Back to IndieWire

Human Rights Watch Film Festival Announces Lineup; ‘War Witch’ and ‘Ai Weiwei’ Included

Human Rights Watch Film Festival Announces Lineup; 'War Witch' and 'Ai Weiwei' Included

The New York-based 23rd Human Rights Watch Film Festival (a co-presentation of Human Rights Watch and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) has locked down its full lineup of 16 documentary and fiction films from 12 counrtries, 14 of which will be making their New York premieres at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. This year’s program is organized around five themes: health, development and the environment, LGBT and migrants’ rights, personal testimony and witnessing, reporting in crises, and women’s rights.

The festival will kick off with a fundraising night featuring Kim Nguyen’s recent Tribeca award-winner “War Witch.” The main program will launch with the opening night presentation of Alison Klayman’s Sundance winner “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Closing the festival will be Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worral’s “Call Me Kuchu,” which tracks the efforts of Ugandan David Kato and a group of activists to repeal their country’s homophobic laws.

The festival runs June 14-28.

Below find the full program with synopses courtesy of the festival. Further information can be found HERE.


Benefit Film & Reception
Thursday, June 14, 6:30pm
Post-screening panel discussion: Featuring Jo Becker, Advocacy Director, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch and Grace Akallo, former child soldier and co-author of “Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children.” Moderated by Carroll Bogert, Deputy Executive Director for External Relations, Human Rights Watch.

Kim Nguyen—Canada—2012—90m—drama
Produced by Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin, Item 7
In French and Lingala with English subtitles

At 14, Komona has lived through horrors that eclipse an adult’s worst nightmares. In this mesmerizing, otherworldly drama, shot entirely in the Democratic Republic of Congo, comes a story of incredible human resilience. In a small isolated village, Komona lived peacefully with her parents until the day the rebels came. They captured Komona and forced her to commit an irreparable act: slay her parents. In the rebels’ camp, the training is merciless. Komona quickly learns to endure, to fight and above all, to survive. During a battle waged against the government army, only Komona is spared. The rebel chief sees this as a sign and declares she is the new sorceress. She is soon brought to Great Tiger, the supreme leader of all the rebels, who makes her his war witch. Only one person is willing to help and listen to Komona, a 15-year-old boy named Magician. As time passes, Magician and Komona fall in love and eventually marry. But Komona is soon recaptured and returned to the rebels as their war witch. She then becomes pregnant and escapes again. Komona wishes to forget the past, but her parents’ ghosts keep reappearing. She soon realizes that if she doesn’t want her parents’ ghosts to haunt her, she must journey back to her birthplace to lay her parents’ souls to rest. Silver Bear for Best Actress Rachel Mwanza, 2012 Berlin Film Festival. Winner, Best Narrative Feature, 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Opening Night Film & Reception
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (New York premiere)
Alison Klayman—China/US—2012—91m—doc
In English and Mandarin with English subtitles
Friday, June 15, 7:00pm
Post-screening panel discussion: Featuring Alison Klayman, Filmmaker; Sophie Richardson, China Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; Tong Yi, former activist in China, licensed attorney in the US. Moderated by Minky Worden, Media Director, Communications Department, Human Rights Watch.

“I feel like a chess player. My opponent makes a move and then I make the next one.”
— Ai Weiwei

In this unprecedented look at Ai Weiwei and those close to him, filmmaker Alison Klayman captures the artist’s forthright and unequivocal stance against China’s oppression, painting a picture of the artist as an individual and as a powerful voice for human rights. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry chronicles the complexities of Ai’s life for three years, beginning with his rise to public prominence via blog and Twitter after he questioned the deaths of more than 5,000 students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai Weiwei always makes his opposition to silence and oppression public. His appearances on Twitter and the unsparing truths he airs in his blog often lead to police harassment. But even then he never gives up, and instead films his official minders with his video camera and publishes his footage on the web. Winner, Special Jury Award for US Documentary, 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. US theatrical release July 27.

Closing Night Film & Reception
CALL ME KUCHU (New York premiere)
Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall—US—2012—87m—doc
In English and Luganda with English subtitles
Thursday, June 28, 7:00pm
Post-screening panel discussion: Featuring Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, filmmakers; Longjones Wambere, film subject. Moderated by Boris O. Dittrich, Advocacy Director, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Program, Human Rights Watch.

In an office on the outskirts of Kampala, veteran activist David Kato labors to repeal Uganda’s homophobic laws and liberate his fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women, or “kuchus.” But David’s formidable task just became more difficult. A new “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” proposes the death penalty for HIV-positive gay men and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual. David is one of the few who dare to publicly protest the country’s government and press. Working with a dedicated group of fellow activists, he fights for Kampala’s kuchus on Ugandan television, at the United Nations, and in the courts. Because, he insists, “if we keep on hiding, they will say we are not here.” With unprecedented access, Call Me Kuchu examines the astounding courage and determination required to battle an oppressive government, a vicious media and a powerful church in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Winner, Best International Feature, 2012 Hot Docs Film Festival.


BIDDER 70 (New York premiere)
Beth and George Gage—US—2011—74m—doc
Tuesday, June 19, 6:30pm (Q&A) / Wednesday, June 20, 9:15pm (Q&A) / Friday, June 22, 4:00pm (Q&A)

Bidder 70 tells the story of Tim DeChristopher and his stunning act of civil disobedience in a time of global climate chaos. On December 19, 2008, DeChristopher, as Bidder #70, derailed the Bush administration’s last minute, widely disputed federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Oil and Gas lease auction, acting to safeguard thousands of acres of Utah land. Bidding $1.7 million, Tim won 22,000 acres of land with no intention to pay or drill. For his disruption of the auction, DeChristopher was indicted on two federal charges. Tim’s civil disobedience has drawn national attention to America’s energy policy and criticism to the BLM’s management of public lands. Refusing to compromise his principles and rejecting numerous plea offers by the prosecution, Tim is willing to sacrifice his own future to bring this vitally important issue to global attention. Bidder 70 is Tim’s story: his actions, his trial and his possible prison sentence. It is also the story of the scientists, activists, writers, and movements that influence and support his actions.

BITTER SEEDS (New York premiere)
Micha X. Peled—India/US—2011—87m—doc
In English and Hindi with English subtitles
Thursday, June 21, 9:15pm (Q&A) / Friday, June 22, 6:30pm (Panel)

Manjusha Amberwar, a young journalist, examines the causes of an epidemic of farmer suicides in India—one every 30 minutes—that includes her own father. She hopes that by drawing attention to their plight, she can bring an end to this tragedy. But it won’t be easy. In 2004 an American company introduced its genetically modified seeds to the Indian market, promising higher yields. Farmers tell her that the seeds require expensive pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And the sterile seeds, unlike the conventional seeds previously used by farmers, have to be purchased again each year. Manjusha follows one farmer through the disappointing season, praying for rain, discovering parasite infestation, and finally selling his meager yield achieved through backbreaking labor. We see the vicious cycle: annual loans from usurious moneylenders, desperate debt and the inability of farmers to provide dowries for their daughters—making the symbolism of their suicide by drinking expensive pesticides all but inescapable.

Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke—US—2012—98m—doc
Sunday, June 24, 6:30pm (Panel) / Monday, June 25, 6:30pm (Q&A) / Wednesday, June 27, 4:00pm (Q&A) *Film subject Dr. Erin Martin present on June 24

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare tackles one of the most pressing issues of our time: how can the United States save its badly broken healthcare system? American healthcare costs are rising so rapidly that they could reach $4.2 trillion annually within 10 years. Patients pay more, yet health outcomes are worse. Thus it is no surprise that healthcare is a top concern in the United States and at the center of an intense political debate. The current battle over cost and access does not ultimately address the root of the problem though: the US has a “disease-care” system, not a healthcare system. After decades of resistance, a movement to bring innovative high-touch, low-cost methods of prevention and healing into a high-tech, costly system is finally gaining ground. With consummate skill, filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke interweave dramatic personal stories with the efforts of leaders battling to transform healthcare at the highest levels of medicine, industry, government, and even the US military.


Maggie Peren—Spain—2011—95m—drama
In French, German and Spanish with English subtitles
Saturday, June 23, 8:30pm / Sunday, June 24, 4:00pm

Color of the Ocean tells the story of two refugees whose paths collide with those of an altruistic tourist and a Canary Island police officer—changing the course of all their lives. After years working as a border patrolman, José (Alex González) is cynical about his work. His skepticism is tested when he encounters Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo), a German tourist assisting a boatload of refugees she discovers landing on the Canary shores. One of those refugees, a Congolese man named Zola (Hubert Koundé), is placed in an internment camp. Nathalie tries to help him, despite her husband’s objections. But Zola and his son Mamadou quickly find themselves in yet another precarious situation, where they are dependent on nefarious smugglers. Questions of responsibility repeatedly arise and haunt all concerned as they grapple with the knowledge they cannot know for certain if their actions will make matters better or worse.

SPECIAL FLIGHT (New York premiere)
Fernand Melgar—Switzerland—2011—100m—doc
In French with English subtitles
Saturday, June 16, 6:30pm (Q&A) / Sunday, June 17, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Tuesday, June 19, 4:00pm

Fernand Melgar’s intimate and emotionally charged portrait of the rejected asylum seekers and illegal migrants in Switzerland’s Frambois detention centre reveals a world that few know from the inside. With amazing access to his subjects, Melgar introduces us to a community of men who share friendships, fears, and a similar fate. There are three possibilities for every resident: to leave free with asylum granted, to leave the country by choice on a regular flight, or to leave in custody on a so-called ‘special flight’ back to their country of origin. As planes come and go in the background, the staff—who are caretakers, counselors, and friends to the men there—­have heart-felt dialogues about the well-being of residents. In the end though, the staff reflect society’s attitudes towards migrants, and are also recipients of the residents’ resentment—making them simultaneously friend and foe. And that fact is most evident when staff must prepare one of the men to leave on a special flight. Winner, Grand Jury Prize, 2012 Full Frame Documentary Festival.

*Closing Night film CALL ME KUCHU also featured under this theme.


BROTHER NUMBER ONE  (New York premiere)
Annie Goldson—New Zealand—2011—99m—doc
In English and Khmer with English subtitles
Tuesday, June 19, 8:45pm (Q&A) / Wednesday, June 20, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Thursday, June 21, 6:30pm (Q&A)

Through New Zealander Rob Hamill’s story of his brother’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Brother Number One explores how the regime and its followers killed nearly 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. In 1978, Kerry Hamill and two friends disappeared without a trace while sailing from Australia to Southeast Asia. Rob discovers that a Khmer Rouge cell attacked the boat. One sailor, Canadian Stuart Glass, was shot immediately, but Kerry and Englishman John Dewhirst were taken to the notorious S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh, held for several months, tortured, and killed. Thirty years later, Kerry’s youngest brother Rob has a rare chance to take the stand as a witness at the Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal and face Comrade Duch, the man who gave the final orders for Kerry and thousands of others to be tortured and killed. As Rob retraces his brother’s final days, he meets survivors who tell the story of the S-21 prison and of what countless families across Cambodia experienced at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. In this spirit, Brother Number One grapples with the trauma that grips all Cambodia: the struggle to forgive in the face of immeasurable anger.

LITTLE HEAVEN (New York premiere)
Lieven Corthouts—Belgium—2011—70m—doc
In Amharic with English subtitles
Monday, June 25, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Tuesday, June 26, 6:30pm (Q&A) / Wednesday, June 27, 9:00pm (Q&A)

“HIV is like somebody living in my body without paying rent. I don’t know him and I don’t like him.” —Lydia, 13, Little Heaven Orphanage, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Lydia is at a turning point in her life. We experience life through Lydia’s expressive face and reflective diary entries, her daily routines at the Little Heaven orphanage for children living with HIV, her conversations with other children there, her doctors’ appointments, and her exercise, study, and prayer. Despite being abandoned by their families or left alone when their parents died, the children form a new family, together with their caretakers. Their HIV status is always in the background, but small victories show us a life that is full of hope­, not despair.

*Benefit Night film WAR WITCH and Opening Night film AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY also featured under this theme.


REPORTERO (New York premiere)
Bernardo Ruiz—Mexico/US—2011—72m—doc
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Thursday, June 21, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Friday, June 22, 9:30pm (Q&A) / Saturday, June 23, 3:30pm (Panel) *Film subjects Sergio Haro and Adela Navarro present on June 22 and 23

Reportero follows veteran reporter Sergio Haro and his colleagues at Zeta, a Tijuana, Mexico-based weekly, as they dauntingly ply their trade in what has become one of the most deadly places in the world to be a journalist. Since the paper’s founding in 1980, two of the paper’s editors have been murdered and the founder viciously attacked. “Impunity reigns in Mexico, especially here along the northern border,” explains Adela Navarro, Sergio’s boss and Zeta’s co-director. Despite the attacks, the paper has continued its singular brand of aggressive investigative reporting, frequently tackling dangerous subjects that other publications avoid, such as cartels’ infiltration of political circles and security forces. As a veteran member of Zeta’s editorial team, Sergio contributes to the investigative crime pieces that are the paper’s bread and butter, but at this stage of his career, he is also after what he calls the “deeper story” of the region—the human stories that tend to fall between the cracks.

SILENCED VOICES (New York premiere)
Beate Arnestad—Norway—2012—60m—doc
In English and Swedish and Tamil with English subtitles
Monday, June 25, 9:15pm (Q&A) / Tuesday, June 26, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Wednesday, June 27, 7:00pm (Q&A) *Film subject Sonali Samarasinghe present for all screenings.

Journalists in Sri Lanka risk life and limb to practice their profession. Lasantha Wickrematunge was one of these champions. He was gunned down by eight men in broad daylight in the capital, Colombo. His newly wed and now widowed wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, had to arrange her bridegroom’s funeral only a few days after the wedding. Besides being editor-in-chief of the critical newspaper The Morning Leader, Wickrematunge was also a fierce opponent of the Sri Lankan government. As a lawyer and journalist, his wife worked closely with him; the government forced her to leave the country not long after his killing. Since that time, Samarasinghe has been fighting for justice from her base in New York. Sri Lanka is one of the most perilous countries in the world for journalists. According to official sources, nearly 25 journalists have been killed there since 1992, at least 10 of whom were deliberately targeted by suspected government or opposition Tamil Tiger forces. Director Beate Arnestad tells the story of the civil war in Sri Lanka based on the stories of journalists living in exile. She seeks out various reporters who risk their lives over and over to highlight the human rights violations taking place in their homeland.

WORDS OF WITNESS (New York premiere)
Mai Iskander—Egypt/US—2012—68m—doc
In English and Arabic with English subtitles
Saturday, June 23, 6:00pm (Q&A) / Sunday, June 24, 1:30pm (Q&A) / Tuesday, June 26, 8:45pm (Q&A)

Defying cultural norms and family expectations, 22-year-old Heba Afify takes to the streets to report on an Egypt in turmoil, using tweets, texts and Facebook posts. Every time Heba heads out to cover the historical events shaping her country’s future, her mother is compelled to remind her, “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!” Her coming of age, political awakening and the disillusionment that follows, mirrors that of a nation seeking the freedom to shape its own destiny, dignity and democracy.  Heba’s words bear witness to the heady optimism of a country on a path to self-determination, the toppling of a dictator, the difficult transition toward democracy, the courageous challenge to the ruling military who cracks down on the opposition, and the celebration of a cultural shift where a younger generation inspired a country to “lead themselves.”


HABIBI (New York premiere)
Susan Youssef—Palestine—2011—78m—drama
In Arabic with English subtitles
Saturday, June 16, 9:15pm (Q&A) / Sunday, June 17, 1:30pm (Q&A) / Monday, June 18, 6:30pm (Q&A)

“We have a right to love… We have a right to be happy even if people around us go hungry and are dying. To lose these things would be to completely give in to the occupation.” — Layla, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestinian Territories

Young lovers Qays (Kais Nashef) and Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) are university students in the West Bank who hail from Khan Yunis in Gaza. He is pursuing a degree in literature and she in engineering, but they are forced to return home before com­pleting their courses. In the more religious and traditional environment of Khan Yunis, their love story can continue only by marrying. Yet Qays, who is a construction worker living in a refugee camp, is too poor to con­vince Layla’s father that he can provide for his beloved daughter. As the couple struggles to be together, Qays paints verses from the classical poem Majnun Layla all over Khan Yunis, a rebellious act that angers Layla’s father and the local self-appointed moral police. Lyrical and passionate, Habibi depicts a reality where personal happiness must be weighed against society’s opinions, and a choice sometimes made between one’s people and one’s heart.

SALAAM DUNK (New York premiere)
David Fine—Iraq/US—2011—82m—doc
In Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles
Saturday, June 16, 4:00pm (Q&A) / Sunday, June 17, 6:45pm (Q&A) / Monday, June 18, 4:00pm

With plenty of pop music and ‘girl power,’ Salaam Dunk delivers a tale of hope and inspiration, courtesy of one winning group of Iraqi women basketball players at the American University in Sulaimani, Iraq. The women come from all over the country to attend this prestigious university, but many cannot tell family back home that they go to an ‘American’ college. The team itself is a ‘mini Iraq’—comprised of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians. Through interviews and personal video diaries, we learn about the women, their families and their experiences since the US invasion in 2003. Their narratives provide a rare look at recent events in Iraq with stories of loss and choices that have to be made. Education is the difference between the past and the future for these women and basketball becomes a key part of that education. Their team is like a family and the game is like life. And as their coach Ryan says: sports teaches fight and resilience, but who knows fight and resilience better than these women?

THE INVISIBLE WAR (New York premiere)
Directed by Kirby Dick, Produced by Amy Ziering—US—2011—95m—doc
Monday, June 18, 8:45pm (Q&A)  / Wednesday, June 20, 6:30pm (Panel)
*Film subjects Kori Cioca, Ariana Klay and Ben Klay present on June 20

The Invisible War is a groundbreaking investigative documentary about the shameful and underreported epidemic of rape within the US military. With stark clarity and escalating revelations, The Invisible War exposes the rape epidemic in the armed forces, investigating the institutions that perpetuate it as well as its profound personal and social consequences. We meet characters who embraced their military service with pride and professionalism, only to have their idealism crushed. Focusing on the emotionally charged stories of survivors, the film reveals the systemic cover-up of the crimes against them and follows their struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. The Invisible War features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officers and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm conditions that exist for rape in the military, its history of cover-up, and what can be done to bring about much needed change. Winner, Audience Award for US Documentary, 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment and Docurama Films. US theatrical release June 22.

Renowned cinematographer and filmmaker Nestor Almendros (1930–1992) was a founder of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, actively involved in the selection of films and the promotion of human rights filmmaking. Even while deeply immersed in his own projects, he took the time to call the Festival team to mention a strong documentary or promote a work-in-progress. Believing in the power of human rights filmmaking, Nestor devoted himself to becoming a mentor to many young filmmakers. It is in the Festival’s loving memory of Nestor and our desire to celebrate his vision that we proudly bestow this award to filmmakers for their exceptional commitment to human rights.

The Festival is delighted to present Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering—filmmakers of The Invisible War—with our 2012 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Festivals and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox