Human Rights Watch Film Fest exposes injustice across the globe


The lineup for the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival is especially good this year, with a mix of journalistic documentaries and intensely personal portraits of individuals that evince longstanding injustices. Among the 20 feature-length documentaries being screened at the festival, co-presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, is Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide, which garnered the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. This opening-night documentary represents a collaboration of filmmaker and citizen journalist, in this case Ahmed and an Iraqi nurse whose misfortunes mirror the decline of his country after independence.

The HRWFF will screen at the Walter Reade Theater June 9-18 and will feature post-screening panels with filmmakers. A day-long event, “The Resistance Saga,” is scheduled for June 11. Three excellent documentaries by human-rights filmmaker Pamela Yates (Rebel Citizen, 2016) will be followed by a panel discussion and evening reception and concert. Yates has long documented the non-violent struggle for justice among the Maya people, the second largest indigenous group in Latin America. When the Mountains Tremble (1984), narrated by indigenous-rights activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, will screen first. It will be followed by Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011), about the unfolding genocide case against former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, and 500 Years: Life in Resistance (2017), which continues the story begun in Granito.

A second event on June 15 is a panel discussion entitled “From Audience to Activist,” focusing on the growing field of citizen journalism and publicly sourced video. It highlights the latest trend in human-rights filmmaking, driven by the search for authenticity and advances in technology, mainly small, easy-to-use digital cameras. In addition to Nowhere to Hide, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts contains footage shot by citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria, now under ISIS control, by the group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.” Secretly shot footage is included in Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s Complicit, making its U.S. premiere at HRWFF; the images are proof of several abuses, among them the use of carcinogenic solvents at Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that assembles 70% of Apple’s products. The documentary follows Yi Yeting, a former factory worker; after he was diagnosed with leukemia, Yeting became an activist.

Complicit also depicts the Chinese government’s shameful treatment of victims of chemical poisoning through very personal stories of loss. Yeting assists these former factory workers and their families in navigating the bureaucracy that prevents them from getting proper medical care. Foxconn’s denial of its crimes, and Apple’s silence on this issue should resonate with American audiences. While the documentary does not condemn consumers, its call to action is clear: As an American company, Apple is not compelled by law to honor U.S. standards for safety abroad, in its own factories or in that of its subcontractors. Even more troubling is the fact that earlier this year, Foxconn was in talks with President Trump about the possibility of locating a facility in the United States.

The issue of labor rights also arises in Adam Sobel’s The Worker’s Cup, a scathing critique of Qatar’s treatment of laborers and office workers involved in the construction of a soccer stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. These men are little more than slave labor, Sobel also hinting at the subtle trafficking that takes place when the workers, all from developing countries, are promised soccer careers after the completion of their contracts. Chronicling the men’s involvement in a soccer contest, the Worker’s Cup, lends great humanity to the documentary, but the competition is actually another act of worker exploitation at the hands of Qatar authorities.

Slavery and human trafficking during World War II is the subject Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, which makes its U.S. premiere. The title refers to the goal of an unusual group of activists who are awaiting full acknowledgment from Japan for the trafficking and sexual enslavement of Asian women during the war. Hsiung follows three “grandmothers,” one from South Korea, another from the Philippines and a third from China, all of whom were seized in their teens and raped at the “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers. While The Apology recounts a struggle against a historical injustice, it is a moving testament to all women who have suffered and survived similar atrocities.

April Hayes and Katia Maguire’s Home Truth addresses the lack of protections in place in the U.S. for women who are victims of domestic abuse. The documentary considers a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, that of Jessica Gonzales of Castle Rock, Colorado, who had a restraining order against her estranged husband. He seized their three girls and killed them while Gonzalez was pleading with the local police to honor the restraining order. Although the documentary highlights gaps in protection laws, the persistent gender bias of law-enforcement officers and the unjustified malaise of the Castle Rock PD, the narrative is unfocused, and music continually cues emotions. In addition, there is the niggling question (among many other issues not addressed in the film) of why Gonzales never drove to Denver, 30 miles from her home, or called Denver police, after finding out that her husband and children were at the city’s amusement park.

Corruption and institutionalized racism and sexism at the Oakland Police Department is the subject of Peter Nicks’ well-written and expertly edited documentary The Force, which will open theatrically on Sept. 15 via Kino Lorber. The department has been under federal oversight since 2003 for police misconduct. This is the same police department that, in the 1970s, inspired the formation of the Black Panther Party because of its treatment of African-Americans. New recruit training and fly-on-the-wall footage of the former, celebrated chief Sean Whent seem to suggest a turnaround, but luckily, Nicks was not fooled. He stayed for the ensuing sex scandal, and the next three police chiefs who came and went in 10 days.

Erik Ljung’s The Blood Is at the Doorstep begins with the 2014 killing by a police officer of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man, in a public park in Milwaukee. The young man was schizophrenic, and was lying supine on the ground when he was killed. Ljung moves swiftly to the aftermath, to the family’s private grief and their efforts to find meaning in Dontre’s death. The quiet dignity of the Hamiltons, who insisted on non-violence when protests erupted in the city, is the real subject of this insightful documentary. Their quest is so sensitively portrayed that viewers will leave the theatre remembering not their outrage over the crime, but instead the image of Dontre’s brother Dameion, tears streaming down his cheeks, and Mrs. Hamilton’s call for restraint in honor of her dead son. 

Healing is also the ostensible subject of Florent Vassault’s Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2. The eponymous subject, a juror at a Mississippi murder trial 20 years ago, is still haunted by memories of that civic duty, which concluded with the imposition of a death sentence. Lindy sets out to speak to her fellow jurors, and to ask if they, too, feel the lingering effects of their decision. Unfortunately, the documentary is driven by Vassault’s agenda, which is opposition to capital punishment, rather than by Lindy’s search for meaningful dialogue, which would have resulted in a far less didactic film.

Tonislav Hristov’s The Good Postman is the story of an iconoclast who wants to invite fleeing refugees to live in his declining Turkish border town. Ivan, the postman, launches a campaign to become the next mayor in order to implement his plan. While the idea is engaging, the documentary unfolds at the creeping pace of village life. Similarly, Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman’s Muhi–Generally Temporary, about an Arab boy from Gaza being treated at an Israeli hospital, proceeds slowly, and is often oblique. Muhi, who has no limbs, and his grandfather-caretaker have been confined to the hospital for seven years because of the boy’s immigration status. That is not adequately articulated, nor is the identity of an Israeli man who helps them. In fact, so much remains unexplained about Muhi’s condition and life in Gaza that American audiences will likely be puzzled throughout.

Sophia and Georgia Scott’s Lost in Lebanon, making its U.S. debut, is a strikingly original look at Syrian refugees stranded in Lebanon. They now comprise one-fifth of the country’s population. The documentary begins as the country suddenly reverses its liberal immigration policy, and Syrians already living in the country are denied renewals of their residence permits. The Scotts follow four subjects, a female architect and activist living in Beirut, a doctor who runs a school at a refugee camp, his assistant teacher whose education was interrupted by the war, and a sculptor whose permit has already expired. Lost in Lebanon skillfully (although with far too much music) expresses the fear articulated by its subjects, that of a lost generation of Syrians, bereft of education, medical care and employment.

Two very different science documentaries are included in HRWFF’s line-up, Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code and David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy. As is too often the case with scientific or technological subjects in documentary, male voices prevail in both films. The latter is strictly for Gen Y and Gen Z viewers who will remember the Disney show of the same name. The film follows Nye, who has moved on to advocating for new energy sources and LightSail. Black Code is a look at the proliferating market for Internet sleuthing tools, and is based on a book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, a principal subject in the documentary. While the privacy and free-speech issues discussed in Black Code are frightening and deserving of attention, the documentary dispenses a great deal of information too quickly for viewers who are not techies.

The First Amendment is the topic of Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which is about the legal case that bankrupted Fortunately, the documentary does not dwell on the tape which prompted the lawsuit; first posted on Gawker, it is of Hulk Hogan having consensual sex with his best friend’s wife. The wrestler sued the online tabloid, but it is later revealed that it was not his vengeance that inspired the suit. While some audiences may know this story, Knappenberger skillfully recounts it as a legal thriller. The filmmaker allows Gawker founder Nick Denton and editor A.J. Daulerio backward glances, while Constitutional scholar Floyd Abrams explains the thorny issues of what he characterizes as an important First Amendment case.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is at its best when it screens films that gently place viewers (and film critics) in an utterly unexpected universe, devoid of class-consciousness and the urbane attitudes and progressive values that define this festival’s demographics. Two films are standouts in this regard, and both are by Latina filmmakers: Maite Alberdi’s The Grown-Ups and Cristina Herrera Bórquez’s No Dress Code Required. Given the historical moment, their subject matter could not be more relevant for Americans: These documentaries transcend the significant, yet abstract, legal concept of “rights” to address the more primal issue of what constitutes personal freedom.

The Grown-Ups, a homage to the style of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman in its candid engagement with its subjects, is about forty-something adults who suffer from Down Syndrome. In the past few decades, their life expectancy in developed countries has doubled to 60 years of age; because Down Syndrome adults develop more slowly, the age of Alberdi’s subjects is significant. At least two of the women are grappling with sexual desires and fantasies. Nearly all want to live independently, and one couple wants to marry. That is against the law in Chile, where Alberdi’s subjects work in a bakery but do not earn a living wage. In a triumphant moment, one young woman is helped by her co-workers to realize her fantasy of jumping out of a cake. It is an unexpectedly joyful scene, and a sublime articulation of the freedom of bodily expression Alberdi’s subjects are denied.

While No Dress Code Required is about two men who are refused the right to marry, Bórquez sticks to recounting their love story. She chronicles the travails of Victor and Fernando, a pair of makeup artists in Baja, Mexico, over the two years they fought dim-witted city and state authorities, yet she keeps their affair at the center of her documentary. The genuine affection the couple share, and the anxiety of one partner for the other when the first lawsuit fails, is irresistible viewing, a bit like watching a Hollywood romance. Expertly edited and scored, No Dress Code Required certainly addresses the continuing LGBT struggle for marriage rights, yet in some respects it rejects “The personal is political” sentiment many would attach to the documentary.

As Bórquez suggests, acceptance of the sort Victor and Fernando seek, from the town where they live and where they would be the first gay couple to marry, does more for this handsome pair than sanction their union—it frees their souls from the many past wrongs they recall, including hiding their “effeminate” gestures, or being denied the simple expression of affection common to lovers, that of holding hands in public. Read FJI’s interview with Bórquez on “Screener Blog” later this month, along with interviews with Tiffany Hsiung for The Apology and Zaradasht Ahmed for Nowhere to Hide.

Editor's note: The Force will be released theatrically in September by Kino Lorber. It is not a Netflix release, as stated here earlier.