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Spotlight: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Powerful stories from around the world.

Mar 21, 2016

Over a decade ago two organizations came together because of one idea: that cinema can be an agent of social change. With this unifying desire, the 13-year-long partnership between TIFF and [Human Rights Watch Canada]9 was established. Over the past year Canada and the world paid acute attention to the refugee crisis, to racial inequality, and to conversations around gender, all of which have reached breaking points. The dialogue is happening.

At the dawn of the 13th Human Rights Watch Film Festival (March 30 – April 7) we’re proud to showcase eight films that are crucial to our understanding of the world we live in. Perhaps more importantly, these films are equally concerned with human right violations as they are with humanity's capacity to overcome them.

This year’s festival includes Jacques Audiard’s timely Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, about a former Tamil Tiger and his family’s attempt to integrate into a Parisian suburb where many immigrants struggle. The wounds of the past cannot be forgotten, and they inform Dheepan’s every move. The last 20 minutes is one of the strongest finales I’ve seen on screen in a long time – you literally stop breathing. It triggers questions around an issue many countries are currently facing: can a nation meaningfully integrate its immigrants and refugees?

Michele Mitchell’s The Uncondemned was one of the last films we saw during our programming, and it was barely finished at the time of viewing, but the decision was immediate: we absolutely had to show this film. The film recounts the story of the lawyers and activists who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime (in this case during the Rwandan genocide). The film is about the victims, but it's also about the people who work tirelessly to achieve this type of judicial advancement. This film offers a captivating window into the type of work we rarely get to witness on screen, but which is fundamental for changing the world we live in.

In Almost Holy by Steve Hoover (Blood Brother), the controversial Ukrainian Pastor Mokhendo does everything in his power to get kids off the streets and off drugs. The nighttime scenes where the cameras follow him during “raids” are jaw dropping. The film is extremely raw and alarming, yet Hoover (and exec producer Terrence Malick) create an ultra-polished aura through the very fabric of the film. It’s an incredible cinematic achievement — I haven’t stopped thinking about this film for 6 months.

For some it’s about basic survival while for others it’s about political reform, but every film in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival is ultimately about the establishment of a more livable world for all. Through all the films, there is a lot of light shining through.


I AM SUN MU Directed by Adam Sjöberg MARCH 30 AT 8PM

The figure at the center of this spirited expose never shows his face on camera, and he never reveals his real name. The Pseudonymous Sun Mu, (the alias means “no boundaries”) appears only blurred or in silhouette, and for good reason: since escaping his native North Korea in the 90s, the onetime propaganda artist for the Kim regime now puts a subversive pop-art spin on socialist imagery. Director Adam Sjöberg follows Sun Mu as he prepares for a solo exhibition in China, risking his freedom and safety to expose truth through his art.

THE PEARL BUTTON (EL BOTÓN DE NÁCAR) Directed by Patricio Guzmán MARCH 31 AT 6:30PM

The great Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile, Nostalgia for the Light) presents a lyrical meditation on water and it’s effects on humankind as he chronicles the history of the indigenous peoples of Chilean Patagonia, whose decimation by colonial conquest prefigured the brutality of the Pinochet regime.


The editor of The Sunday Times during the heyday of investigative journalism, Sir Harold Evans spent over a decade fighting for compensation for the victims of thalidomide, a Nazi-developed drug whose postwar exploitation by British drug companies led to tens of thousands of children being born with serious defects.

The April 1st screening will have an onstage intro with Andre Picard, Health Columnist for the Globe and Mail, and Human Rights Watch Disability Rights Division Director Shantha Rau Barriga.

DHEEPAN Directed by Jacques Audiard APRIL 2 AT 7PM

Winner of the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes, this powerful drama from director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust & Bone) follows a former Tamil Tiger soldier as he flees from the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war to begin a new life in a Parisian suburb.

FRACKMAN Directed by Richard Todd APRIL 3 AT 1PM

Once a diesel-chugging homesteader, Dayne Pratzsky became an accidental activist when his determination to protect his property and the local environment from Australia's fracking industry led to him becoming a standard-bearer of grassroots resistance to the multinational energy giants.

THE UNCONDEMNED Directed by Michele Mitchell, Nick Louvel APRIL 5 AT 6:30PM

Both a real-life courtroom thriller and a moving human drama, The Uncondemned tells the gripping story of a group of young international lawyers, activists, and Rwandan women who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime.

Intro and post-screening panel discussion featuring Samer Muscati (HRW Senior Researcher, Women's Rights Division), Sara Darehshori (HRW Senior Counsel, US Program) and Filmmaker Michele Mitchell.

INSIDE THE CHINESE CLOSET Directed by Sophia Luvara APRIL 6 AT 6:30PM

Touching and troubling in equal measure, Inside the Chinese Closet explores the world of Shanghai's "fake-marriage fairs," where gay men and lesbian women meet to strike matrimonial deals with members of the opposite sex in order to satisfy social and familial expectations.

This screening will have an intro with Helen Kennedy, Executive Director, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.

ALMOST HOLY Directed by Steve Hoover APRIL 7 AT 7:30PM

Gennadiy Mokhnenko has won accolades for his work rescuing abused, drug- and alcohol-addicted kids from the streets of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, but his methods — including abduction and de facto imprisonment — have made him a figure of much controversy.

The Thursday, April 7th screening will have an Intro & Q&A with Director Steve Hoover & Zama Coursen-Neff, Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Director.

The 13th Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs March 30 to April 7, only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Get your tickets now.