Human Rights Watch London Film Festival

ARTS, 4 Mar 2013

Human Rights Watch – TRANSCEND Media Service

19 Films Bear Witness, Challenge Viewers to Seek Justice

The 17th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be presented in London from March 13 to 22, 2013.

The program this year is organized around four themes: traditional values and human rights –  incorporating women’s rights, disability rights, and LGBT rights; crises and migration; focus on Asia/South Asia; and occupation and the rule of law.

“In addition to our opening film, Kim Longinotto’s extraordinary Salma, and the closing film, Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wajdja, another five festival titles reveal not only the tension between traditional values and women’s rights, but also the resilience shown by the women featured – which is inspirational,” said John Biaggi, film festival director at Human Rights Watch. “From start to finish, the directors pull no punches. We are delighted to welcome Raoul Peck back to the festival this year with his provocative and powerful indictment of the international community’s post-disaster efforts in Haiti”.

The program includes 14 documentaries and five dramas, set in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordon, Morocco, North Korea, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia and Tanzania. Many of the films will be followed by question and answer sessions, and discussions with filmmakers, experts, and film subjects.

The festival will begin on March 13 at the Curzon Mayfair with a fundraising benefit and reception for Human Rights Watch, with Kim Nguyen’s drama War Witch, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film. The film was shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a cast of non-professional actors, including Rachel Mwanza, the lead, who won a Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival 2012. The screening will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker, Kim Nguyen, and David Mepham, UK director at Human Rights Watch.

On March 22, the Curzon Soho will host the opening night film and reception, with an exclusive preview of Kim Longinotto’s Salma, a story of courage and resilience. As a young Muslim girl in India, Salma was forced into seclusion once she reached puberty. Forbidden to study and pushed into a marriage, she covertly composed poems on scraps of paper. Against the odds, she became a famous poet, the first step to discovering her own freedom and challenging the traditions and code of conduct in her village. Now Salma has hopes for a different life for the next generation of girls, but as she sees, familial ties run deep and change is slow. Longinotto, a British filmmaker, will take part in a discussion after the screening.

The closing night film and reception will take place on March 22 at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, with Haifaa Al Mansour’s drama Wadjda, the first full-length feature film shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia. It tells the story of a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of the capital, Riyadh. After a fight with her friend, Wadjda sees a beautiful green bicycle for sale. She wants the bicycle desperately but Wadjda’s mother won’t allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that sees bicycles as dangerous to a girl’s virtue. So Wadjda decides to try to raise the money herself. A cash prize for a Quran recitation competition at her school leads Wadjda to become a model pious girl as she devotes herself to memorizing Quranic verses. She is determined to fight for her dreams… with or without society’s approval.

Traditional Values: Women’s Rights

Traditional values are often deployed as an excuse to stand in the way of human rights. Five films in this year’s festival consider the impact on women.

The UK premiere of Karima Zoubir’s Camera/Woman introduces viewers to Khadija, a Moroccan divorcee who works as a camerawoman at wedding parties in Casablanca. Her mother and brother strongly disagree with her choice of occupation, feel ashamed that Khadija is divorced, and want her to remarry. But Khadija is the breadwinner in the family and won’t bow to their demands. Together with her best friend, also a divorcee, Khadija talks candidly about the issues they face and the competing forces at play in the lives of women in Morocco and beyond. A question and answer session with Zoubir will follow.

The Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Going Up the Stairs is both a portrait of an artist and a glimpse inside a traditional Iranian marriage. Akram married at nine and was so fearful of displeasing her husband that she left school before she learned to read. Now a grandmother living with her husband, Heidar, in Tehran, she has found her calling: painting. Akram’s children organize an exhibition in Paris for her and she hopes Heidar will give her permission to go. Like many couples married for decades, they bicker back and forth and Akram’s sarcastic sense of humor shines through.

Tall as the Baobab Tree depicts a family struggling to find its footing on the edge of a modern world fraught with tensions between tradition and modernity. Coumba and her little sister Debo are the first to leave their family’s remote African village in Senegal, where meals are prepared over open fires and water is drawn from wells, to attend school in the bustling city. But when an accident suddenly threatens their family’s survival, their father decides to sell 11-year-old Debo into an arranged marriage. Torn between loyalty to her elders and her dreams for the future, Coumba hatches a secret plan to rescue her younger sister from a future she did not choose. A question and answer session with the filmmaker, Jeremy Teicher, will follow.

What does it mean to be a woman in a world ruled by religion and violence? The Patience Stone focuses on the plight of women ruled by archaic laws and traditions. In a war-torn neighborhood in Afghanistan, a woman cares for her husband, who has been in a coma for over two weeks. Sitting in silence hour after hour, the woman begins a one-sided conversation with her comatose husband. For the first time, she feels he is listening to her. And she begins to reflect on her life. Slowly but surely, the reflections become confessions. And we learn to what lengths a woman will go to avoid abandonment and rejection. Based on his 2008 novel of the same name, Atiq Rahimi’s drama The Patience Stone reveals the complicated inner workings of one woman’s mind, and her secret life in a world circumscribed by patriarchy and custom.

Rafea, a Bedouin woman who lives with her daughters in one of Jordan’s poorest desert villages on the Iraqi border is the subject of Rafea: Solar Mama. Selected for a program called the Barefoot College in India, she joins 30 illiterate women from various countries to train to become solar engineers over the course of six months. Despite a tumultuous struggle with her husband, Rafea remains determined. Will she be able to empower the other women in the village to join her in the struggle to rewire the traditions of the Bedouin community that stand in their way? A question and answer session with the filmmakers, Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief, will follow.

Traditional Values: Disability Rights

Filmed over six years, In the Shadow of the Sun tells the story of two men with albinism in Tanzania, pursuing their dreams in the face of virulent prejudice. In the midst of an escalation in brutal murders of people with albinism, Josephat Torner decides to confront the communities where the killings are taking place, saying, “I need to change society so it can accept me”. He visits Ukerewe Island, where he finds 62 people with albinism, including 15-year-old Vedastus, who has been bullied out of school and rejected by his community. Dedicating his life to campaigning against this sort of discrimination, Torner becomes a mentor to Vedastus. Through his intimate portrait of Vedastus and Torner, the filmmaker, Harry Freeland, tells a story of deep-rooted superstition, heartfelt suffering, and incredible strength. A question and answer session with Freeland and Torner (tbc) will follow.

Traditional Values: LGBT Rights

Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Parade takes a comedic look at Serbia through the lens of one group’s fight to hold a Gay Pride parade in Belgrade. Viewers meet Pearl and Mickey, a couple about to be married, and Mirko and Radmilo, a couple involved in the gay pride parade. Mirko is Pearl’s wedding planner, and Radmilo turns out to be the veterinarian who saves Mickey’s dog’s life. After a lover’s quarrel, Mickey – who is less than accepting of Gay Pride – makes a deal to protect the participants in the parade to win Pearl back. Mickey and Radmilo embark on a road trip across Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo as Mickey attempts to assemble a fearsome security team for the parade. As they gather Mickey’s old friends from the war, it becomes clear to all that so-called enemies are often the greatest allies. The second screening of The Parade on March 21 will be followed by a discussion led by Boris Dittrich, LGBT advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Crises and Migration

Three films highlight the issues of humanitarian aid, conflict and migration:

In Fatal Assistance, Raoul Peck, the award-winning Haitian-born filmmaker, takes viewers on a two-year journey inside the challenging, contradictory, and colossal rebuilding efforts in post-earthquake Haiti. The film dives headlong into the complexity of the reconstruction process and the practice and impact of worldwide humanitarian and development aid, revealing the disturbing extent of a general failure. The film reveals that a major portion of the money pledged to Haiti was never disbursed, nor used for actual reconstruction. Fatal Assistance leads to one clear conclusion: current aid policies and practices in Haiti need to change. A question and answer session with Peck will follow.

In My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone Nagieb Khaja, a Danish journalist of Afghan origin, travels to Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province in Afghanistan. Because journalists are not able to move safely outside of the capital, contact with the civilian population in rural areas is almost impossible. Khaja gives people living in outlying communities mobile phones equipped with cameras and asks them to film their daily lives, providing a rare glimpse into the war-torn existence of ordinary Afghans. Viewers ride along with Hakl Sahab in his 70-year-old Jeep with no brakes, get hair-styling tips from Jurna Gulm, seek shelter from firefights with Shukrullah, and watch Abdul Mohammed, a farmer and widower, raise his four children alone. Alternating between the participants’ scenes of daily life and Nagieb’s own experiences, My Afghanistan depicts a country where civilians are the greatest victims of the war, and Afghans struggle to live in the constant shadow of violence. A question and answer session with Khaja will follow.

In Nowhere Home the documentary filmmaker Margreth Olin follows a number of boys from Salhus, a Norwegian center offering temporary residence to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. While all the boys at Salhus hope for an extension of their asylum status, they face deportation and uncertain futures in Afghanistan, Iraq or other war-torn countries once they turn 18.  Nowhere Home scrutinizes one of Europe’s major moral dilemmas. A question and answer session with Olin will follow.

Focus on Asia/South Asia

The festival will screen four films from Asia and South Asia:

Joshua Oppenheimer’s cinematic experiment, The Act of Killing, explores a chapter of Indonesia’s history by enlisting a group of former killers, including the Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo, to re-enact their lives in the style of the films they love. When the government of President Sukarno was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his cohorts joined in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. Now, Anwar and his team perform detailed re-enactments of their crimes with pride, holding numerous discussions about sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics. Their fixation on style rather than substance – despite the ghastly nature of the scenes – makes them mesmerizing to watch. But as movie violence and real-life violence begin to overlap, Anwar’s pride gradually gives way to regret, leaving him overwhelmed by the horrific acts he has chosen to share with the world. A question and answer session with filmmaker Oppenheimer (tbc) will follow.

Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution tells the love story of the human rights activist Kirsty Sword and the political prisoner Xanana Gusmão. Once an aspiring documentary filmmaker, Sword instead became a revolutionary, working in Jakarta for the Timorese resistance. Using the pseudonym “Ruby Blade,” she smuggled video equipment, computers, and audio cassettes to their leader, Gusmão, who was serving a life sentence in the notorious Cipinang Prison. As they exchanged letters, video messages, paintings, photographs and even bonsai trees, they fell in love without ever having met. Through archival footage, accounts from friends, and interviews with Sword herself, the film not only explores their relationship, but also the history of a decade of resistance that ultimately led to the UN-organized referendum on East Timor in 1999, and the country’s independence. A question and answer session with the filmmaker, Alex Meillier, will follow.

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is a portrait of a young man who grew up imprisoned by dehumanizing violence yet found the will to escape. Born inside a North Korean prison camp as the child of political prisoners, Shin Dong-Huyk was raised in a world where all he knew was punishment, torture, and abuse. The filmmaker, Marc Wiese, crafts his documentary by quietly drawing details from Shin in interviews in which Shin’s silence says as much as his words. Weaving anecdotes from a former camp guard and a member of the secret police with powerful animated scenes capturing key moments in Shin’s life, Wiese pulls audiences into Shin’s world. Shin escapes and becomes a human rights ‘celebrity,’ but his life outside the camp is often just as challenging as it was inside it. A question and answer session with Wiese will follow.

The award-winning documentarian Anand Patwardhan felt compelled to make Jai Bhim Comrade in response to the suicide of the singer, poet and activist Vilas Ghogre, who hanged himself after the police shooting in 1997 of 10 unarmed Dalit (‘untouchable’) protesters in Mumbai’s slums. The shootings also caused 2,000 years of oppression to boil over. Patwardhan focuses his lens on the abuses against India’s Dalits in this magnum opus 14 years in the making, incorporating their voice through their stirring resistance music and poetry. The Dalits were denied basic human rights for centuries, condemned to clean the filth of the upper caste for rupees a day, and then abhorred as lesser beings. Their struggle is counterbalanced by intimate family portraits, moments of inspiration, and glimpses of a better future. A question and answer session with Patwardhan will follow.

Occupation and the Rule of Law

In an unprecedented and candid series of interviews, six former heads of the Shin Bet – Israel’s intelligence and security agency – speak about their role in Israel’s decades-long counterterrorism campaign. Dror Moreh’s Academy Award nominated The Gatekeepers is a rare glimpse into the untold history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the point of view of the Shin Bet. In this series of one-on-one interviews, combined with never-before-seen archival footage, Moreh provides unfettered access to the decisions, rationalizations, and regrets of Israel’s most powerful homeland security officials. As these veteran intelligence chiefs speak with detachment about their participation in some of Israel’s most controversial counterterrorist initiatives, their steely singularity of purpose – to maintain the state’s security – remains constant. A discussion with Moreh (tbc) and Bill Van Esveld, Israel/Palestine researcher at Human Rights Watch, will follow.

The Law in These Parts raises the question: can a modern democracy impose a prolonged military occupation on another people while retaining its core democratic values? Since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East War, the Israeli military has imposed thousands of orders and laws, established military courts, sentenced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to detention, enabled half-a-million Israeli citizens to move to the occupied territories, and developed a system of long-term jurisdiction by an occupying army. In The Law in These Parts, military legal professionals talk about the legal system they helped to design and implement in its formative years. A question and answer session led by Van Esveld will follow.


For more information on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, please visit:

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