MENA Highlights: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRW FF) has arrived in London for its latest edition and it will be hosting altogether sixteen thought-provoking and eye-opening documentary films and dramas. As always the festival bravely tackles the very difficult subjects behind the international news headlines and offering a closer and more shrewd examination of the human rights issues that are pertinent to the stories that impact on all of us across the globe.

Running from 9-18 March, the big themes featured in this year's HRW FF include: the global migration and refugee crisis, looking at artists as agitators, censorship and press freedom, radical ideologies as well as the rights of women, children and LGBT communities. In much of the gathered material, credit and attention are also due to the journalists and other individuals who are not just in front of, but also behind, the cameras, as some of them take big personal security risks in order to be able to bring us the tales.

Another important element of the festival is that the screenings are generally accompanied by director talks, question and answer sessions and opening the floor for audience interaction, with the main venues being: the Barbican, Curzon Soho, the Ritzy Brixton and Picturehouse Central. As this year also happens to celebrate the twentieth anniversary, a ‘Special Programme’ series has been added to the mix, bringing four extra events that combine visual media with an in-depth study of filmmaking and human rights which will be led by the experts at HRW and independent others.

Looking through the comprehensive schedule, I offer below a selection of the films and events that pertain to our part of the MENA world. I do, however, highly recommend that you spend some time on the official website to see just how many of the films resonate with everybody’s human rights concerns and that shed light on some of the very dark passages in our collective experience.

The Crossing: First Hand Account Documentary

This has to be my top choice of documentary to view at the festival. It is the true story - documented and evidenced first hand by personal cameras - of a group of Syrian friends and acquaintances who are forced to make a dangerous sea journey from Alexandra, Egypt to get to Italy where they all hope to seek asylum and face an unknown future.

We meet the musician Nabil, the journalist Angela, the IT professional Rami, Alia, the pharmacist Afaf and also her son Mustafa who have all gathered in Cairo, Egypt but find that their visas have all run out and are no longer able to reside nor work there. With the threat of deportation hanging over their heads, they have no other choice but to make the suicidal journey to reach the European shores and pay the hefty sum of €6,000 each for the smugglers.

Following the horrid experience of being at sea for seven days and the miracle that they have survived, their struggles don’t end but just begin, when they are rescued by an oil tanker that delivers them to the Red Cross in Genoa. For each one of them, there is the further cross to bear in the uncertainty of seeking refugee status and also in the facing of life in a state of both physical and psychological exile, being far away from home and all that is familiar.

Showing: 15 March, 2016 at the Ritzy Brixton

Showing: 16 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

Both screening will be followed by a Q+A with the filmmaker George Kurian and HRW directors.

For more information: https://ff.hrw.org/film/crossing?city=London

The Trials of Spring Shorts: Women In Revolutionary Times

These four short documentaries put together are my second pick. Each film looks at the role of Arab women during the revolutionary events that took off circa 2011 and in the aftermath, specifically in the cases of four countries: Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The leading female characters, with feisty bravery and determination, all risked their safety, security and lives because they believed in the active political struggle for freedom and gender emancipation.

In ‘The Brides of Peace’ from Syria, we see the group of young women who went out onto the streets wearing white wedding dresses underneath black abayas to creatively demonstrate against the regime. By taking off the latter in public to reveal their bridal regalia, they end up facing serious consequences and a heavy punishment for their actions by the Assad regime.

In ‘Wake Up Benghazi’ we hear from the family and friends of the late Libyan Salwa Bugaighis, who was a strong human rights lawyer and activist who played a big role during and after the February Revolution in 2011. She also dared to call for the democratic participation of the masses for a new government and was vocal against all forms of terrorism, violence and religious radical elements. She ended up paying the heaviest price possible and was assassinated in cold blood in her hometown of Benghazi.

The third segment is ‘When Is the Time?’ with the focus on the women of Yemen who also demonstrated and led the marches in 2011 and asking for a change to the authoritarian rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. With the narrative spoken by the feminist Belquis Al Lahabi, she tells of how these same women were later forced out by the men and were publicly beaten. Not much has changed for the women in Yemen in the past five years, a country that remains the poorest in the MENA region and with the highest rates of illiteracy and lack of economic resources.

The last short documentary is ‘Our Oath’ that brings the experience of the female medical practitioner in Bahrain who was detained for two months and subjected to torture for treating anti-government protestors. Dr Nada Dhaif couldn’t stand back and not help in the emergencies before her during the very short-lived rebellion. The experience inspired her to create an organisation to help others who are suffering from trauma and offering useful therapeutic methods.

Showing: 11 March, 2016 at the Barbican

The screening will be followed by a discussion with director Gini Reticker, producer Beth Levison and MENA Researcher at HRW Rothna Begum.

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/trials-spring-shorts?city=London

At Home In The World: A Close Look at Refugee Children

Highlighting the impact of the migration and refugee crisis on the children caught up in a sad situation, Andreas Koefoed’s film is a close observation of the young people, as they attend the Red Cross school in Lynge, Denmark; whilst their parents await the outcomes of their asylum seeking claims. At any one time, there are 120 students who are learning Danish and preparing for either the transference to a normal school (if the succeed in getting residency) or the possibility of being deported back to where they came from.

Originating from Syria, Chechnya, Albania and Afghanistan, the psychological impact on the children is evident, with the stresses of their parents’ predicament showing up in their unusual behaviour and in the nightmares where some of them replay the violence of war that they have witnessed or in just recalling the terrible journeys they have had to undertake in order to reach a safety haven. This is my third pick and the last one I had the opportunity to watch in advance of the festival screening.

Showing: 11 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

Showing: 12 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

Both screenings will be followed by a discussion with filmmakers Andreas Koefoed and Duco Tellegen and Children's Rights Division Researcher at HRW Elin Martinez.

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/home-world?city=London

The Idol – A Biopic on Palestinian Pop Star

Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad directs a biographical film about the true rags to riches story of the young Mohammad Assaf. Originally a wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Assaf went on to win the very popular TV talent show ‘Arab Idol’ in 2013.

Inspiring millions with his talent and the story of acquiring fame in difficult circumstances, the director imagines the childhood origins of the star and the experience that changed his life forever. Starring Tawfeek Barhom, the film was partially filmed on location in Gaza, the first feature film to be shot there in decades.

Showing: 13 March, 2016 at the Barbican

Showing: 17 March, 2016 at the Picturehouse Central

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/idol?city=London

If the Dead Could Speak: Special HRW Programme

In August 2013, a military defector with the code name ‘Caesar’ smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria that landed at the HRW offices via the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group. Nine months of research revealed some of the human stories behind the photos, which included images of at least 6,786 people who died in government custody.

This culminated in a HRW report and video in December 2015 that laid out the evidence regarding the authenticity of the photographs, identified several victims and highlighted key causes of death. In this special programme, the HRW video will be featured with an in-depth conversation with Nadim Houry, who is the Deputy Director of the MENA Division at HRW. It will look into the investigative techniques used to assemble the report, the decision-making process around publishing the material, the exposure it garnered and its impact to date.

Event: 15 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/if-dead-could-speak?city=London

A Right to the Image: Special HRW Programme

By examining different bodies of film and photographic work, this panel discussion looks into the notion of 'a right to the image' that can protect the dignity of subjects, as well as the integrity of the journalists, filmmakers, photographers and the researchers who work in certain situations. It shows the political and ethical choices being made when victims of wars and mass violations are depicted in the media and how they are represented sometimes as bodies and not as individuals. The panel will include Charif Kiwan, who is the Co-Founder of the Syrian Abounaddara Collective, Giles Duley (filmmaker, journalist and photographer) and Kim Longinotto (filmmaker).

Event: 16 March, 2016 at the Barbican

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/right-image?city=London

Desperate Journey: Special HRW Programme

This event considers the unfolding migrants situation in multiple countries where HRW researchers - that include photographers and videographers - capture the conditions on the ground and conveying the individual stories behind the crisis. With more 800,000 asylum seekers arriving in Europe by sea last year, 84% were from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, or Iraq—all countries that are going through conflict, widespread violence and insecurity or which have highly repressive governments.

The HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert and photographer Zalmaï will be sharing their insights and images, and discuss how governments can effectively respond to the refugee crisis in line with their legal responsibilities and stated values.

Event: 17 March, 2016 at the Curzon Soho

For more information: http://ff.hrw.org/film/desperate-journey?city=London

For the official festival website: https://ff.hrw.org/london