The determination and courage of people to stand up for their freedom and rights is the driving force behind the films that will be shown at the 23rd edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.
This year’s programme spotlights the risks taken by land defenders, the legacy and continuation of colonialism, the fight for people to make their own decisions about their bodies and actions, structural discrimination, and the impact of war on people’s day-to-day lives. So says John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which this year runs from 16-26 March.
The Festival, which features a line-up of 10 award-winning international documentaries, will be held at the Barbican Cinema and includes Q&As and panel discussions with filmmakers, film participants, activists and Human Rights Watch researchers following each screening. The films will also be available digitally across the UK and Ireland on the festival website from 20-26 March.
The festival opens with the film “Delikado” which follows three environmental defenders who are risking their lives to stop corporations and governments seeking to steal the increasingly valuable natural resources of their home, Palawan, an island in the Philippines. With its rich biodiversity and natural beauty, Palawan is one of Asia’s most visited tourist destinations, but for a small network of environmental crusaders, it is more akin to a battlefield. The battles fought by these climate activists are shared by allies worldwide – but the abusive regime of former President Rodrigo Duterte adds urgency to this deepening human rights crisis. The filmmaker and journalist Karl Malakunas, who has been based in Asia for two decades, will attend the festival.
The reverberations of colonialism
The festival’s Closing Night film “Theatre of violence” raises complex questions about new forms of colonialism and definitions of justice in the landmark International Criminal Court trial of Daniel Ongwen. A former Ugandan child soldier, Ongwen was just 9 years old when he was abducted – as were an estimated more than 20,000 other children – by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Intimidated and indoctrinated, he quickly learned to kill or be killed. In the unfolding debate his defence lawyer, Krispus Ayena, grapples with questions of accountability when someone is both victim and perpetrator, and the underlying issue of what justice looks like when being conducted in an international court, far away from key cultural and historical context. The filmmaker Lukasz Konopa will attend the festival.
Meanwhile, in his first documentary, “No U-Turn” the celebrated filmmaker Ike Nnaebue takes viewers on a journey with fellow Nigerian citizens leaving their country, traveling north through Africa and beyond, in search of work and the opportunity to build a future in Europe, despite the known and unknown challenges lying ahead. As he retraces his own stalled journey, made over 20 years ago, this self-reflective travelogue is overlaid with a powerful poetic commentary and insight into the impact of a colonial past, to unpack the deep longing of an entire generation in search of opportunities.
Body autonomy and personal autonomy
Written and directed by a former Olympian, Phyllis Ellis, “Category: woman” focuses on four women athletes from the Global South who are targeted and forced out of competition by regulations imposed by World Athletes, stirring relentless debates on their “legitimacy” as athletes and as women. Using women’s naturally varying androgen levels to evaluate their performance advantages, the sporting institution creates new rules, declaring that certain female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies to compete in their sport. The film exposes an industry that puts women’s lives at risk, and raises issues of racism, sexism, and the right to determine another persons’ biological sex.
There is also the film “I didn’t see you there”. As a person with a disability navigating the world from a wheelchair, the filmmaker Reid Davenport is often either the subject of unwanted gaze — gawked at by strangers — or paradoxically left invisible, ignored, or dismissed by society. Davenport sets out to make a film about how he sees the world without having to be seen himself, capturing indelible images informed by his disability. This is a personal, political, and unflinching account – offering a perspective and stylistic approach rarely seen in film.
Something similar (albeit with a different theme) happens with “Koromousso, big sister”. With candor, humour and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos, and build a road to individual and collective healing.
Working with co-director Jim Donovan, Habibata Ouarme combines her own experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) with personal accounts from some of her friends, to begin a journey of personal discovery, with discussions on the importance of female pleasure and the complexity of the female anatomy, while working to shed long-held feelings of shame and loneliness.
On the other hand, the winner of the w of the Compass-Perspektive-Award at Berlinale 2023, “Seven winters in Tehran”, directed by Steffi Niederzoll, unpacks the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a young Iranian woman who became a symbol of resistance and women’s rights worldwide. In 2007, Reyhaneh, 19, is sentenced to death in Iran for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. Using secretly recorded videos provided by her family, their testimony, and the beautiful, lyrical letters she wrote from prison. This film opens a window into the many ways women are oppressed and silenced in Iran, and the immense risks taken by those who defend and support them.
“If the streets were on fire” introduces BikeStormz, a movement of young cyclists that attempts to offer a safe and welcoming space for youth in London. Starting as a protest against violent crime with the slogan “knives down, bikes up,” BikeStormz, founded by a social activist, Mac Ferrari-Guy, has grown into a movement and safe space for young people around London to freely express themselves.
The filmmaker Alice Russell beautifully captures groups of young people as they glide through the city, doing wheelies, tricks, and acrobatics and cheering each other on as they travel through the postcode-neutral space of central London. Yet as they come together and find liberation through cycling, they are threatened with arrest and accused of anti-social behaviour.
There is also Marek Kozakiewicz’s “Silent love“, a co a coming-of-age and a coming-out story about embracing new roles and redefining old ones. Aga, 35, is legally adopting her teenage brother, Milosz, after their mother’s death – a process that probes into her life choices. However, there’s something she can’t share in their conservative Polish village: her long-term relationship with her girlfriend, Maja. Aga has always hidden her relationship from friends and family, and must continue to hide it from the social workers for fear of losing her case for Milosz.
And finally, there is the film about the impact of war on the daily lives of the citizens of a small Ukrainian town: “When spring came to Bucha”. It poignantly captures how a small community continues with life amid trauma and loss, while war rages on close by. After a month of intense fighting, the Russian army withdrew, leaving the town destroyed in its wake. Yet in the midst of suffering, a young couple gets married, and life must go on. It is a heart-breaking but also encouraging documentary.
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(Information and photos provided by the Festival Press Office.)