Culture, Globe, Human Rights, Screen, United Kingdom

A festival of human rights stories

Freedom of choice, cultural expression and family trauma are the main topics of a festival that is now in its 26th edition and that this year, in London, takes place from 17 to 25 March. In it, the Seventh Art portrays individuals and communities that stand in solidarity to create change and amplify marginalised voices.


Photo by Anna Konik

This is the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, UK, in which producers and directors feature work on the importance of solidarity and human rights and tell stories where journalists, migrants and judges are, among many others, in the spotlight.

As the organisers say, Even during the global pandemic, communities are coming together and making a difference, from journalists in Myanmar, Latin American community members in Texas, and young girls in Bangladesh, to judges in Poland and asylum seekers in the UK. The opening night of this festival showcasing ten exciting new films from around the world (including three screenings at the Barbican in London with live digital Q&A sessions) will be a taste of the important film content coming to audiences over nine days.

It is the film “Silence heard loud”” by artist and filmmaker Anna Konik, which poetically weaves the intersecting first-person stories of seven asylum seekers in the UK, fighting to preserve their dreams and dignity as they navigate the British immigration system.

Photo by Jonah Candelario

Konik first met her protagonists, Angela, Janahan, Merwa, Michael, Mohamed, Nirmala and Selamawit in 2018, while she was running an art workshop, organised by Compass Project, which enables refugees seeking asylum in the UK to study at Birkbeck University.

They had fled war, terrorism, ethnic hatred, persecution and domestic violence. It seems that they have achieved their goals and may now start a new life in Europe, but Konik raises the question of whether this is really the end of their problems and the beginning of a new and better life.

According to Gali Gold, director of Barbican Cinema, the festival’s partner, “Silence Heard Loud” is, along with “Boycott” and “Bangla Surf Girls”, “three important and strong titles” for the opening, closing and central screenings.

In the case of “Boycott”, the central presentation of this year’s festival, veteran filmmaker Julia Bacha (“Naila and the uprising”, “Budrus”) pulls back the curtain on the architects of anti-boycott laws in 33 states of the US that are designed to curtail freedom of speech and penalise individuals undertaking boycotts to create social change.

Photo by Venessa Rude

As the wave of anti-boycott legislation has swept through the US, so has a counter-wave in defence of freedom of speech. “Boycott” focuses on the personal stories and legal battles of everyday Americans -Alan Leveritt, a newspaper publisher in Arkansas, Mikkel Jordahl, an attorney in Arizona, and Bahia Amawi, a childhood speech therapist in the Texas public school system- who are challenging these laws.

And in the case of “Bangla Surf Girls”, the closing night film is an award-winning documentary about three teenage girls, Shobe, Aisha and Suma, who join a local surf club in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and fight to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to chase their dream of becoming Bangladesh’s first women surfers to compete internationally. This intimate and collaborative debut film by a Bangladeshi filmmaker Elizabeth D. Costa, produced and written by Lalita Krishna, was made possible through the deep trust gained by the filmmaker with the girls and their families, and reveals how local solutions have wide-reaching impact.

Works such as the above will be presented during this festival and can be seen live during the programmed dates, and there will also be debates in which the public can participate, both in person and online.

Photo from The Myanmar Film Collective

A total of 10 films cover different issues: freedom of expression, threats to democracy, the impact of trauma on families, the importance of cultural connection, struggles… all poignant situations: “Myanmar diarie”, by por Petr Lom, “Eternal spring” by Jason Loftus; “Judges under pressure” by Kacper Lisowski; “Tacheles, the heart of the matter”, by Jana Matthes and Andrea Schramm; “Daughter of a lost bird” by Brooke Pepion Swaney; “You resemble me”, by Dina Amer, and  On The Divide”, by Maya Cueva and Leah Galant

It must be noted that “Myanmar Diaries”, has already been talked about in the press not only for being a remarkable piece of guerrilla filmmaking, shot in secret by a collective of anonymous filmmakers, depicting the military junta’s 2021 coup d’etat in visceral detail, but also for winning the inaugural Tony Elliott Impact Award.

Photo by Sky Hopinka

The award is named in honour of the founder of Time Out and long-time human rights defender. It is heart-wrenching citizen journalism, to show how Myanmar went from military coup to nationwide protests and civil disobedience to barbaric repression.

For more information about the programme and tickets: Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Barbican Cinema.

(Photos supplied by the Press Office / Human Rights Watch Film Festival, UK)

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