The 5 Best Films of Human Rights Watch 2016


Last week I wrote about the overall trend in the programming of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, a move away from typical “issue films” and toward more artistically-minded filmmaking. The banner American example of this is Growing Up Coy, which stands in stark contrast to such films as The Case Against 8 in its commitment to fully honest portraiture and the artistic need for the ambivalence of life. But this is just a single representative of a program brimming with similarly intuitive filmmaking. The following five projects also experiment or reject the genre conventions of activist cinema. One in particular cries out for distribution, a remarkable sophomore feature that will inevitably be seen as one of the year’s best films of any stripe.

5. Ovarian Psycos

Ovarian Psycos

One can belie the genre conventions of the “issue film” simply by deconstructing the idea that anyone has but a single issue to resolve. Johanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle’s Ovarian Psycos is a complex, intersectional portrait of a new phenomenon in Southern California’s cycling culture. The Ovarian Psycos is an organization of women of color, built up primarily from the Latinx community of Los Angeles, with a particular emphasis on indigenous heritage and irreverent language.

Following the decentralized and inclusive message of the Psycos, Sokolowski and Trumbull-LaValle have constructed a film without a true protagonist. They do spend a lot of time with Xela de la X, the group’s founder, but her role ebbs as her own life moves in a different direction. The film turns to the younger women taking control of the Psycos, expanding its focus as the subject itself expands. For some this looseness may seem too disorganized, to be fair, but it is also an admirable structural commitment to the breadth of this community.

4. Hooligan Sparrow

Hooligan Sparrow

Nanfu Wang, a Chinese filmmaker living in the United States, made a trip back to Mainland China to make this documentary about women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. “Sparrow.” Wang’s own legal and logistical struggle as a documentarian is foregrounded alongside Sparrow’s work, in a way that cribs pretty clearly from the Citizenfour playbook. Sparrow’s protest of a school principal, trying to evade prosecution for rape by accusing the students he abused of prostitution, is as much a narrative highpoint as Wang’s interrogation by Chinese officials on her way out of the country.

Thus the film quickly becomes a portrait of the day-to-day risks of activists and the journalists who try to cover them, Wang included. It is unclear whether a final sequence at an Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where the artist recreated an image of Sparrow’s possessions on the side of the road after eviction from her home, is a flatly triumphant ode to international attention or a reflective interrogation of the same. But the overall worth of Hooligan Sparrow is Wang’s interest in these questions of the value of visibility in the first place.

3. Sonita


Similar conundrums of the role of the filmmaker emerge in Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and Audience Prize winner Sonita, a character study by Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. Her subject is a young woman named Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan refugee living with her elder sister in Tehran. She aspires to be a rapper, but her family back in Herat wants her to return home to marry, so that they can use the bride price to pay for her brother’s own bride. The prospect of Sonita’s family forcing her to return home is not only troublesome for her career, it also threatens to ruin Ghaemmaghami’s film. And so the director bargains with the family, paying them what essentially amounts to a temporary ransom.

The respite gives Sonita time to film a music video for “Brides for Sale,” an impassioned rejection of the practice that impinges on both her freedom and that of other young Afghan women. This crisis of individual destiny is certainly a primary focus of Ghaemmaghami’s film, but the director doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of this situation. Sonita certainly succeeds through her own talent as an artist, but the patronage of her documentarian is at least an equal partner in the plan to alter her destiny. Like Hooligan Sparrow, this is just as much a film about activist filmmaking as it is about activism itself, but it is even more openly conflicted and curious.

2. Starless Dreams

Starless Dreams

It took years for Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei to receive permission to film at a girls’ detention facility at the edge of Tehran, but it’s apparent from the very first moments of Starless Dreams that it was worth the wait. This is a place of remarkable solidarity and extremely underrepresented struggle. Many of the young women in the facility face both neglect and physical abuse back home. They have made this prison a place of refuge and community, where they can share stories and laugh with one another.

Oskouei builds this environment into a documentary with a combination of neorealist instincts and the assertion of his own presence, an aesthetic dialog that has run through many other recent classics of Iranian cinema. Here it is perhaps unavoidable, for the presence of a male filmmaker in a female juvenile detention facility to impact both the mood and behavior of his subjects. Sometimes it creates tension, as when he tells one of the girls about his own daughter, about the same age but living a completely different life. But in other moments it allows his subjects to take control of the film, as when they commandeer the boom mic to sing. There is both comedy and tragedy in this place, and most of all character.

1. Tempestad


Tatiana Huezo stunned audiences five years ago with her debut feature, The Tiniest Place. Her second feature, the best of this year’s Human Rights Watch, should cement her reputation. Tempestad is a bifurcated portrait of human trafficking in Mexico, told through the testimony of two very different victims of the phenomenon. One woman, an immigration worker at the airport in Cancún, was among a group of workers who were arrested as scapegoats and sent to prison to distract from government corruption. She ended up in a facility operated by a drug cartel in Northern Mexico, a dystopian site of abuse and confusion. The other subject is a circus performer and the mother of a young woman who has been missing for years, kidnapped but never recovered.

The film itself, however, is no linear plea for awareness. The voiceover of these two women flies over the whole country, in reenactments of perception that range from the cartel-addled city of Matamoros to the traveling circus tent. A particular motif comes in the form of bus travel, alternately tense and serene journeys that highlight the beauty of the landscape and the enormity of the Mexican sky.

For a storm is brewing, the tempest of the title. Dark clouds and near-constant rain hover over much of the film, a rolling metaphor for the cartels and the kidnappings alike. Huezo weaves the majesties of Mexico together with its sadness, subduing the audience with both breathtaking images and softly told tragedies. The result is inconclusive. The submerged finale evokes the enigma of the sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, a second similarity with the gorgeous ambiguities of Fellini to dovetail with the image of the crying clown. Yet Huezo’s style is not like his, nor perhaps anyone else’s. Hers is a new voice, a shimmering whisper with astonishing power.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.