28th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Fest: Part 1

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The 28th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is one of the best socially conscious series of documentaries shown in New York City.  Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center, most screenings June 9 -18, 2017 were followed by Q&A’s with filmmakers, film subjects, Human Rights Watch researchers, and other experts.  Here’s an overview of a selection of the engrossing and informative documentaries, most New York Premieres, shown on themes around:

The continuing human fallout from the disruptive rise of ISIS and the ongoing Syrian civil war dominated the Festival.  Each international documentary focused on a different aspect of this tragedy whose causes and impacts extend far beyond its origins.

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Zaradasht Ahmed and Nori Sharif, the filmmakers of the Opening Night selection, received the Festival’s prestige honor, the 2017 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, named for the activist cinematographer.  Their inside view of the war in Iraq is a revealing eye-opener for Americans who turned away when the U.S. pulled out in late 2011.

Kurdish/Norwegian director/photographer Ahmed specializes in empowering local people to document their own experiences.  When he was filming at a medical clinic in the formerly diverse village of Jalawla, in the central Diayala Province of Iraq, just over three hours from his family’s hometown, he himself first interviewed the staff about the change-over and the wary optimism at the front-line facility.  Similar to the arrangement of Guy Davidi with Emad Burnat for 5 Broken Cameras (2011), he trained and equipped a dozen medics to continue filming.

 But as militias filled the power vacuum that gradually made the area a “no go zone” inaccessible to outsiders, Sharif, a 36-year-old long-time nurse, was one of the few who stayed on, even as the wounds to treat got more serious.  He kept filming the violent chaos he was seeing on ambulance runs through the ruins, and the contrast to the rising stress on his wife and four children.  ISIS starts infiltrating, then takes over in 2014; the doctors flee and he keeps filming.  When ISIS threatens him as an elitist, and the clinic is wrecked, he takes the camera on their harrowing flight through the desert, that before just looked beautiful from a distance and now risks his families’ lives.  He struggles to get to a meager refugee camp where his small children still suffer PTSD from bombings, and he helps set up a medical clinic.  After five vividly chronicled years, he puts down the camera so Ahmed can bring his first-person story to the world.  

Ahmed, along with producer/editor Mette Cheng Munthe-Kaas, participated in Q&A’s at the Festival.  East Village Entertainment is distributing this powerful diary through North America for awards qualification.  Producer Ten Thousand Images is also soliciting donations for Nori and his family and the others living in Sa’ad IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp at:

City of Ghosts

American director Matthew Heineman documents the stories of parallel, though more political, witnesses, in Syria, with this revealing behind-the-news documentary that had its New York premiere earlier this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival.  He interviews four twenty-something men who first got caught up in the Arab Spring to start web-casting protests in their ancient home city of Raqqa, on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River: “The Syrian revolution changed us.”  

But they continued as citizen journalists when another authoritarian regime filled the vacuum.  ISIS gradually took over to declare the capital of their caliphate, a geographic base that supported their extreme ideology.  With ISIS tightly controlling its own propaganda media, any footage or photographs you saw on CNN, BBC, and other international outlets on what it was really like to live under ISIS’s brutal rule came through these men and their dedicated reporters as RBSS - “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”.  This film includes additional images not seen before that searingly counter ISIS’s slick videos and social media posts.  With ISIS not only hunting and killing journalists but also their families, they managed to slip out to still dangerous exile, where Heineman tracks their fraught exile in Turkey and Germany.  They are buffeted by kudos, anti-migrant protests, and ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe.  But courageously they persist. 

Lost in Lebanon

LOSTinLEBANONSheikh Abdo inAkkar northern LebanonWith the West pushing against Syrian war refugees, British directors Sophia and Georgia Scott spent a year at the northern Lebanese border where Syrians first arrive, for the sisters’ second film looking at the psychological impact of war.  They closely followed four people who would be regular folks in the U.S., from the youngest, Nemr who at 19 just wanted to be a high school student before his parents sent him out of the country to avoid conscription in the oppressive Assad’s army, to the oldest, Sheikh Abdo, who at 39 takes seriously his traditional leadership role like a mayor for his community and tries to do all he can for them in a refugee camp.  

Each is homesick and fearful for loved ones, as they describe the bombs and devastation they fled.  But even as the directors show how well-organized they’ve been to try and be self-sufficient and useful during their difficult year among half-million Syrian refugees, the cameras intimately document the personal impact as the Lebanese authorities ramp up restrictions, with arbitrary arrests and paperwork, as well as denial of access to schools, housing, and supplies.  As the four get more depressed and frustrated, their conditions seem like a recipe for radicalization (or worse), while all they want are normal lives.  Unlike other films (let alone fundraising solicitations) that appeal just to pity, this is a thoughtful, articulate warning against the world’s continued inaction on this ongoing crisis.  

The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies)

In a microcosm of Eastern European impacts and debates, a small village in Bulgaria has been ravaged by the invisible forces of globalization and Westernization that have left only 38 elderly residents and many abandoned houses.  What is visible to them are the primarily Syrian refugees who walk through at night, and the direct democracy still new since the downfall of Communism.  Director Tonislav Hristov returned to his homeland to patiently observe the effort of one man, Ivan the Postman, to bring all these issues together in one bold idea: he runs for mayor on the platform of opening up their village to welcome the asylum-seekers.  
The migrants are trodding the same paths conquerers have used for centuries.  Ivan watches them pass through, chased by border guards, and realizes they are a potential resource to revitalize the community with young families willing to work the fields and fix up the houses.  The camera follows Ivan on his route each day as he not only delivers the mail but checks on each person, helps them out with chores – and feels each out for their views on the refugees and his idea.
This all looks warmly promising until we get to see his opposition-- the long-time mayor who locks herself in her office keeping busy on the town’s only computer, and a loudmouth, long-haired, unemployed nationalist.  Both take advantage of the old ways and nostalgia for the good old days -- she counts on her extended family to vote for her, and he whips up blame-the-migrants complaints while sitting around tables drinking beers.  Where Ivan sees the refugees’ occasional stays in the empty buildings as pointing to a positive development, the others complain about dangerous vandals.  Despite the lovely views of mountains and close looks at craggy faces, the hopeful vibes depressingly dissipate the more these negative agents are on screen, just like those getting louder in Europe.  

TheWorkersCupTeamWorkers Cup

Some of the men leaving Asia and Africa are economic migrants desperately seeking jobs.  Debut feature filmmaker Adam Sobel intimately captures how their fantasies of opportunities don’t get to square with the realities of building the huge facilities needed for the 2022 FIFA World Cup of soccer, the world’s biggest sporting event, in Qatar, one of the Middle East’s richest countries.  For this unique access, Sobel’s team was already based there when the government decided to counter the bad press about the conditions for the 1.6 million temporary laborers by staging a “workers welfare” soccer tournament among the contractors, dubbed “The Workers Cup”.

Sobel was able to interview the participants living in the Umm Salal Camp run by the Gulf Contracting Company for over 4,000 laborers.  Before try-outs begin, we hear the men from Ghana, India, Kenya, and Nepal rue their misleading recruitment and their hopes, while we see their exhausting work days and a scroll cites the restrictions that keep them behind locked gates, reminding one of the refugee camp he left.  They recall co-workers who went violently crazy and point to where others were seriously injured.  Two had played on good teams at home in Ghana and they have long-term dreams of getting on professional teams, one even lying to his parents that he already has.  They even imagine scouts might see them play at this tournament, so they successfully negotiate for practice time.  

In class divisions, the Indians work in air conditioned offices; Sebastian manages nine such labor camps and, as a loyal eight-year employee, he takes on managing the company’s team, too.  But for all their condescending attitudes to the Africans and Nepalis, they also struggle with financial pressures and long-distance relationships, wishing to be promoted to a level that qualifies them to bring their wives.  All the men are lonely, and all are big soccer fans.  
As the championship games excitingly go on, there are swings between camaraderie and racism, with frustrated suspicions that other companies’ teams have non-worker ringers.  There’s cheers and moments of restored self-respect, then they go back to being a cog in the regulations.  Not a Hollywood victory, but a modest win-win for the companies, the workers, and the audience getting this first empathetic, insightful look behind the expensive facades.

Muhi - Generally Temporary

MUHIMuslim Palestinian boy Muhammed with a rare disease is seen as a migrant for medical care from the limited facilities in Gaza to a Tel Aviv hospital, living from ward to ward.  Co-directors Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and American videographer Tamir Elterman movingly documented for over four years his and his dedicated grandfather’s life living in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions.  While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education.  The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war, give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrate Jewish holidays with him.  When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison with the many glimpsed Arab patients and families to just condescendingly employ him as a janitor.  Ironically, the prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the joyous thrill of mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school, are not available in Gaza and will keep him in this limbo as he will need new ones as he grows.
Some of these films are also shown at versions of the Human Rights Watch Festival in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, and Toronto.  Watch for them as they open in theaters, streaming platforms, or broadcast on PBS or other channels.