New York's Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015

There is no medium stronger than cinema to initiate change. And these stories are proof enough that there is still hope.
Monty Majeed

When she decided to start an all-girls school in a remote village in Afghanistan, a few elders came to Razia Jan asking her to start a boys school instead. "Don't you know that boys are the backbone of Afghanistan?" they asked her. "Well, girls are the eyes of this country, and till they are educated you will all be blind," she retorted. Beth Murphy's What Tomorrow Brings is not just about Razia, the courageous woman who stood up against the men in her village to ensure that every girl gets an education. It is about the young women of Afghanistan, who seek refuge from the imprisonment of their own religion and the highly patriarchal society. After the Taliban's ban on girls education, the village wakes up to heart-wrenching radio bulletins about grenade and poison attacks at other schools in and around Afghanistan. Here, going to school is in itself a huge risk. The girls need to cover their faces, curtain the windows and keep their voices low if they want to study. They all dream of a life outside their village and are aware that their school alone holds the key to their escape.  

The plight of these girls might come as a surprise to many of us who live in far more liberal countries of the world. We take a lot of things for granted because we have never been denied anything; we have never had to fight for our basic rights. It is then that stark portraits like these jolt us back to get a taste of the harsh realities that people in other parts of the world have to endure every single day of their lives. The line-up at New York's Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015, however, not only includes stories of curbed freedoms and denied rights, but also of individuals and communities that have risen above it all and put their lives on the line for a larger cause. 

An emphasis on the female voice, both literally and metaphorically, can be felt throughout the festival programme. Ayat Najafi's Nestor Almendros Award-winning documentary No Land's Song follows the filmmaker's sister, Sara, a composer, who is on a mission to make the female voice heard in Iran. With the dream of hosting a live concert of female soloists, Sara runs from pillar to post seeking permission from authorities. The free-flowing, powerful and soul-stirring voices of the women singers underline the narrative that follows Sara's journey through despair and helplessness, ending in a sense of victory and hope. 

Being a Muslim woman, I could identify with the many ridiculous arguments that religious scholars raised against the female voice in Najafi's film. There was a sense of déjà vu while the scholar tells Sara that men are easily swayed, which is why it is the woman's responsibility to stay under the veil. As women, we were always taught to lower our gazes, to laugh silently and to never 'provoke' a man's sexual feelings. "Music and movies are works of the djinn," we were reminded. The pursuit of creativity or artistic talent in public was and continues to be reserved only for men. Najafi cleverly juxtaposes the old Iran with its thriving night clubs and fearless singers to the present day situation where women are allowed to sing only in groups (to neutralise the sexual air their music might let out) and only if they do not move to the tunes of their songs. He also captures the first world's bewilderment on facing such restrictive social rules through the experience of a group of French artists whom Sara invites to perform with her. 

While Sara succeeds in bringing out the female voice in Iran, which was repressed since the Islamic revolution of 1979, not far away from home the voices of many strong women were being pushed under the carpet. In The Trials Of Spring, a multimedia project consisting of six short docs and a feature documentary, we are introduced to some unreported stories of women who led the Arab Spring in 2011. From countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya, these women were firebrands who took to the streets demanding their rights. As men took over and became the face of the revolution, these courageous women and their efforts were swept away and largely forgotten by the world media. Some of them had to flee their countries, a few continue their battles for both human and women's rights, while some others, like braveheart Libyan social worker Salwa Bugaighis, were brutally silenced by bullets. These stories make us introspect on what the word 'revolution' really means. What are we fighting for? Did the Arab Spring really bring in new life and hope or did it just shift power from the hands of a dictator to another oppressor? 

One of the must-watch films in the festival's line-up this time is the award-winning documentary (T)ERROR. Following an on-ground FBI counterterrorism sting, the controversial film portrays the inherent paranoia and the irrational phobia that modern America harbours for bearded men. Filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe follow FBI informant Shariff on his mission to befriend a suspected terrorist. What starts out as an espionage thriller takes an unexpected turn when the suspect realises that he is being shadowed and ends up opening a can of worms about the ways in which the country's security agencies work. In a society that breeds fear and turns its undoubting citizens against each other, is there a leeway for justice to prevail? True to Godard's words that all good documentaries tend towards fiction, (T)ERROR brings to us the unbelievable story of a few individuals who get trapped in the system, only because of the colour of their skins and the length of their beards.

Equally terrorising is Joey Boink's aptly titled film Burden of Peace, which follows Guatemala's first female attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz during her 4-year-tenure. The film documents her efforts to uphold human rights in this lawless land. People speak about violence matter-of-factly because at least 20 human lives are taken on any given day in this country. In a chilling scene, two men explain to the filmmaker how they had found bodies with severed heads and cut-open stomachs on their way to work. On being asked what they did upon seeing the bodies, they just shrug it off saying, "We just went to the farm to work!" As Paz y Paz takes charge of the city, she doesn't limit her fight for justice to present-day crimes. She manages to bring to book the former head of state, who had devised one of the most ruthless ethnic genocides that the country had witnessed. 

As the citizens who survived the genocide recounted their horrendous experiences in court, it reminded me of a similar massacre my own country witnessed in 2002. Fighting back her tears, a woman tells the court how her pregnant friend's womb was ripped open and the baby thrown into a blazing fire. In the Godhra riots that happened in the Indian state of Gujarat, it was a trident that took the baby's life, thus proving beyond doubt that stories of terror and inhumanity around the world follow the same script. Those deemed responsible for this massacre roam freely in our country, some of them even run the government, just like in Guatemala. In Paz y Paz's case, the elite and the corrupt try to silence her. But even after facing what might seem to some as a defeat and being stripped off her official powers, Claudia keeps the hope alive. She strongly believes that a happy ending is waiting for her at some other turn.

Each of the 17 films in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival surprises us, scares us, angers us, moves us and makes us think. There is no medium stronger than cinema to initiate change. And these stories are proof enough that there is still hope. Festivals like these drive home the futility of this generation's armchair activism. The world doesn't need 'likes' and 'shares,' but real people who are courageous enough to raise their voices. Against injustice, oppression and abuse. As Obama puts it: "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." 

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Human Rights Watch Film FestivalHuman Rights Watch Film Festival 2015New YorkAyat NajafiBeth MurphyLyric CabralDavid SutcliffeJoey BoinkFestival Coverage
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