Since it started over 30 years ago, the Human Rights Watch Festival has long sought to close the gap both geographically and experientially across the globe by presenting films that address culturally specific hardships that could be addressed with common humanity, so when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the flagship festival in New York to shift the festival online, it made more sense than most when the program is being available for anyone in the world, starting today and streaming through June 20th.
Still, the program, which will continue its unique brand of live filmmaker Q & As that will be moderated by human rights advocates sprinkled throughout the week, will hit particularly close to home for Americans for reasons beyond the ability to watch the films in your living room. It speaks volumes that programmers have picked “Belly of the Beast,” Erika Cohn’s follow-up to “The Judge,” her 2017 profile of Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female to preside over a Shari’a family court, to open the festival.
Moving from Palestine to California, the filmmaker follows the case of Kelli Dillon, a recent African-American parolee who has returned to court with the Oakland-based prison advocates Justice Now to raise awareness around a systemic embrace of eugenics as she learned firsthand from receiving a hysterectomy after undergoing treatment for cancer that she was later told she didn’t have. Dillon experienced injustice long before she was sent to the Central California Women’s Facility to serve time for killing the abusive father of her two children in self-defense, but even on the outside, Cohn finds her living with an unfathomable life sentence when she is no longer afforded the opportunity to have more children and the two boys she already has are distant as a result of the 14 years she spent away from them. Even if Cohn didn’t connect the dots between Nazi Germany and California prison system — as it turns out, German doctors flew across the Atlantic to adopt certain techniques from American doctors when it came to eugenics — “Belly of the Beast” is a startling reminder that anyone who says “it could never happen here” is unaware that it already has for American society’s most vulnerable.
If the virtual world held the promise of freeing us from prejudice based on physical appearances, “Coded Bias,” which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, will also have some unfortunate surprises in store as Shalini Kantayya looks at how facial recognition software used by law enforcement is being built with the bugs passed along from its all-too-human programmers, finding a 21st century hero in self-described “poet in code” Joy Buolamwini, an MIT Media Lab researcher who leads the Algorithmic Justice League. Other women not to be reckoned with include Carmen Aristegui, the indefatigable star of Juliana Fanjul’s “Radio Silence” whose crusade to pursue independent journalism in Mexico where she is regularly threatened for exposing corruption is energetically captured, and Máxima Acuña, the refreshingly no-nonsense farmer at the center of Claudia Sparrow’s docudrama “Máxima,” concerning her David-vs-Goliath battle against an American mining company aiming to dislodge her from her home in the Andes Mountains that is thought to sit upon gold, unfolding over the course of seven years in which she learns of the failure at all levels of the government to protect her rights as a landholder against the deep pockets of foreign interests.
Christina Antonakos-Wallace also uses time to expose unfortunate truths that couldn’t be sussed out from a snapshot in “From Here,” which tracks four people who never feel they belong to the country they reside in from 2007 to 2019. Based out of New York and Berlin, the film wouldn’t be all that eventful if it zeroed in on a particular moment when its subjects’ movement is limited by the constant fear that everything could be taken away from them at a moment’s notice since they aren’t recognized as citizens either by the government in the case of Tania, a 27-year-old political science grad who’s been living in the U.S. without citizenship since her family fled Bolivia when she was four, or Akim, a street artist who uses a pseudonym in part to protect his undocumented status, or culturally for Miman, a German of Roma descent, or Sonny, a Sikh living in New York where his turban makes him a target for harassment. However, Antonakos-Wallace’s patience pays off with a compelling look at all the ways in which the arbitrary nature of status shapes and defines the lives of those who are seen as different, from the places that are available for them to live to the types of relationships they feel allowed to engage in.
The Human Rights Watch Festival is also offering a home to two rousing festival hits, David France’s Berlinale Audience Award winner “Welcome to Chechnya” (our review), detailing the development of a life-saving underground operation to smuggle gays and lesbians out of the Republic when their sexuality marks them for death under the barbaric rule of virulent homophobe Ramzan Kadyrov, and the recent Hot Docs smash “The 8th” (our review) Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle’s invigorating look at the transformative campaign to give women the right to choose in Ireland. At a time when one can feel helpless, these films are a testament to what strength of will and a little ingenuity can accomplish, which could describe as well the festival’s closing night selection “Gather,” Sanjay Rawal’s hopeful portrait of Native Americans across the land who have looked to the past to create future sustainability in their food supply, contributing to their self-sufficiency as a whole. In this most unconventional of years where the barriers to access to the Human Rights Watch Fest have been greatly reduced, the organization’s presentation of films that show people taking back their power feels even more within reach.