The 5 Must-See Films of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is focused on advocacy. Human Rights Watch is, after all, an organization with a global commitment to social justice. It follows that its traveling series of documentaries, now making a stop in New York City, would have a clear emphasis on the role of cinema as a form of political and social activism. The opening night film, for example, is accompanied by a benefit and fundraiser.

Yet the film itself tells a slightly different story. Cartel Land is among the year’s most artistically divisive documentaries, one which hardly lends itself to the endorsement of a single charity. The larger program is equally artistically complex, and includes such directorial gambits as the satirical art-protest style of The Yes Men Are Revolting and The Wanted 18, an animated film about farming rights in Palestine. The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing, is yet another profoundly ambiguous confrontation with the ghosts of the past.

All of the above films will have the benefit of provoking conversations when they are given full theatrical releases. Others won’t, which brings me to the really essential element of Human Rights Watch 2015. A number of the films on the list remain without US distribution, a fact in some cases seems impossible. This is your best and perhaps your last chance to catch them on the big screen. Here are the five best.

Beats of the Antonov

Directed by activist and artist Hajooj Kuka, Beats of the Antonov is a remarkably complex portrait of the embattled communities along what is now the border of Sudan and South Sudan. The Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains continue to be wrapped up in a violent liberation movement, rebelling against the central government of Omar al-Bashir. Bombs fall all the time, many of them caught on camera here. The source of much of the conflict is cultural, a divide between the Arab-speaking northerners and the African southerners. Kuka is particularly drawn to the music of the south, an essential element of their society. Everyone sings and composition is a collective activity, particular in the lives of young girls. Yet at no point does the film feel exploitative, a tragedy in which the music is used to underline an abstract pathos. The songs sung by the women of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains are the story here, not the bombs which fall on their land at night.

Life Is Sacred

There are many good documentaries about elections and many other good documentaries about long-gestating political movements. Andreas Dalsgaard has combined the two, a rare achievement perhaps only possible in the context of an equally rare political figure. Antanas Mockus is an academic-turned-politician, a two-term mayor of Bogotá, and a leading candidate in the 2010 Colombian presidential election. A charismatic leader who once mooned a crowd of students and replaced corrupt traffic cops with mimes, he’s now facing an uphill battle against the machine of Colombia’s right-wing political kingpin. It’s not a spoiler to say that he loses.

Yet Dalsgaard keeps things interesting by refusing to go home after the blowout loss in the second round of 2010’s campaign. He sticks around, watching Mockus’s ideas penetrate the political system. Katherin Miranda, a young volunteer coordinator who narrates the first half of the film as an optimistic political neophyte, becomes a leading character in the film’s second act as she enters political life in much more permanent way. Life Is Sacred is a smart juxtaposition of political personalities and the movements which they shape and, in turn, which shape them as well.

No Land’s Song

Iranian composer Sara Najafi is arranging a concert. It isn’t easy. The goal is to feature the female voice, something long restricted by the nation’s religious authorities. The fact that she plans on inviting French and Tunisian singers to participate is even more of a gambit, forcing her into a bureaucratic nightmare that seems impossible to resolve. All of the little details are potentially controversial, from the attire of the singers to the relative volume of their voices. And yet Najafi struggles on. On the way, director Ayat Najafi is able to showcase some truly gorgeous sequences of women musicians rehearsing for a concert that may never happen. It’s sometimes comic and always frustrating, yet tempered by a charming balance of performance footage and logistical agony.

Of Men and War

The recovery of a veteran struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a short one. It is prosaic, lengthy and hard to distill into the brief time of a single documentary. Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War is admirable not simply for its honesty and its willingness to address the harder moments of the lives of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, but also for the way that it moves along the emotional grooves of its subjects’ lives. There is never any simple resolution, even in individual scenes of group therapy or heartfelt family conversations. Rather, this French glimpse into American lives is an uncompromising portrait of the uncomfortable, occasionally brutal persistence of memory. (full review)


One of the most striking hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, (T)error is investigative journalism at its most daring. It’s also a thrillingly edited ride into the world of FBI informants and ill-conceived counter-terrorism efforts within the United States. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe heighten the tension to almost Citizenfour-like heights, while at the same time aiming for a much more ethically complicated representation of its subjects. This isn’t a story of heroes, but rather a piercing look into a much more cowardly underworld of informants and imagined conspiracies. (full review)

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