Advocating for Women: Female issues dominate at Human Rights Watch Fest

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Women filmmakers and women’s issues figure prominently at the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. In fact, the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award winner this year is Nanfu Wang for her documentary Hooligan Sparrow. The ten-day festival screens at The Film Society of Lincoln Center and at the IFC Center, June 10-19.

Wang’s eponymous subject, women’s-rights activist Ye Haiyan, had advocated for sex workers in China, and the Chinese filmmaker’s original project was to interview those women and girls. When she contacted Haiyan after arriving in China, she found her in the midst of planning a protest at a middle school on the island of Hainan. Six girls between the ages of 11 and 14 had been abducted by their school’s administrators, and handed over to government officials as a bribe. All of the girls had been raped, yet neither the administrators nor the officials had been charged with a crime.

The filmmaker, who spent two years in the United States before returning to her native country, became a person of interest for Chinese authorities soon after she was seen with Haiyan and her lawyer Wang Yu, an internationally known human-rights attorney. At one point, thugs seized her camera and erased her footage. Wang Yu, who appears several times in Hooligan Sparrow, including the scenes filmed during the Hainan protest, was jailed in 2015 and charged with subversion of state power. At this writing, she remains a political prisoner. Wang is now based in New York City.

Another outstanding documentary is Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, set entirely inside the walls of an “isolation” ward in a women’s prison near Tehran. About a dozen inmates, some of whom murdered or conspired to murder their oppressors and rapists, drug-addicted uncles and fathers, occupy a large room where they take their communal meals and sleep on metal bunk beds. Oskouei spent seven years petitioning Iranian authorities for permission to film; he and a small crew spent 20 days with the prisoners. Oskouei questions the women about the reasons for their imprisonment, and they reply, sometimes shyly, but at other times with little remorse. Given the shocking crimes to which they were subject, and that have apparently gone unpunished, audiences may find themselves wondering why these women were convicted at all.

Another Iranian entry is from Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who last screened at HRWFF in 2013 with Going Up the Stairs, a sublime portrait of a 60-year-old female painter. Her eponymous subject this year is a 17-year-old Afghan girl living in Tehran. Sonita dreams of being a rap star. In the meantime, she works, attends a school for immigrant children, and writes songs. Shortly after the filming of Sonita begins, the girl’s mother comes to claim her. The family has found a husband willing to pay $9,000 for Sonita, exactly the amount of money they need to get a bride for their son. If Sonita does not return with her mother, she fears retribution from her brothers.

Other portrayals of women’s lives by women filmmakers are P.S. Jerusalem by Danae Elon and Ovarian Psycos by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle. Elon is the daughter of Amos Elon, the late Israeli journalist and intellectual; he pleaded with his daughter not to return to Israel. Shortly after his death in 2009, Danae turned her camera on herself and her family. Seeking the Jerusalem of her childhood, she moves from Brooklyn to that divided city with her Arabic partner and her two children. Her partner, a photojournalist who speaks no Hebrew, is unable to find work, and her two young boys have trouble adapting to the constant sound of sirens and their relative lack of freedom.

Ovarian Psycos follows an L.A.-based women’s cycling club whose message of empowerment attracts women from all walks of life. The group seeks to take back their crime-ridden neighborhoods and make them safe for women and girls.

Maisie Crow’s Jackson, about the last-remaining abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, where the Dixie flag still flies over the capital, brings to mind Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam.” She wrote it after Medgar Evers’ 1963 assassination in Jackson. Watching this documentary about the embattled clinic, audiences will wonder if anything has changed since then. Crow zeroes in on another face of racism as she carefully establishes that the healthcare facility, managed by an African-American woman and staffed by African-Americans, including a black surgeon, also primarily serves that community. Of course, the Southern states do not have a monopoly on racism, a fact that is made apparent in former Black Panther Jamal Joseph’s Chapter & Verse. A narrative feature set in the present, it is about growing up black and male in Harlem, New York.

Other standouts this year include George Kurian’s 55-minute documentary short The Crossing and Dalibor Matanić’s narrative feature The High Sun. Croatian filmmaker Matanić’s movie is comprised of three somewhat predictable tales of racial hatred in Balkan villages, but a combination of rural settings, beautiful cinematography and an excellent cast make it a distinctive entry in this year’s festival. Kurian’s thought-provoking, cinéma-vérité documentary depicts the harrowing journey of a group of Syrian refugees who, once they arrive in Europe, have varying degrees of success in adapting to their new homes. The filmmaker overturns the stereotypical impressions of refugees created in the media by profiling white-collar professionals, among them a pharmacist and several artists. Their plight is quite different than that of refugees with transferrable crafts or skills that allow them to overcome language barriers, and that may more easily lead to employment.

Interviews with several of these filmmakers appear on Film Journal International’s website.