The 5 Must-See Films of the 2014 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Journeyman Pictures

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is in something of a precarious position, at least theoretically. On the one hand there is its commitment to, well, human rights. The result of this raison d’etre is the programming of so-called “issue documentaries,” a not-quite-defined genre that has become something of a critical punching bag. And while the “human” bit will likely help HRW avoid the sort of righteous cinephile anger that was directed at Blackfish, the festival is still by definition a showcase of advocacy films.

Yet it is by no means doomed to screen formally bland, ethically pure screeds about international crises. Art, and documentary art in particular, is the representation of human truth. With that in mind, HRW has something of a mandate to screen bold, staggeringly resonant films that capture the most essential problems affecting the world today. And so, as the critical community begins to become less interested in nonfiction films produced around policy positions, the 2014 slate of this issue-oriented festival turns toward its essential mission. Featuring a wide array characters captured with time and understanding rather than facts and figures, this year’s program is a beacon of light and strength.

Here are the five films you shouldn’t miss:

Emergency Cinema: Shorts by the Abounaddara Collective

The Syrian Civil War has lasted well over three years. The nation is in shambles, despite the proud face put out to the world by newly “re-elected” dictator President Bashar al-Assad. Yet as is often the case with conflicts like this, Western media are quick to cover the outbreak of violence and then have trouble maintaining interest. As a response, the Abounaddara Collective has been putting out short nonfiction videos since the spring of 2011. A special selection is being presented by Human Rights Watch, including this year’s Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize winner Of God and Dogs. Dubbed “Emergency Cinema,” these films are a much-needed punch in the gut of Western apathy as well as a harrowing meditation on what it takes to take up the gun of a soldier, a revolutionary or both.

Evaporating Borders

Cyprus sits at the crossroads of three continents. Cleft in two by the persistent aftermath of a Turkish invasion, now 40-years old, the island is one of the main entry points into the European Union for asylum seekers. Immigrants now make up 25% of the population and their presence has dominated and radicalized the politics and culture of the Greek side of Cyprus. Filmmaker Iva Radivojevic has crafted a poetic essay on the subject, trying to express both the current crisis and the deeper soul of an island that has always been tossed about by the storms of history. She captures the enigmas of empty spaces and the terrible fire of fascist protests, the quiet torment of migrants stuck in refugee camps and the stunning diversity of Cyprus’s many drifting souls. The unlikeliest of images become potent metaphors for both this one cleft nation and the entire globalized world, from flocks of flamingoes to the darkness of the sea. Wise and incisive, Evaporating Borders is likely the most aesthetically beautiful film in the festival.

Private Violence

There is a particular emphasis in the program on heroes fighting the legal and cultural oppression faced by women the world over. A Quiet Inquisition is the portrait of a revolutionary doctor pushing against Nicaragua’s complete, intransigent ban on abortion. Out in the Night is about a group of African American lesbian imprisoned by a criminal justice system unwilling to see past stereotype. Scheherazade’s Diary also looks into a prison, giving a voice to Lebanese women so often deprived of the right to tell their own stories.

The best of these is HBO’s Private Violence (review). Cynthia Hill’s film is a profile of Kit Gruelle, a North Carolina advocate against domestic violence. Without a doubt one of the year’s most inspiring documentary characters, Gruelle’s work takes her into courtrooms and homes for women in need. She even offers her expertise to the police, in great need of understanding how to respond to abusive relationships. Both filmmaker and subject are insistent upon a single overriding theme, that of listening. Law enforcement, the justice system and society as a whole have often turned a deaf ear to these women. Private Violence is a deeply empathetic documentary response. It draws strength from the unique power of the camera to listen without distraction.

Return to Homs

The Abounaddara Collective has spent the last three years issuing urgent, brief messages from war-torn Syria. Director Talal Derki has taken a much different approach, assembling a feature film from the breathtaking and harrowing footage he took in the besieged city of Homs. This hotbed of anti-Assad activity was first a center of the revolution and then an occupied disaster-area held by the regime, with a whole lot of gray area in between. Return to Homs has images of determination and destruction that haunt and amaze. Derki walks his camera through an endless series of bombed-out apartments, using strange passageways birthed by artillery fire. His central figure, a once-promising young soccer player turned revolutionary, undergoes the sort of transformation that evokes the great performances found in historical epics. Yet all the while it is kept profoundly intimate, a tremendous achievement of nonfiction human narrative.

Sepideh — Reaching for the Stars

Already one of the best documentaries of the year, Sepideh got a rare 5-star review from Christopher Campbell back at Sundance. Its title subject, Sepideh Hooshyer, is a young woman with a dream in a country where such dreams are typically reserved for boys. She wants to be an astronomer. In Iran the idea of a girl going out in the middle of the night to look at the stars, in mixed company no less, is something of a scandal. Yet this is but one of many hurdles Sepideh is determined to jump. Director Berit Madsen has crafted a character study that touches on women’s rights issues, the individualistic quests of scientific discovery, and the terrestrial relationship between a mother and a daughter. Like a real-life Wadjda speckled with absolutely stunning images of the night sky, Sepideh is yet another HRW film that understands that the struggle for rights must build up from full articulation of a human being.

The New York edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 13th through June 22nd at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center.

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