Seven Winters in Tehran directed by Steffi Niederzoll
Seven Winters in Tehran directed by Steffi Niederzoll (Courtesy of Made in Germany)

From the Ukraine conflict to transgender rights, the 2023 Human Rights Watch Film Festival will present 10 new films from May 31 to June 11, 2023 in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center.

The Opening Night film, Seven Winters in Tehran, is a haunting documentary about Reyhaneh Jabbari, a 19-year-old Iranian woman sentenced to death for killing the man who tried to rape her. The film focuses on the misogyny entrenched in the justice system, where men are in charge and women’s voices are often silenced.

In the Centerpiece film, Theatre of Violence, viewers follow the modern history of Uganda with a charismatic Ugandan lawyer who is defending a former child soldier, Dominic Ongwen, as he faces trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It becomes clear that this is a trial not just of one man, a victim-turned-perpetrator, but also of a European form of justice imposed on an African country.

The festival takes a close look at Ukraine with When Spring Came to Bucha by the renowned photographer Mila Teshaieva, which powerfully profiles the citizens of Bucha, Ukraine, after the Russian army has left, as they work to rebuild their lives and community while supporting one another and finding moments of joy.

The Etilaat Roz, explores the importance of a free press as a courageous Afghan journalist records his team at Kabul’s largest newspaper while the Taliban takes over Afghanistan in 2021. Draw Me Egypt – Doaa El-Adl, A Stroke of Freedom highlights the daily struggles of one of the most prominent cartoonists of the Arab world, Doaa el-Adl, who faces censorship, intimidation and death threats as she takes on the patriarchy through her art.

Three films in this year’s festival delve into issues of health and human rights. The Closing Night Film, Pay or Die, follows three families struggling with the crushing financial reality of living with type 1 diabetes in the U.S. It looks at how pharmaceutical companies, bolstered by the government’s lack of regulation, push the price of insulin to exorbitant levels, with devastating impact on millions of Americans. Koromousso, Big Sister introduces viewers to three passionate activists and survivors of female genital mutilation as they discover a wealth of strength, joy and love—both for their own bodies and for one another—while they work to remove stigma and to challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality, reconstructive surgery and, ultimately, ownership of their bodies. In Nicolò Bassetti’s tender documentary Into My Name, executive produced by Elliot Page, we meet four young transgender men in Italy as they seek to determine their own gender identities while dealing with society’s often rigid boundaries and navigating the labyrinthine medical system.

Two films focus on environmental justice and the effects of climate change. Razing Liberty Square profiles a historically Black neighborhood in Miami that was the first segregated public housing project in the South. As rising sea levels cause widespread damage to wealthy oceanfront neighborhoods in the city, Liberty Square draws the attention of developers, and a “revitalization” project begins that threatens to dismantle this thriving and close-knit community.

We Are Guardians expertly weaves together multiple threads to help paint a picture of the complexity of what is happening to the Amazon from the perspectives of Indigenous forest guardians, illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and a landowner struggling to preserve the rich ecosystem within his land from encroaching settlers.

The 34th Human Rights Watch Film Festival, will run May 31 to June 11, 2023 in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center; and will continue online nationwide across the United States with a full digital edition of the film festival from June 5 to June 11.

34th Human Rights Watch Film Festival Films Lineup

Draw Me Egypt – Doaa El-Adl, A Stroke of Freedom
World Premiere
Directed by Nada Riyadh, 2023, Documentary, 50 minutes, Arabic

Doaa el-Adl is one the most prominent of the very few female cartoonists in the Arab world. Draw Me Egypt – Doaa El-Adl, A Stroke of Freedom creatively blends documentary, cartoons and animation to bring to life this courageous artist’s thoughts on politics and feminism as she uses her talent to advocate for women’s rights.

As the first woman to win the prestigious Journalistic Distinction in Caricature, Doaa el-Adl is a force for change in the male-dominated world of Egyptian political cartoonists. A rebellious critic of patriarchy, she faces daily critique, censorship, intimidation and death threats for her art. The Egyptian director Nada Riyadh brings el-Adl’s most famous works to life in a creative and exciting mix of documentary, cartoons, and animation. The film is a vibrant and courageous exposé of violence against women that pushes the boundaries of freedom of expression in an often restrictive society, as el-Adl uses her talent to advocate for the rights of women, and to inspire and change society.

This film is part of the collection Draw for Change created by Vincent Coen and Guillaume Vandenberghe.

The Etilaat Roz
U.S. Premiere
Directed by Abbas Rezaie, 2022, Documentary, 92 minutes, Dari
Winner, Best First Feature, IDFA 2022

From inside the office of the city’s most widely read newspaper, The Etilaat Roz is a firsthand account of the August 2021 takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. Afghan filmmaker and Etilaat Roz staff member Abbas Rezaie relentlessly films and questions his passionate colleagues on the editorial team in the days leading up to, during, and after the takeover as they try to decide whether to stay and continue reporting—risking torture, imprisonment and death—or join thousands of others attempting to flee the country. What begins as shock at a surreal situation gradually shifts to realization of an inescapable reality at their doorstep.

Tensions rise as Rezaie’s colleagues must balance their families’ safety with their dedication to providing honest reporting, while the Taliban sets its sights on curbing the free press. This dramatic account of a group of courageous journalists in their struggle for truth, freedom and life is poignantly captured by Rezaie’s camera, fully immersing the viewer in this rapidly changing environment.

“Our history has always been narrated from the ruler’s point of view, whereas the people who change the course of history with their resilience, bravery, and sacrifices are not shown anywhere except in the newsreels. I want to get as close to the people as possible and continue recording their lives. This time it’s a personal film, with lots of poetry and, of course, history.”
— Abbas Rezaie, director, The Etilaat Roz

Into My Name (Nel Mio Nome)
NY Premiere
Directed by Nicolò Bassetti, 2022, Documentary, 93 minutes, Italian
Nominee, Panorama Audience Award for Documentary, Berlinale 2022

Nic, Leo, Andrea and Raff are four trans masculine friends from Italy seeking to determine their own gender identities while together dealing with society’s imposed physical, legal and social boundaries, and the labyrinthine process of navigating the medical system. With Elliot Page as the executive producer, Nicolò Bassetti’s tender documentary is a love letter to his son who, like the protagonists of Into My Name, is a transgender person. This sensitive and beautiful coming-of-age story follows four friends navigating their lived experiences and relationships, sharing important turning points in their lives and gender transitions. Despite living in different areas of Italy and coming from different backgrounds, they connect through conversations about pronouns, hormone therapy, surgery and their relationships with their partners—all while confronting societal norms, oppressive gender binaries and legal obstacles that threaten their human rights. In recording these honest and intimate experiences, Into My Name provides a space for trans masculine people to define their identities on their own terms.

“What stands out to me about Into My Name is the way it so artfully and intentionally presents all the different pieces that make up a person’s identity. It’s a meditation on trans humanity, and I’ve never seen another film like it.” — Elliot Page, executive producer, Into My Name

Koromousso, Big Sister
U.S. Premiere
Directed by Habibata Ouarme, Jim Donovan, 2023, Documentary, 75 minutes, French, English

Canada-based co-directors Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan capture personal stories and deep moments of support among members of a small community of survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) from West Africa who are confronting social norms and embracing the inherent power in pleasure and love for their own bodies.

With candor, humor, and courage, this group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies. The co-director and activist Habibata Ouarme works with co-director Jim Donovan to combine her own journey with personal accounts from her friends, while exploring the lifelong effects of female genital mutilation and the road to both her own individual and collective healing.

The women discuss 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, Ouarme and her friends continue to advocate for wider access to restorative surgery and community conversations in Canada and worldwide.

Pay or Die
Closing Night Film, NY Premiere
Directed by Rachael Dyer, Scott Alexander Ruderman, 2023, Documentary, 90 minutes, English
Nominee, Grand Jury Award, Documentary Feature, SXSW Film Festival 2023

The U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world; almost half of all Americans reportedly struggle to pay for health care. Pay or Die explores the crushing financial reality for millions of insulin dependent Americans living with diabetes, as pharmaceutical companies push the price of this lifesaving medication to exorbitant levels, making record-breaking profits. This is only further exacerbated by the government’s lack of regulation.

Pay or Die voices the stories of families struggling to afford their lifesaving medications in one of the richest countries in the world: the United States. The film follows a distraught Minnesota family desperate for answers after their son Alec dies at the age of 26 from rationing his insulin only weeks after aging off his parents’ health insurance. In Oregon, a mother and daughter who both live with type 1 diabetes become homeless due to the exorbitant cost of their medication and are forced to join medical refugees who are leaving the U.S. to source affordable medication in other countries. A newly diagnosed woman must rethink her future to factor in her new economic reality.

With Sarah Silverman as the executive producer, this enraging and enlightening film serves as a call to action against the medical-industrial complex that monetizes bodies and lives.

“Most of my adult life has been defined by one inescapable question: How can I make enough money to afford the insulin I need to stay alive?” — Scott Alexander Ruderman, director, Pay or Die

“We made a pact that no other family will go through the pain that we’re going through. We’re trying to make a change, a difference in the system. I don’t want to hear anyone else suffer. I hear too many names along with [my son] Alec. Enough is enough.” — James Holt, Jr., film participant, Pay or Die

Razing Liberty Square
NY Premiere
Directed by Katja Esson, 2023, Documentary, 86 minutes, English

When residents of the Liberty Square public-housing community in Miami learn about a 300-million-dollar revitalization project, they know that the sudden interest comes from the fact that their neighborhood is located on the highest and driest ground in the city. As rising seas threaten Miami’s luxurious beachfront, wealthy property owners are pushing inland to higher ground. Now the Liberty Square residents must prepare to fight a growing form of racial injustice—climate gentrification.

From the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Katja Esson, Razing Liberty Square shares perspectives from all angles—residents, community advocates, teachers, developers, and politicians—following the redevelopment from start to finish. Miami is experiencing sea level rise before much of the country, but communities across the U.S. are facing changes similar to the dramatic shifts happening in Liberty Square as the climate crisis exacerbates the affordable housing crisis and the impact of systemic racism.

“I have a problem with them tearing down Liberty Square. Liberty Square is the heart, and when you destroy the heart, you destroy this community. You destroy the people. You’re not going to see people that look like me staying in these projects.” — Samantha Quarterman, film participant, Razing Liberty Square

“People think that climate change or environmental things are not a Black people’s issue, but one thing I learned about climate is that it affects us in the worst ways.” — Valencia Gunder, climate activist and film participant, Razing Liberty Square

Seven Winters in Tehran
Opening Night Film, U.S. Premiere
Directed by Steffi Niederzoll, 2023, Documentary, 97 minutes, Farsi
Winner, Compass-Perspektive-Award, Berlinale 2023
Winner, Peace Film Prize, Berlinale 2023

In 2007, 19-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari was 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 onto the mass oppression and silencing of women in Iran, and the risks taken by those who defend and support them.

Tehran, July 2007: Reyhaneh Jabbari has a business meeting with a new client. When he locks her in an apartment and attempts to rape her, she reacts in self-defense by stabbing him. Later that day, she is arrested for murder, and her trial results in a death sentence.

Using secretly recorded videos provided by Jabbari’s family, her family members’ testimony, and the beautiful, lyrical letters written by Jabbari from prison, voiced by Holy Spider actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Seven Winters in Tehran opens a window onto the many ways women are oppressed and silenced in Iran, and the immense risks taken by those who defend and support them. This energizing documentary not only highlights women’s efforts behind this case, but also shows a truly incredible figure in Reyhaneh Jabbari, who became a symbol of resistance and women’s rights worldwide.

Theatre of Violence
Centerpiece Screening, U.S. Premiere
Directed by Lukasz Konopa, Emil Langballe, 2023, Documentary, 105 minutes, English, Acholi, Luo, French

Dominic Ongwen is the first former child soldier prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Theatre of Violence follows Ongwen’s lawyer and his team as they investigate, build a defense strategy, and try to answer the central question: How do we define “justice” when the perpetrator is also a victim?

A Ugandan lawyer, Krispus Ayena, has been assigned to the most prominent case of his career defending Ongwen, who was only 9 when he was abducted on his way to school, as were an estimated more than 20,000 other children, by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Intimidated and indoctrinated, Ongwen quickly learned to kill or be killed.

Theatre of Violence combines stunning cinematography with tense courtroom drama as Ayena and his team prepare for Ongwen’s defense and covers an unfolding debate on what accountability means when someone is both victim and perpetrator, and what justice looks like in an international court, far from key cultural and historical context. This unforgettable film asks vital questions, not least of which is this: Is the ICC imposing a new form of colonialism on Uganda?

We Are Guardians
U.S. Premiere
Directed by Edivan Guajajara, Chelsea Greene, Rob Grobman, 2023, Documentary, 82 minutes, Portuguese, Tupi, English

As the Indigenous Brazilian forest guardians of the Tenetehara fend off attacks from illegal loggers, miners, and exporters, this global story shares what happens when Indigenous rights, land stewardship, environmental science, and political corruption converge, leaving the fate of the Amazon and its Indigenous communities in the balance.

Thousands of people are illegally setting up camp on protected land in the Brazilian Amazon, killing centuries-old trees for export and mining rare resources. Directed by Indigenous activist Edivan Guajajara and environmental filmmakers Chelsea Greene and Rob Grobman, We Are Guardians artfully shares the stories of the people impacted by this issue.

Viewers meet an Indigenous Brazilian forest guardian, Marçal Guajajara, and an activist, Puyr Tembé, who are fighting to protect their home from deforestation; an illegal logger struggling to make ends meet who feels he has no other financial choice to survive; and a landowner who is dedicated to preserving the rich ecosystem within his land by relentlessly seeking action from local authorities, with no answers. This film’s beauty lies in its intimate, character-focused storytelling, providing a human entry-point into a critical situation that ultimately affects us all.

When Spring Came to Bucha
U.S. Premiere
Directed by Mila Teshaieva, Marcus Lenz, 2022, Documentary, 64 minutes, Ukrainian, Russian

In early 2022, the Ukrainian city of Bucha near the capital, Kyiv, was occupied by the Russian army for several weeks. After a month of intense fighting, the Russian army withdrew, leaving the city destroyed in its wake.

In March 2022, after Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, Ukrainian civilians emerged from their homes to clean their streets, rebuild, and face a new day while grieving all that was lost. With beautiful cinematography, the renowned photographer Mila Teshaieva captures stories of the residents as they clean their streets of debris and rebuild their shattered homes amid trauma and loss, while war rages nearby.

Yuri, a municipal services manager, struggles to keep people supplied with clean drinking water. Olenka is the only pupil in her classroom after two of her classmates are killed, the rest having left the country. Yet amid the suffering, a young couple gets married, and life must go on.

Subscribe for Blog Updates

Sign up for our latest updates.