Human Rights Watch Film Festival looks at injustice through film

February 20, 2014


Movies are instant. They happen quickly and they feel immersive. Talking about human rights, meanwhile, can be heavy and draining. When the two were combined, something bigger happened.

The Human Rights Watch film festival will appear in 17 cities around the world. It joins us in D.C. this week until Mar. 12 and professes to “empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.” These may sound like the tropes on a brochure, but the Human Rights Watch team has selected an array of probing films that cut through the clichés. Films were chosen “equally on artistic merit and human rights content,” providing a palatable array of distractions on Wednesday nights.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 26, Camp 14 – Total Control Zone brings Shin Dong-Huyk’s story of internment since birth in a North Korean prison camp. Shin’s story is told using animation and footage compiled by filmmaker Mark Wiese, who has an with an eye for the compelling and the human. Shin’s story is a difficult one, but the production is not a cheap attempt to garner sympathy. Rather, it shows his life after prison camp and how it led him to become a “human rights celebrity,” as Human Rights Watch calls him. While dealing with the residual pain from years of suffering and violence, Shin must acclimate to his new role and the challenges it presents.

Camp 14 offers a valuable critique of the outside world’s response to victims of human rights violations. Most compelling are the interspersed stories of a former camp guard and a member of the North Korean secret police. Wiese’s documentary is a well-rounded production that goes beyond Shin’s boyhood pain and paints a holistic picture of the lives so deeply affected by crimes against humanity—a story that is rarely heard on an individual level.

In a separate film, Human Rights Watch gives a pointed and painful analysis of the deficit of care for men and women in small southern towns: “The South is home to nearly half of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States, and has death rates from AIDS that are much higher than the national average. Human Rights Watch has documented the harmful and misguided laws and policies that, in many southern states, fuel the epidemic: ineffective abstinence-only sex education, criminalizing HIV exposure, and failing to protect people living with HIV and LGBT individuals from discrimination.”

On Mar. 5 at 7 p.m., the film festival will address these domestic infringements on human rights head on. deepsouth is a documentary that humanizes these trends in beautiful and heartbreaking detail. Filmmaker Lisa Biaggiotti will be holding a question and answer session after the screening. Audiences might be interested in finding out from the movie—and from her—if there is hope for change. Having the film presented so close to the White House, it may be worth to finding out if Biaggiotti thinks that any solutions will come there. People, themselves, are often neglected in the race to affect the world.

But with good intentions and great execution, the last movie in the series turns our attention to a small Bedouin village in Jordan, close to the Iraqi border. Filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief followed impoverished village Rafea on her journey to a six month program in solar engineering under the auspices of a scholarship program called the Barefoot College in India. When she returns from the experience envigorated and eager to affect her village, Rafea faces pushback from the patriarchal structure of village life. She calls on the women of the village to join her in implementing a solar program there.

I look forward to the beautiful cinematography that will elucidate a personal struggle in the face of invisible walls, ceilings, and fences. Human Rights Watch says “For women, upon whose shoulders the burden of upholding cultural norms and values often falls, traditional values are often a tool that curtails their human rights.” The struggle for gender equality is pervasive, but it most evident in small, traditional, insular cultures, whether in Jordan or Alabama. Mona Eldaief will be present to host a question and answer session after the showing.

All the films will be shown at the West End Cinema, located at 2301 M St., just across the Potomac River Parkway at $9 for students. West End Cinema features documentaries and indie films year round in a delightful atmosphere. Plus, their tagline holds true for this series of pictures: “all stories told here.”


Human Rights Watch Film Festival

West End Cinema

2301 M Street N.W.

February 12–March 12


Read More

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments