Human Rights Watch proudly presents the 26th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from 17-25 March, in partnership with Barbican Cinema, and generously supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Ten compelling new films from around the world are presented at this year’s festival, including three screenings at the Barbican in London with live, digital Q&A’s — Opening Night, Centrepiece, and Closing Night. The festival will stream a full digital edition across the UK and Ireland, with pre- recorded in-depth talks with filmmakers, film participants, activists, and Human Rights Watch advocates.
The filmmakers at this year’s festival foreground issues around freedom of choice, cultural expression, and family trauma, showing individuals and communities standing in solidarity to create change and amplify marginalised voices. Even during the global pandemic, communities are coming together and making a difference —from journalists in Myanmar, Latinx community members in Texas, and young girls in Bangladesh, to judges in Poland and asylum seekers in the UK.
The Opening Night film is the world premiere of Silence Heard Loud, which poetically weaves the intersecting first-person stories of seven asylum seekers in the UK, fighting to preserve their dreams and dignity as they navigate the British immigration system. The artist-filmmaker Anna Konik first met her protagonists, Angela, Janahan, Merwa, Michael, Mohamed, Nirmala and Selamawit in 2018, while she was running an art workshop, organised by Compass Project, which enables refugees seeking asylum in the UK to study at Birkbeck University. They had fled war, terrorism, ethnic hatred, persecution and domestic violence. It seems that they have achieved their goals and may now start a new life in Europe. But she raises the issue of whether this is really the end of their problems and the beginning of a new, better life.
The inspirational Closing Night film, award-winning Bangla Surf Girls, is the coming-of-age documentary about three teenage girls, Shobe, Aisha and Suma, who join a local surf club in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and fight to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to chase their dream of becoming Bangladesh’s first women surfers to compete internationally. This intimate and collaborative debut film by a Bangladeshi filmmaker Elizabeth D. Costa, produced and written by Lalita Krishna, was made possible through the deep trust gained by the filmmaker with the girls and their families, and reveals how local solutions have wide-reaching impact.
“We are living through unprecedented times, and the films in this year’s line-up speak directly to many issues we currently face,” said John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “We are very proud of this year’s film and discussion programme, which highlights the ability to create change through courageous individuals on both sides of the lens, and to experience what happens when, little by little, solidarity turns into a resounding voice that the powers that be can’t ignore. We look forward to welcoming audiences back into the Barbican’s beautiful Cinema 1 and to inviting mainland UK and Irish audiences to our digital screenings and conversations.”
Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery said: “Film is an incredibly powerful medium for raising awareness and engaging people on some of today’s most pressing human rights issues. I’m pleased that players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting Human Rights Watch’s UK Film Festival and look forward to seeing what the festival has on offer.”
Gali Gold, head of Barbican Cinema, said: “It’s a privilege for Barbican Cinema to co-present this year’s edition, and the line-up of these 10 powerful films, which bring to the fore vital human rights issues. I am particularly thrilled to welcome the festival and its audience back to Cinema 1 for the Opening, Closing and Centrepiece screenings with three important and strong titles, Silence Heard Loud, Boycott, and Bangla Surf Girls and to take part in the live on-line, discussions, which we will beam into the cinema.”
Freedom of expression and threats to democracy are the focus of five films in the programme.
In Boycott, the Centrepiece presentation of this year’s festival, the veteran filmmaker Julia Bacha (Naila and the Uprising; Budrus) pulls back the curtain on the architects of anti-boycott laws in 33 states of the US that are designed to curtail freedom of speech and penalise individuals undertaking boycotts to create social change. As the wave of anti-boycott legislation has swept through the US, so has a counter-wave in defence of freedom of speech. Boycott focuses on the personal stories and legal battles of everyday Americans – Alan Leveritt, a newspaper publisher in Arkansas, Mikkel Jordahl, an attorney in Arizona, and Bahia Amawi, a childhood speech therapist in the Texas public school system – who are challenging these laws.
Directed by Petr Lom, a group of anonymous filmmakers, the “Myanmar Film Collective,” present the visceral hybrid film Myanmar Diaries, which intimately reveals what life is like inside their country after the military overthrew the civilian government just over a year ago. Short, creative vignettes made by 10 young anonymous filmmakers, combine artistically with harrowing citizen journalism, to show how Myanmar went from the military coup to nationwide protests and civil disobedience, to barbaric repression.
The festival is delighted to announce that Myanmar Diaries is awarded the inaugural Tony Elliott Impact Award, supported by Time Out. The award, in honour of the magazine’s founder Tony Elliott, a committed human rights advocate and champion of emerging film talent, will give financial support to the filmmakers, and additional promotional support to help amplify the film’s future international distribution. Myanmar Diaries was unanimously selected by Rufus Elliott; the film critic Anna Smith and the Time Out Global Film Editor Phil de Semlyen for its nail-biting storytelling, guerrilla inventiveness, raw courage, and filmmaking craft.
Through insightful interviews and beautiful animated sequences, Jason Loftus’ immersive documentary Eternal Spring reveals the persecution of religious movements, and political dissent by the Chinese government. Stunning animation of drawings by the comic book artist Daxiong (Justice Laws, Star Wars) graphically reveal his personal memories and experiences, following a bold and perilous hack into state television by a group of Chinese activists.
Judges Under Pressure directed by Kacper Lisowski, written and produced by Iwona Harris, provides a clarion call to the growing vulnerability of judicial independence through the stories of several Polish judges under threat of being fired or arrested by Poland’s right-wing ruling party. One of these judges is Igor Tuleya, who withstands pressure and issues verdicts that are unfavourable to those in power. The film shows the consequences of his uncompromising stance, how political pressure affects his life, and the remarkable solidarity shown to him by other judges and citizens.
As millions of Americans stand to lose their access to abortion, communities of colour and low- income communities will be most impacted. Maya Cueva and Leah Galant’s On The Divide chronicles three people with diverse perspectives who are connected to the only remaining abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas along the US-Mexico border, which has become a battleground for reproductive rights.
The impact of trauma on families, and the importance of cultural connection are explored in three films in the festival.
In Jana Matthes and Andrea Schramm’s Tacheles – The Heart of the Matter, Yaar, a young Jewish Berliner, attempts to process and overcome intergenerational trauma by developing a video game set in 1940’s Germany based on his grandmother’s experience, where he enables Jews to defend themselves and Nazis to act humanely. Yaar’s father is shocked, and the work opens old family wounds left unaddressed for generations. Yaar must find his way between the trauma of preceding generations, and his own claim to an unburdened life.
In the emotionally resonant Daughter of a Lost Bird, made over a seven-year period by Brooke Pepion Swaney, viewers meet Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, who was adopted into a white family as a child, as she finds her birth mother and discovers her Native American identity and the purposeful erasure of cultural identity for Native communities in the United States. In many ways, Kendra Potter is a perfect example of cultural assimilation. She grew up in a loving, upper middle-class family, and feels no loss with the absence of Native American culture in her family or life. And yet as a Blackfeet/Salish woman, and Kendra’s friend, Swaney, the director, could not imagine that Kendra could be content or complete without understanding her Lummi heritage.
Cultural and intergenerational trauma erupt in Dina Amer’s extraordinary directorial debut, You Resemble Me, an intimate drama about the complex life of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a refugee and survivor of abuse in France who, after the November 2015 Paris bombings, was inaccurately labelled “Europe’s first female suicide bomber.” With executive producers Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Alma Har’el and Riz Ahmed, Dina Amer’s provocative film explores the unexamined roots of trauma and the devastating decision that one woman made in the name of belonging.
All 10 festival films are available to stream throughout the festival dates. In-person and online audiences will be able to participate in the live-captioned Q&A discussions for the Opening, Closing and Centrepiece screenings at the times detailed below. Pre-recorded film talks will be available for the digital-only programme throughout the festival. Details about the screenings and discussions can be found at https://ff.hrw.org/london