One thing that many people before me have taken note of is that film festivals have become the only way some films get seen in this new world of limited distribution. No where is that point clearer than the Human Rights Watch Film Festival now going on at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC. The circuit of human rights films festivals around the world are a place where you can see challenging films questioning the world that are not coming to a theatre or even a TV screen near you. That’s why these festivals are so important and need to be supported.
This year’s festival has programmed 5 different issue areas: health, development and the environment; LGBT and migrant rights; personal testimony and witnessing; reporting in crises and women’s rights.
Women directors feature prominently in each issue area including the opening and closing night films Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which opened the festival on June 15th and will be in theaters on July 27th and Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worall’s Call Me Kuchu which will close the festival on June 28th.
Call Me Kuchu tells the story of brave souls including the first out Ugnadan David Kato (who was murdered) in Uganda fighting to repeal the homophobic laws of the country. The film includes the story of Stosh Mugisha, a lesbian who was raped by a man in order to correct her sexuality. This practice is becoming more and more common place throughout Africa and is heartbreaking.
I’ve seen all the films in the women’s rights section which includes The Invisible War (which I will be writing about separately) the devastating documentary on rape in the military made by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering who will be receiving the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. Check out Stephen Holden’s NY Times piece on the festival which highlights The Invisible War.
Salaam Dunk is the story of one year in the life of the fledgling women’s basketball team at the American Univeristy of Sulaimani Iraq. Most of the young women on the team had never picked up a ball before they joined, but all were looking for something that would allow them to break out of the box that confines girls in Iraq.
One telling sign of the restrictions on girls and women is that when Ryan Bubalo the coach an American teaching at the university who becomes so dedicated to the girls asks them to run outside to get in shape. They come back shortly after they leave and tell him that they can’t ever run outside again. It’s just not safe for girls and women to do that in public, especially since most of them don’t have their heads covered.
But they persevere and this team becomes very important to their livelihoods and to their lives. What this team is able to do that politicians struggle with is to create ties across strong sectarian lines. Kurds talking to Arabs. Arabs talking to Christians. All the girls learning about each other’s lives. Playing sports strips away preconceived notions of who is your friend and who is your enemy. Yet they know that this is an oasis in their realities of living in a country where war and death are everywhere. They keep a self imposed distance in relationships because so many loved ones have been lost and the constant loss has caused them all to build a force field around their hearts. They laugh and love the game and it gives them a sense of self esteem they otherwise wouldn’t have, yet you can’t help but see the heavy burden they are carrying growing up in a war torn country.
Susan Youssef’s Habibi is the first film to be shot in Gaza in 15 years. It tells the fictional story of two lovers torn apart by class and circumstance. The film is based on the Majnun Layla poem of forbidden love dating back to 7th century Arabia. Set in the Gaza Strip in 2001 at the beginning of the second Intifada, Qays and Layla, two young college students in the West Bank are forced to return home due to the outbreak of violence. Both are Palestinians and while they may have many similarities they also have many differences — Layla comes from the village and lives in a house and Qays lives in a refugee camp. Qays does not have the necessary money to marry Layla and they are both heartbroken. Qays roams the town writing love poems to Layla that threaten her reputation.
Susan Youssef lays out how you can be alike yet so different, how politics and political strife is devastating a region and how hopes and dreams are quashed by realities you have no control over.
The festival is running through June 28. Here is the schedule.