers on a journey with Nigerian citizens leaving their country, traveling north through Africa and beyond in search of work and opportunity to build a future, despite the known and unknown challenges lying ahead.
“Why is it unrealistic to dream of comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?” – Ike Nnaebue, director, No U-Turn
Special Mention, Best Documentary, Berlinale 2022
Winner, Best Documentary, African Movie Academy Awards 2022
When Spring Came to Bucha
Germany, Ukraine / 2022 / Mila Teshaieva, Marcus Lenz / 64m
Ukrainian Russian with English Subtitles.
In March 2022, Russian troops withdraw from a small town in the Kyiv region, and Ukrainian citizens emerge from their homes to clean their streets, rebuild, and face a new day while grieving about all that’s been lost. This film poignantly captures how a small community continues with life amid trauma and loss, while war rages on close by.
I Didn’t See You There
USA / 2022/ Reid Davenport / 76m
English. This film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be live-captioned. The Audio Description is provided by the narrator.
When a circus tent is put up outside his apartment, the filmmaker Reid Davenport, a wheelchair user, reflects on the corrosive legacy of the “freak show” and the paradoxical spectacle and invisibility of disability.
“I see film after film exploring disability in a clichéd, misguided way. Rarely am I able to relate to stories about disability on screen. I wanted to be able to portray my perspective in a way that would be difficult to fetishize or romanticize. So instead of turning the camera on myself, I turned it outward. Doing so allowed me to capture the devastation of a stranger’s gaze, the emptiness of being ignored, the physical weight of doors, and the beauty I am privy to as a wheelchair-user and person with spasticity. In many ways, this film is an invitation to see through my eyes.” – Reid Davenport, director, I Didn’t See You There
U.S. Documentary Directing Award, Sundance Film Festival 2022
If the Streets Were on Fire
UK / 2022 / Alice Russell / 71m
BikeStormz, a movement of young cyclists, attempts to offer a safe and welcoming space. However, new forms of conflict arise when police and “concerned citizens” threaten arrest for their very existence.
“BikeStormz are legendary, powerful, inspirational. They’ve inspired me. They’ve inspired many people.” – Stormzy, musician
Poland, Germany / 2022 / Marek Kozakiewicz / 72m
Polish with English Subtitles. This film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be live-captioned.
Silent Love is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story. Aga, 35, is legally adopting her teenage brother, Milosz, after their mother’s death – a process that invites intense probing into her lifestyle. However, there’s something she can’t share in their conservative Polish village: her long-term relationship with her girlfriend, Maja.
Seven Winters in Tehran
Germany, France / 2023 / Steffi Niederzoll / 97m
Farsi with English Subtitles.
In 2007, Reyhaneh Jabbari, 19, is sentenced to death in Iran for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. The efforts her family and supporters undertake open a window into the mass oppression and silencing of women in Iran, and the risks taken by those who defend and support them.
Official Selection, Berlinale 2023
Koromousso, Big Sister
Canada / 2023 / Habibata Ouarme, Jim Donovan / 75m
French and English, with English subtitles.
Canada-based co-directors Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan capture personal stories and deep moments of support in a small community of women from West Africa, who are confronting social norms and embracing the inherent power in pleasure and love for their own bodies.