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Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (#110 of 69)

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: The Supreme Price

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: <em>The Supreme Price</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: <em>The Supreme Price</em>

The recent kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram highlighted many of the problems that are corroding civil society in Nigeria, including a brutal and growing disregard for women’s rights and a government that is as ineffective at protecting its citizens as it is adept at punishing them. Those are the problems that Hafsat Abiola, the heroine of The Supreme Price, is devoting her life to addressing.

The film starts with a quick, dense recap of the last half-century or so of Nigeria’s political history, combining narration by Hafsat with archival footage, photos, and interviews with former U.S. diplomats and other experts. After a brief review of the military coup of 1966 and the brutal civil war and increased corruption that followed, it slows down to cover the 1993 election of Hafsat’s father, M.K.O. Abiola, as president of Nigeria and his arrest by the military, which reinstalled itself as the nation’s leader immediately after his win.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

Among this year’s Human Rights Watch selection, six films bear witness to various strands of feminism, artistry, uprising, violence, and filmmaking itself as a tool for revolution. Many of them are accomplished; one may well be a masterpiece.

Iran’s entrenched gender inequality afflicts maker and subject alike in Going Up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist. Director Rohksareh Ghaem Maghami and Akram, the titular artist, were both married before the age of 10, each threatened by their husbands with horrific physical deformations should they disobey their strict wishes. Now 50, Akram claims to love her husband, Heidap, even while fearful of him, and remains illiterate after he forced her to drop out of school at a young age. Now she paints, channeling her dreams into beautiful, childlike visions ripe with hope and purity, and at the film’s outset, she’s been invited to an exhibition in France, organized by her daughter, Toopa, in hopes that her mother will be able to display her work to the world. Matter of fact in its coverage, save for a few decorative time-lapse shots, Going Up the Stairs doesn’t do much to explicitly examine the power struggles between husband and wife (Akram needs Heidap’s permission to leave the country, and despite telling him off regarding her creative process, she cows to the sexist policies of her homeland), but at this historical moment, the documentation alone feels like a blow to the system. The triumph of an artistic spirit conquering its invisible chains is potent in front of and behind the camera, particularly when an awestruck Akram tours art galleries in France and states, “I feel as if I’ve entered a jungle in which I’m a simple shoemaker.”

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Call Me Kuchu

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Call Me Kuchu</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Call Me Kuchu</em>

Imagine being a gay person in modern-day Uganda: Nearly 95% of the population despises your lifestyle, the government supports an extreme Anti-Homosexuality Bill that threatens life imprisonment (and worse), and a local gossip rag named Rolling Stone has initiated a slanderous witch hunt against you by publishing pictures and home addresses in order to incite anti-gay violence. These are just some of the major obstacles facing human rights activist David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda and the heart of Call Me Kuchu, an essential documentary by filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall about the persecution of homosexuals in the impoverished African nation.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Color of the Ocean

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Color of the Ocean</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Color of the Ocean</em>

The ocean is blue, one character in Maggie Peren’s immigration drama Color of the Ocean tells us, so that people remember the whales who have sunk to the bottom, lost their color, and died. A metaphor for the countless Africans who’ve unsuccessfully attempted to make their way to Europe in search of better lives, this title-explaining statement is the most poignant moment in a film that could use a few more like it. It’s an evocative notion, and one matched by a similarly striking aesthetic: DP Armin Franzen favors a bright, washed-out palette reminiscent of days spent shielding your eyes from harsh sunlight and looking at the sky through your fingers.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Bidder 70

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Bidder 70</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Bidder 70</em>

Tim DeChristopher was a 27-year-old economics student at the University of Utah when he interfered with an auction by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He bid on and won 12 parcels of beautiful land in Southern Utah that he had no intention to pay for and, especially, to drill for oil on. On the contrary, his motivation for his inventive form of non-violent protest was to ensure that “oil stay in the ground so that we can have a chance for a livable future.” Beth and George Gage’s Bidder 70 is a highly inspirational account of DeChristopher’s life since then, including his beliefs on climate change, his activist efforts to bring about necessary political changes to save the future of our planet, and his reflections on his indictment on two federal charges and the current state of our democracy. There are a lot of environmental documentaries out there about inciting change, but Bidder 70 is one of the most affecting.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Words of Witness

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Words of Witness</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Words of Witness</em>

One of the most stirring moments in Words of Witness, a new documentary by Mai Iskander, is the storming of the State Security headquarters in Cairo. After the start of the revolution on January 25, 2011, many protesters were imprisoned, some rounded up in Tahir Square. Now three weeks after Mubarak’s ouster, the crowds storm the infamous bastille to see if there may still be prisoners left inside. As they force their entry, chaos spreads through the spooky hallways. This could very well be the Stasi, so generic these corridors of officialdom seem, with fluorescent lights and linoleum tiles. The camera shakes frantically. Unsure where to look, the men rip floor tiles, in search for secret passageways. What they find instead are black bags filled with secret files. In them, thousands of lives are documented, as they were spied on, interrupted, tortured, tragically cut short. To see this ocean of evidence, as the men plow through it in search of familiar names, is breathtaking.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Bitter Seeds

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Bitter Seeds</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Bitter Seeds</em>

Bitter Seeds completes director Micha Peled’s “globalization trilogy” by bringing us to the struggling farmers in the cotton fields of India, the beginning of the global production line that he’s traced through his other two films: China Blue, about garment factories that make jeans, and Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, about the low-price sale of those products. A fusillade of filmmaking activism, this trilogy has roughly and cheaply sketched, with varied skill and complexity, the contours of the human costs in international manufacturing. With Bitter Seeds, these costs are the lives of the farmers who, as the film claims, are committing suicide every 30 minutes not only because Monsanto forces them to buy genetically modified, nonrenewable Bt cotton seeds that are more expensive to maintain than natural ones, but because the U.S. unfairly subsidizes its own cotton industry.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Salaam Dunk

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Salaam Dunk</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Salaam Dunk</em>

Shot in Northern Iraq in 2010, David Fine’s Salaam Dunk follows the women’s basketball team from the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani (AUIS) through their second season. A title card—these pop up with annoying frequency in the beginning, but soon thin out—informs us that the team lost every game its first year, but “this season will be different.” But this is no triumphal sport doc about an underdog team coming from behind to sweep a title. In fact, though we hear a lot about how much several of the players love the sport and how much they’re all improving (none had ever played organized sports of any kind before they joined the team, and some turned up for the first practice in high heels), none of them look very good. As even their sweetly supportive American coach, Ryan, puts it, “This is not U Conn.”

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: The Invisible War

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>The Invisible War</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>The Invisible War</em>

Rape as an occupational hazard? It’s hard to picture an American employer making such a claim, and having it upheld in the court of law, since it means denying an employee their basic human rights, and violating the Constitution. One employer claims an exception, and that’s the United States Army. Such is the central message of Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, The Invisible War, which is having its New York premiere as part of the Human Rights Film Festival. The film, which won the Sundance Audience Award, tells the story of about a dozen women who had joined the army out of idealistic notions of serving their country (some following in their fathers and brothers’ footsteps), only to see their careers and dreams shattered when heinous crimes are committed against them by their fellow recruits.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: Reportero

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Reportero</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: <em>Reportero</em>

As in a classic Hawksian western, friendship and professionalism are tightly knotted in Bernardo Ruiz’s frontera documentary Reportero. Horrifying crime-scene footage bleeds seamlessly with sobering confessions from Ruiz’s impassioned subjects, many of them lifelong reporters for the notoriously tenacious Mexican weekly publication Zeta. While the mechanics of investigative journalism are essential to their commentary about narco violence and its impact on the Mexican press during the last three decades, each subject’s personal codes of camaraderie and loyalty provide an equally telling human subtext. Reportero doesn’t just illuminate a disturbing social trend in the modern Mexican experience; it reveals the deep-seeded memories of regret haunting those attempting to salvage freedom of speech on the front lines.