Watching Human Rights Watch Film Festival: films on Human Rights Defenders

February 13, 2014

As this blog is very fond of human rights films, I am copying the programme almost in full. Morever, one the five themes in London this year is: Human Rights Defenders!

The 18th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London will be presented from 18 to 28 March, 2014, with a programme of 20 award-winning documentary and feature films. The festival will take place at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Soho, Ritzy Brixton and for the first time at the Barbican cinemas.

This year’s programme includes ten UK premieres and three exclusive previews organised around five themes:

  • Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring;
  • Human Rights Defenders, Icons and Villains;
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights;
  • Migrants’ Rights; and
  • Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights.

This year’s programme demonstrates the risks filmmakers take to capture the stories behind the headlines, and our centrepiece film, the E-Team, reveals the tenacity and heroic efforts of human rights activists to bring war crimes to the world’s attention,” said John Biaggi, film festival director at Human Rights Watch.

The Opening Night event on 20 March will be Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus attended by Madeleine Sackler, the director. The Belarus Free Theatre is an acclaimed troupe that defies Europe’s last remaining dictatorship. With smuggled footage and uncensored interviews, Sackler’s film conveys not only the group’s great emotional, financial, and artistic risks but also their risk of censorship, imprisonment, and exile. The festival will close on 28 March with Return to Homs, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2014.

The festival will also feature Abounaddara Collective Shorts From Syria followed by a panel discussionAbounaddara is a collective of filmmakers working towards providing an alternative image of Syrian society. Since April 2011, the collective has produced one short film every week, using a very particular cinematographic language – a sort of “emergency cinema”. Working in a state of emergency, the collective’s members are subject to certain constraints: difficult access to film sites, the need to protect the safety of those filmed, even the state of the internet connection. The event will include screenings of five Abounaddara Collective shorts and a discussion about “emergency cinema” in the context of Syria and other countries in the region.

Other titles within Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring include Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza’s First to Fall,a story of friendship, sacrifice, and the madness of war. Hamid and Tarek leave their lives as students in Canada and travel to Libya, their homeland, to join the fight to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi although neither of them has ever picked up a weapon. A second-hand video camera becomes Hamid’s ticket to the front, where he documents battles to liberate the city of Misrata. He eventually earns a gun and becomes a fully-fledged soldier with an AK-47 in one hand and his video camera in the other. Meanwhile Tarek joins a training camp and eventually a katiba –  a freedom fighter battalion – in Misrata. In a battle to liberate Zawya, his hometown, Tarek’s life will change forever. Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucaz will attend festival screenings.

Sara Ishaq, filmmaker of The Mulberry House (UK premiere), is Yemeni-Scottish. In 2011, after 10 years away, she travels back to Yemen and takes her camera along. She hopes to feel at home in the place that was once so close to her heart, but the complications soon become clear. Outside the gates of her family home, people are protesting President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s authoritarian rule, and Ishaq and her family quickly become caught up in the movement. Ishaq contributes by acting as a local correspondent, sharing news with the international press. In this personal film, Ishaq captures events in her own home throughout this tumultuous period, when multiple changes are afoot. Sarah Ishaq will attend the festival screenings.

Titles within Human Rights Defenders, Icons, and Villains are:

– This year’s programme features a centrepiece event: a special preview of Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny’s E-Team, winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award, Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2014. When atrocities are committed in countries held hostage by ruthless dictators, Human Rights Watch sends in the E-Team (Emergencies Team), a collection of fiercely intelligent individuals who document war crimes and report them to the world. Kauffman and Chevigny take viewers to the front lines in Syria and Libya, where shrapnel, bullet holes, and unmarked graves provide mounting evidence of atrocities by government forces. The crimes are rampant, random, and often unreported – making the E-Team’s effort to get information out of the country and into the hands of media outlets, policymakers, and international tribunals even more necessary. Ross Kauffman, Katy Chevigny, and the film’s subjects will attend the festival screenings.

– Inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘A Problem From Hell’, Watchers of the Sky (UK premiere and winner of the Documentary Editing Award / US Documentary Special Jury Award for Use of Animation, Sundance Film Festival 2014) is the latest documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Edet Belzberg. In her characteristic cinéma vérité style, Belzberg interweaves the stories of five exceptional humanitarians – Benjamin Ferencz, Raphael Lemkin, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Samantha Power, and Emmanuel Uwurukundo – whose lives and work are linked together by the ongoing crisis in Darfur. Through the stories of these contemporary characters, the film uncovers the forgotten history of the Genocide Convention and its founder Raphael Lemkin, the international lawyer who dedicated his life to preventing genocide.

– In Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me (UK premiere and winner of the Special Jury Award, IDFA 2013), the filmmaker Khalo Matabane uses conversations with politicians, activists, intellectuals, and artists to question the meaning of freedom, reconciliation, and forgiveness – and challenges Mandela’s legacy in today’s world of conflict and inequality. The film juxtaposes Matabane’s inner quest for coherence with the opinions both of people who knew Mandela and of those whose political perspectives were shaped by him. Matabane weighs equally the words of his subjects, leading viewers to question these concepts as well. He will attend the UK premiere screenings.

– A cautionary tale about the toll of American oil investment in West Africa, Big Men reveals the secretive worlds of both corporations and local communities in Nigeria and Ghana. The director, Rachel Boynton, gained unprecedented access to Africa’s oil companies and has created an account of the ambition, corruption, and greed that epitomise Africa’s “resource curse.” The film uncovers the human impact of oil drilling and contains footage of militants operating in the Niger Delta. Boynton will attend festival screenings.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights
Cameroon has more arrests for homosexuality than any other country in the world. For Born This Way (UK premiere) the filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann gained intimate access to the lives of four young gay Cameroonians, to offer a portrait of day-to-day life in modern Africa. This is a story of what is possible in the global fight for equality. Shaun Kadlec will attend festival screenings.

Can Candan’s My Child introduces a courageous group of mothers and fathers in Turkey, who are parents of LGBT individuals. They have not only gone through the process of accepting their children for who they are personally, but have taken the next step: they share their experiences with other LGBT families and the public. Seven parents intimately share their experiences as they redefine what it means to be parents and activists in a homophobic and transphobic society. Two of the film’s subjects and two producers will attend festival screenings.

Migrants’ Rights
Mano Khalil’s The Beekeeper (UK premiere) relates the story of Ibrahim Gezer, a displaced Kurdish beekeeper from southeast Turkey, and his experience of integration into Switzerland. The turmoil of the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the armed Kurdish guerrilla movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), robbed Gezer of everything he had: his wife, two of his children, his country, and over 500 bee colonies – his means of making a living. He has been left only with his love for bees and his unshakeable faith in humanity.

A visual essay in five parts, Evaporating Borders, looks at what it means to be displaced and examines the idea of belonging and notions of diaspora, exile, and migration. Filmed on the island of Cyprus, one of the easiest points of entry into Europe, the film explores the lives of asylum seekers and political refugees. Through the microcosm of the current situation on the island, the filmmaker Iva Radivojevic explores tolerance and immigration practices throughout Europe and the Western world – where migrating populations have become subject to a variety of human rights abuses. Radivojevic will attend the exclusive preview screenings.

Women’s Rights & Children’s Rights
Scheherazade’s Diary 
(UK premiere) is a tragicomic documentary that follows women inmates through a 10-month drama therapy/theatre project set up in 2012 by the director Zeina Daccache, at the Baabda Prison in Lebanon. Through “Scheherazade in Baabda,” these “murderers of husbands, adulterers and drug felons” reveal their stories – tales of domestic violence, traumatic childhoods, failed marriages, forlorn romances, and deprivation of motherhood. In sharing their stories, the women of Baabda Prison hold up a mirror to Lebanese society and all societies that repress women. Daccache will attend the festival screenings.

Berit Madsen’s Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars, introduces viewers to a young Iranian woman who dares to dream of a future as an astronaut. At night, she stares up at the universe. At home, full of hope and longing, she watches recordings of the first female Iranian in space, Anousheh Ansari. When her father died suddenly six years earlier, Sepideh discovered that she could feel closer to him by watching the stars. And so her dream was born. But not everyone appreciates her boundless ambition. As we follow Sepideh, it becomes clear just how much at odds her dreams are with her current reality and the expectations of those around her.

Jasmila Zbanic’s drama For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (UK premiere) is inspired by the play “Seven Kilometers North-East” written by Kym Vercoe who plays herself in the film. A summer holiday in Bosnia-Herzegovina leads Vercoe, an Australian tourist, to discover the silent legacy of wartime atrocities in a seemingly idyllic town on the border of Bosnia and Serbia. An overnight stay at the Viilina Vlas hotel in Visegrad inexplicably gives way to anxiety and sleepless nights. Back in Australia, she finds out that the hotel was used as a rape camp during the war. Questions around the region’s atrocities begin to haunt her, as does the question of why the guidebook, or the town itself, made no mention of the event. The testimonies she later finds online compel her to return to Visegrad and investigate this hidden history for herself.

Richie Mehta’s drama Siddharth is set in New Delhi. Twelve-year-old Siddharth is sent away by his father, Mahendra, to work in a trolley factory to help support their family. When he fails to return for the Diwali festival, his distraught father begins a desperate search to find his missing son. The authorities believe that Siddharth may have been abducted and trafficked. Mehta brings to life Mahendra’s moving, tangled, and often futile-seeming journey with a touch that transforms it into both a commentary on modern India and a portrait of one family within that society.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, from the acclaimed Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, enlists a cast of non-professionals to reconstruct a harrowing personal ordeal that became a national scandal. Struggling to make ends meet as a scrap-metal forager in the remote Roma community of Poljice, Nazif Maujic has a routine that becomes a desperate fight for survival when his partner, Senada, suffers a miscarriage. Without medical insurance or the means to pay the couple are denied admittance to the local hospital. So begins a hellish 10-day odyssey pitting the couple against social prejudice and a callous bureaucracy, exposing the institutional discrimination faced by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Roma minority.

In Hisham Zaman’s Before Snowfall (UK premiere), Siyar, the oldest son in his household, confronts the question of family honour after his older sister, Nermin, flees an arranged marriage. The film is a look at killing in the name of honour, at the intricate web of connections that sustain the brutal tradition, and the unbelievable lengths to which some will go to see it through.

For more information on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, please visit:

Human Rights Watch Film Festival | Human Rights Watch.

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