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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 – by Anne Brodie


Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto

Magali Simard, Film Programmes Manager & Programmer at TIFF

TIFF Bell Lightbox March 30 – April 7

I Am Sun Mu, Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime, The Pearl Button, Dheepan, Inside The Chinese Closet, Frackman, The Uncondemned, Almost Holy

“Human rights violations thrive in darkness and secrecy,” says Helga Stephenson, Chair of the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “This festival raises awareness, advances understanding and shines a vital light on the powerful stories from around the world that need our attention.”

Eight films about China, Chile, the United Kingdom, South Korea, France, Australia, the United States, Ukraine and the Netherlands are on offer for the thirteenth annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival at TIFF.  These are films about us, the world’s citizens, our failures and triumphs in the ways we treat one another around at home and abroad.

From drug dens in the Ukraine to closeted LGBTQ Koreans, and Nazi atrocities to disappearing indigenous peoples, this year’s slate highlights wrongs in our world.  And there’s a lot of it.  But the festival shows us a lot is right.  The films draw attention to issues that require the world’s attention, and celebrate the fighting spirit of activists and filmmakers and the efforts they in turn may inspire.  Knowledge is power.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is one of TIFF’s most important initiatives.  Besides shining light into the darkness, it asks us to witness to rights violations of all sorts and be a force for good. They help us discover our compassion and develop an educated response to what’s going on “out there”. 

Each film will be introduced and discussed by filmmakers, Human Right Watch researchers or subject experts. Some of the films are hard to watch, but worth the effort. It’s good to know.  We spoke with Magali Simard, TIFF programmer, about this year’s lineup.

Q: Thirteen years of unveiling crimes against humanity – that’s an important accomplishment. I truly admire these filmmakers because I’m sure there is no money in this, and it is often dangerous work.  What gives them the courage to go out there?

A: I admire them too. Filmmakers like Steve Hoover (Almost Holy), Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel (The Uncondemned) and Richard Todd (Frackman), not only take risks and put themselves out there, they also keep the focus on the people affected and on the agents of change: The activists, the lawyers, the journalists. They want to show audiences where and how the system fails. And needless to say, the system seems to fail more often than not.

Q: What are the criteria for films being considered for the festival? 

A: They have to be relevant, quality films that are rigorous exposés of human rights violations. The Human Rights Watch organization researches and vets all the selected films to ensure the accuracy of their content.

Q: Is it hard to watch the films considering their subject matter and the powerful storytelling?

A: It’s mostly enlightening. Some of the most successful films are not hammer-on-the-head heavy, and they certainly are not dogmatic. They breathe and allow the audience to think for themselves. A film like Inside the Chinese Closet, about gay people having to go into fake straight marriages, is able to be upbeat and hopeful despite the situation being sad and absurd.

Q: Have you any knowledge of films screened here that inspired concrete change?

A: Yes, the film Frackman. Filmmaker Richard Todd is bringing one of the world’s greatest grassroots anti-fracking activists, Dayne Pratzky, onto the global stage. Pratzky’s work is showing politicians, and the world, the effects on the very lives of people living near fracking sites: Natural water streams turning into gas (watching a river catch on fire is quite something), people developing daily migraines and nausea, and the list goes on. Screening this film for audiences raises Pratzky’s profile and draws worldwide attention to the cause in Australia. For the public to become familiar with the actions taken overseas allows progress on this issue to feel attainable here in Canada too and in other parts of the world where fracking is taking place. Access to information leads to action, and that’s a big part of what these films bring to the table.

Q: It’s tough for filmgoers to watch the films sometimes, but it’s essential viewing.  Any guidance for newcomers?

A: Number 1 rule is: you don`t need to know anything about the subjects these films are exploring to attend a screening. This festival is an invitation to learn information and promote discussion. We have experts putting the films into context every night. The films may sound daunting, but instead you come out of them enlightened, and at times even transformed. It is indeed essential viewing. The last 20 minutes of Dheepan is unforgettable. To follow the court case in Rwanda in The Uncondemned is to witness a milestone in the world judicial system. And something that runs through the entire lineup is the power to change situations for the better.

Q: Eight worthy films in as many days, that’s a lot of awareness.  What’s your pick for the one not to be missed?

A: Almost Holy by Steve Hoover, our Closing Night film (April 7th @ 7:30pm). It`s a hard-hitting gorgeous piece of cinema (exec-produced by Terrence Malick), in which we follow a controversial Ukrainian pastor as he attempts, in questionable ways, to intervene in his city’s youth drug problem. It’s a profound and ultra-cinematic foray into a complicated man and system.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival Lineup:

Opening Night Film – I Am Sun Mu  dir. Adam Sjöberg | USA/China/South Korea 2015 | 80 min. | PG | Canadian Premiere  March 30

Since fleeing his native North Korea to defect to the South, former propaganda artist Sun Mu has criticized the repressive regime of Kim Jong-un through his own unique brand of satirical pop art.

The Pearl Button  dir. Patricio Guzmán | Chile/France/Spain 2015 | 82 min. | 14A March 31

The great Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile, Nostalgia for the Light) chronicles the history of the indigenous peoples of Chilean Patagonia, whose decimation by colonial conquest prefigured the brutality of the Pinochet regime.

Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime  dirs. David Morris and Jacqui Morris | United Kingdom/Canada 2015 | 102 min. | PG  April 1

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.

Dheepan dir. Jacques Audiard | France 2015 | 114 min | 14A  April 2

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  dir. Richard Todd | Australia 2015 | 90 min. | 14A | Canadian Premiere April 3

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  dirs. Nick Louvel and Michele Mitchell | USA 2015 | 82 min. | 14A  April 5

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

Inside the Chinese Closet  dir. Sophia Luvarà | The Netherlands 2015 | 70 min. | PG | North American Premiere April 6

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.

Closing Night – Almost Holy  dir. Steve Hoover | USA/Ukraine 2015 | 100 min. | 14A | Canadian Premiere  April 7

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. Produced to Terrence Malick.

For more information, go to

Watch the trailer for “The Uncondemned”!

Vimeo / Film@11 – via Iframely



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