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How the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Puts Activist Cinema In Context

How the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Puts Activist Cinema In Context

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival celebrates its 24th edition this year by expanding to two venues (now with screenings not only at Film Society at Lincoln Center but also downtown at IFC Center). The festival opens with the documentary “Anita,” about Anita Hill, and closes with realist fiction film “Tall as a Baobab Tree,” which was filmed in Senegal by American Jeremy Teicher. With these wide-ranging styles in the 20-film program (including the hybrid masterpiece “The Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer) basic questions about the festival are brought up: What are the goals of these films? Is it education, activist recruitment, or the shifting of paradigms? And what role does storytelling play in these goals?

One of the key stories to emerge is tenacity of activists, who often find themselves in that position through circuitous routes. When Anita Hill appeared before the senate in 1991 to speak out about the sexual harassment she experienced from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a colleague testified on her behalf that he had expected to see her in that ornate room under different circumstances, perhaps as a nominee herself. But after her poised, uncomfortable testimony about “ugly” statements Thomas made to her (including pubic hairs in coke cans and his infamous nickname Long Dong Silver) make it clear how that door was permanently shut to her. Afterwards, she received several file cabinets of mail, from vicious hate letters to expressions of relief from people who felt free to talk about their own experiences with harassment once Hill created a national conversation about it.

“Anita” maps out Hill’s unexpected path into a new career as a leading activist today on this issue, and shows how this began as a simple Capra-esque desire to tell the truth. It’s a moving narrative, but especially worthwhile as a historical consideration of the image from 1991 involving a lone black woman in a blue suit in front of a line of white old men decimating her character and laughing about the words “sexual harassment.”

Another brave activist is albino Tanzanian Josephat Torner, who has grown up in a culture where albinos (or “white ghosts”) are dismembered to be sold for their body parts. As seen throughout “In the Shadow of the Sun,” Torner travels around his country to talk to his fellow citizens and convince them that he is not a “white devil” but a human just like them. The film contains gruesome images of scattered body parts and albino children without limbs, as well as some overindulgent camerawork. But it also contains many devastating snapshots of moving relationships and deeply meaningful confrontations between African blacks and whites.

More familiar stories about contemporary activists are represented by “99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film” and the terrifically entertaining “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer” (which screened on HBO earlier this week.) The spine of the Occupy doc is comprised of video from almost 100 filmmakers across the country, yet details are provided by interviews with Naomi Woolf and many of the previously under-the-radar organizers. The high production values of these talking heads stands in notable contrast to the amateur footage, but it does give necessary context and history to the movement.

The titular subject of the fascinating documentary “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story” becomes a sort of accidental activist for justice when he is accused of a crime he did not commit. In a plot similar the that of the AMC show “The Killing,” his wife was brutally murdered in front of his 3-year-old son, for which Morton was sentenced to a life in prison for the crime. The D.A. in the case had portrayed him as a wife beater, which seemed more plausible to the jury than Morton’s own story, which was no story at all. He simply didn’t do it, he said, and he didn’t know who did. When 23-years later, a lawyer attempts to reopen the case, the current D.A. says it isn’t a good idea because it will muddle things. “What do you mean?” says the lawyer incredulously. “Truth clarifies.” It’s this same unwavering faith that all of the aforementioned activists demonstrate.

The festival includes two very different styles of films about child brides. “Tall as a Baobab Tree” is a fictionalized story that takes place in Senegal and is written by Americans, but wonderfully performed (and greatly improvised) by local residents without much acting experience. Coumba is one of the first in her village to go to school, but when her brother is in an accident, the family’s income is threatened, so their father decides to sell Cooba’s 11-year-old sister Debo into an arranged marriage. Coumba hatched a plan to rescue her sister while hiding her anger at her parents. “Don’t change your culture, understand your culture,” says her mother, who was also a child bride. The film is elegant yet timid, careful not to judge.

Another film in the festival, “Going Up the Stairs,” is a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, and follows an older artist in Iran who has to ask her even older husband (whom she married when she was nine and he was in his twenties) if she can travel to France for an exhibition of her work. The revelations of her inner life — including scenes where she paints her dreams, and the wry, loving relationship between the married couple — carry greater impact than the generic story in “Baobab Tree” because of the specific details. After all, truth clarifies.

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