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The Urgent 16: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015

The 2015 film festival brings us unknown stories from all over the world pointing to issues concerning violations of human rights.
Ana Sturm
The world is upside down, or as David Lynch puts it: "The world is wild at heart and weird on top." The countries that are peace keepers are also the biggest manufacturers of weapons and the most profitable industries are the ones that are destroying this planet. One percent of the population owns more than the other ninety-nine together. Our system is fundamentally unjust. That is a fact and many of today's urgent problems are obliging us to examine the very framework of our society.
When you scroll through the programme of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF), you cannot but notice that most of the 16 films, except for John Stewart's directing debut Rosewater, a film about the life of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, are documentaries. They are bringing us unknown stories from all over the world and they point to issues concerning violations of human rights. They also make us question our points of view and encourage us to explore and understand the way reality shifts.
Documentary filmmakers have become very vital contributors to our collective understanding of the world. The information we are served every day is mostly told by monolithic mass media monsters from outer space, with which none of us really has anything in common. Traditional media is backing away from investigative reporting, leaving behind audiences that seem to be hungry for more complex reflections of the world. Documentaries are patching up this gap by bringing us news and stories to which we just don't have access anymore.
It feels quite appropriate for the HRWFF to open with a new film from The Yes Men duo, the notoriously shameless activists who fight injustice and big corporations with humor, white lies and intellectual resourcefulness. The Yes Men Are Revolting, their third, and best, film in a trilogy which also includes The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), deals with their latest interventions, mostly focused on climate change issues, as well as with the question of why and how one sustains a life of activism.
The Yes Men, a.k.a. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, for the last 20 years have been staging outrageous and hilarious hoaxes to draw international attention to crimes against humanity and the environment. Despite their mid-life crises that seem to be threatening to drive them out of activism, they are still vitally demonstrating the idea that well-pointed humor is one of the best weapons of choice in the armory of the activist in the 21st century. The target simply has no way out, when attacked with an arsenal of good jokes. Humor also reduces the fear and boosts the confidence of the activists.
The other great weapon in the armory of the activist in the 21st century besides the humor is, of course, art. Richard Attenborough puts this statement into words really beautifully:
"The arts not only enrich our lives, but also grant us the opportunity to challenge accepted practices and assumptions. They give us a means of protest against that which we believe to be unjust; a voice to condemn the brute and the bully; a brief to advocate the cause of human dignity and self-respect; a rich and varied language through which we can express our national identity."
In The Dream of Shahrazad filmmaker Francois Verster observes and explores how art, especially music and storytelling, can be used as means of expression for people who want to participate in political change. The documentary, shot before, during, and after the Arab Spring, slowly uncovers a handful of beautiful stories that hide the truth behind countless colorful veils. The fever and phosphenes of Arabian nights tangles different realities in one complex story. Sonorous Korsakov music, bits and pieces from animated films, revealing personal stories, brutal reality of the streets and revolutionary politics all strive towards the same dream. Two years later, the Arab Spring seems like a forgotten fantasy, but the future will, hopefully, bring new stories to tell.
One of the stories from the Arab world that would definitely keep Sultan Shahriyar from The 1001 Nights up all night comes from Beit Sahour. In the 1980s, as part of the Palestinian boycott of Israeli taxation and commodities, residents purchased some cows and learnt dairy farming. The farm was such a success that it was declared a “threat to the national security of the state of Israel.” The Israel Defence Force (IDF) organised an absurd military operation, which included two helicopters. When you try to imagine the IDF running around Beit Sahour with pictures of cows in their hands, some of the best Monty Python sketches come to mind.
Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan (what an appropriate name!) joined forces and tried to capture the spirit of this utterly crazy story in the eclectic documentary hybrid The Wanted 18. Although the story itself makes for very strong material—it's symbolic and impossible not to read as a microcosmic reflection of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the film uses several different ways of telling it by combining light and charming interviews with those involved in the true events, archival footage, Shomali's drawings, black-and-white stop-motion animation as well as re-enactments. The problem is that all these pieces don't always fit.
We can see some great filmmaking in Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Antonov. The Sudanese filmmaker gives us an unusual perspective on the everyday realities of a divided Sudan, a county in constant war and violation of human rights. While music is the main feature of the film, the heart of the story lies in the resilience of oppressed communities. The film manages to reverse conventional Western representations of Africa and reveals an alternative narrative of perseverance. Kuka manages to capture the dignity, intelligence and joy of his subjects. It's quite refreshing to see people who lost homes, their livelihood and nearly everything else not as poor, helpless victims, with big sad eyes and dirty faces, but as empowered and intelligent people, celebrating their diverse music heritage, thinking and talking about their culture and history.
Enfant terrible of Swiss documentary Fernand Melgar takes somewhat different and slightly provoking approach towards his film subjects. The main protagonists of The Shelter are social outcasts and “second class” citizens, tired and desperate immigrants and homeless job-seekers who came to Switzerland from the most deprived corners of the globe. Every day they wait before the doors of the shelter for a bed and some food. Melgar watches them from the distance and deliberately doesn’t give them an active voice in his film. They are there, behind the looking glass, and we are on the other side, watching from our comfortable and warm homes, pretending that the problem doesn’t exist.
They came to Switzerland, the cradle of human rights—or, as one of the protagonists calls it, "the land of the Rolex"—for a better life, but they ended up on the streets. Lonely, jobless, homeless, unnoticed and forgotten, except maybe from the police.  With his approach, Melgar confronts us with this image of defeat. He seems to be saying that we don't act like humans anymore. In this way, the film somewhat mirrors the way we treat and (do not) notice the problem that literally knocks on our doors. Rather, we hide ourselves behind senseless bureaucratic proceedings and walls that we think will protect us. But we are not the ones who must be protected. They are.
When you are out on the street and with no place to go, you can yell: “The whole damn system is wrong!” as much as you like, but if you don't have the right papers, you just might freeze to death in the cold of the night on the bench in one of the idyllic Swiss villages. Although—and precisely because—Melgar shows us our society in an unpleasantly distorted mirror, we should all go out and yell "The whole damn system is wrong!" There are a lot of people who care. People who are angry. People who understand. People that feel, laugh and cry. People with courage. People that act. I know them. You know them. Your friends knows them. And we can see many of truly inspiring people who are saving lives and making changes in the films that are screening at the festival. And yes, these people and these films can change the way we think about the world, and they can make us more involved in socio-political actions.
The preamble of the UNESCO Constitution says: "Wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed." We are the ones that have to decide what kind of world we want to live in and we must decide about the things that matter based more on morality and less on different interests. And how do we do that? By simply doing the best we can with what we have. Do you need proof? At the beginning of March my country, Slovenia, became the 21st country that granted marriage equality to all citizens. Hurray for that!


Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015Human Rights Watch Film FestivalFestivalsFrancois VersterThe Yes MenAndy BichlbaumMike BonnanoPaul CowanAmer ShomaliHajooj KukaFernand Melgar
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