The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, now in its 27th year in London, presents a lineup of 10 award-winning, international documentary films in partnership with Barbican Cinema, and generously supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
The festival program, presented in person at the Barbican from March 16-24, includes in-depth Q&As and panel discussions with filmmakers, film participants, activists, and Human Rights Watch researchers following all screenings. The films will also be available to catch up digitally across the UK and Ireland on the festival website from March 20-26. Tickets go on sale to Barbican and Human Rights Watch members on February 15 and to the public on February 16.
This year’s edition covers a broad range of themes and topics, but it is the determination and courage of individuals to stand up for their freedom and rights that shines through. John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, said:
We are very happy to present our full program of 10 powerful, important films and conversations in person at the Barbican. This year our program spotlights the risks taken by land defenders, the legacy and continuation of colonialism, the fight for people to make their own decisions about their bodies and actions, structural discrimination, and the impact of war on people’s day-to-day lives. It’s also important to both the festival and the Barbican that our program is accessible to all, and we’re delighted that the majority of our program will be audio described and presented with captions for attendees who are D/Deaf and hard of hearing.
Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said:
Human Rights Watch Film Festival inspires us to celebrate the courage of individuals who stand up for their freedom and rights. Players of People’s Postcode Lottery have raised over £1 billion to support good causes and charities across Great Britain. This includes Human Rights Watch work in supporting marginalized voices, giving them a platform to tell their stories, raise awareness on key human rights issues, and encouraging justice and equality.
Jonathan Gleneadie, acting head of Barbican Cinema, said:
We are proud to once again host the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and this selection of compelling and significant films highlighting the resolve of so many brave individuals in the face of discrimination and oppression. It is notable that we are able to work closely with the festival to ensure that the majority of screenings and conversations are accessible to all, including two screenings of ‘I Didn’t See You There’ in a relaxed environment for the first time with the festival. We look forward to welcoming festival filmmakers, participants, and all audiences to our cinemas for in-depth and inspiring screenings conversations with human rights experts.
The festival opens with the timely film Delikado (London Premiere) which follows three environmental defenders who are risking their lives to stop corporations and governments seeking to steal the increasingly valuable natural resources of their home, Palawan, an island in the Philippines. With its rich biodiversity and natural beauty, Palawan is one of Asia’s most visited tourist destinations, but for a small network of environmental crusaders, it is more akin to a battlefield. The battles fought by these climate activists are shared by allies worldwide, but the abusive regime of former President Rodrigo Duterte adds urgency to this deepening human rights crisis. The filmmaker and journalist Karl Malakunas, who has been based in Asia for two decades, will attend the festival.
The ongoing reverberations of colonialism take center stage in two festival titles.
The festival’s Closing Night film Theatre of Violence (UK Premiere) raises complex questions about new forms of colonialism and definitions of justice in the landmark International Criminal Court trial of Daniel Ongwen. A former Ugandan child soldier, Ongwen was just 9 years old when he was abducted – as were an estimated more than 20,000 other children – by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Intimidated and indoctrinated, he quickly learned to kill or be killed. In the unfolding debate his defense lawyer, Krispus Ayena, grapples with questions of accountability when someone is both victim and perpetrator, and the underlying issue of what justice looks like when being conducted in an international court, far away from key cultural and historical context. The filmmakers Lukasz Konopa and Emily Langballe will attend the festival.
In his debut documentary No U-Turn (London Premiere) the celebrated filmmaker Ike Nnaebue takes viewers on a journey with fellow Nigerian citizens leaving their country, traveling north through Africa and beyond, in search of work and the opportunity to build a future in Europe, despite the known and unknown challenges lying ahead. As he retraces his own stalled journey, made over 20 years ago, this self-reflective travelogue is overlaid with a powerful poetic commentary and insight into the impact of a colonial past, to unpack the deep longing of an entire generation in search of opportunities.
Body autonomy and personal autonomy, and the impact on mental and physical well-being is the focus of four films in this year’s program.
Written and directed by a former Olympian, Phyllis Ellis, Category: Woman (European Premiere) focuses on four women athletes from the Global South who are targeted and forced out of competition by regulations imposed by World Athletes, stirring relentless debates on their “legitimacy” as athletes and as women. Using women’s naturally varying androgen levels to evaluate their performance advantages, the sporting institution creates new rules, declaring that certain female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies to compete in their sport. The film exposes an industry that puts women’s lives at risk, and raises issues of racism, sexism, and the right to determine another persons’ biological sex.
As a person with a disability navigating the world from a wheelchair, the filmmaker Reid Davenport is often either the subject of unwanted gaze – gawked at by strangers – or paradoxically left invisible, ignored, or dismissed by society. In I Didn’t See You There (London Premiere), Davenport sets out to make a film about how he sees the world without having to be seen himself, capturing indelible images informed by his disability. This is a personal, political, and unflinching account,offering a perspective and stylistic approach rarely seen in film. I Didn’t See You There will have two Relaxed Screenings at the festival, which are open to all audience members.
With candor, humor, and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos, and build a road to individual and collective healing in Koromousso, Big Sister (European Premiere). Working with co-director Jim Donovan, Habibata Ouarme combines her own experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) with personal accounts from some of her friends, to begin a journey of personal discovery, with discussions on the importance of female pleasure and the complexity of the female anatomy while working to shed long-held feelings of shame and loneliness. While finding strength and joy in their own frank and intimate conversations together, Habibata and her friends continue to advocate for wider access to restorative surgery and facilitate community conversations in Canada and worldwide.
Seven Winters in Tehran (UK Premiere), directed by Steffi Niederzoll, unpacks the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a young Iranian woman who became a symbol of resistance and women’s rights worldwide. In 2007, Reyhaneh, 19, is sentenced to death in Iran for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. Using secretly recorded videos provided by her family, their testimony, and the beautiful, lyrical letters she wrote from prison, voiced by Holy Spider actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Seven Winters in Tehran opens a window into the many ways women are oppressed and silenced in Iran, and the immense risks taken by those who defend and support them.
Structural discrimination is the focus of two films in the program.
If The Streets Were On Fire introduces BikeStormz, a movement of young cyclists that attempts to offer a safe and welcoming space for youth in London. Starting as a protest against violent crime with the slogan “knives down, bikes up,” BikeStormz, founded by a social activist, Mac Ferrari-Guy, has grown into a movement and safe space for young people around London to freely express themselves. The filmmaker Alice Russell beautifully captures groups of young people as they glide through the city, doing wheelies, tricks, and acrobatics and cheering each other on as they travel through the postcode-neutral space of central London. Yet as they come together and find liberation through cycling, they are threatened with arrest and accused of anti-social behavior.
Marek Kozakiewicz’s Silent Love (UK Premiere) is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story about embracing new roles and redefining old ones. Aga, 35, is legally adopting her teenage brother, Milosz, after their mother’s death, a process that probes into her life choices. However, there’s something she can’t share in their conservative Polish village: her long-term relationship with her girlfriend, Maja. Aga has always hidden her relationship from friends and family and must continue to hide it from the social workers for fear of losing her case for Milosz. Silent Love delicately captures this trio’s discreet struggle as they begin to live as a family, against the prejudices of an ultra-conservative and viscerally homophobic society. Copresented with BFI FLARE: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival.
The impact of war on the day-to-day lives of citizens of a small town in Ukraine is profiled in When Spring Came to Bucha (UK Premiere), which poignantly captures how a small community continues with life amid trauma and loss while war rages on close by. After a month of intense fighting, the Russian army withdrew, leaving the town destroyed in its wake. Yet amid suffering, a young couple gets married, and life must go on. This heart-rending yet empowering documentary tells stories of loss, hope, and resistance as the spring flowers of Bucha begin to bloom.
As always, the festival strives to prioritize space for identities, viewpoints, forms of expertise, and experiences either silenced or marginalized in the film industry, news, and media. The festival is also committed to expanding opportunities for audience members to enjoy the events together and is working to create features that more people can access, including people who are blind or have visual disabilities and those who are D/deaf or hard of hearing. The majority of the festival films this year will be audio described and play with captions, with live transcription for the conversations to follow. See the website for accessibility specifications for each film in the lineup.
Details about the screenings and discussions can be found at ff.hrw.org/london