Enraged calls to action over injustice have always defined the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and this year’s 21st edition is no less vocal, laying bare, in more than 30 features from 25 countries, a world still striving to secure equality and justice for all. From the rocky battlefields of Afghanistan (Restrepo) to the small-town communities of Pennsylvania (Out in the Silence) to the farmlands and financial centers of India (Nero’s Guests), the long-running fest’s 2010 edition seethes, laments, and inspires, capturing through a variety of fictional and documentary works the efforts—sometimes noble, sometimes fruitless, rarely painless—of the marginalized and oppressed to reclaim their sovereign voices.
Though surprisingly silent on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, there’s nonetheless no shortage of conflict on display, much of it infused with furious indignation free of didacticism. Director Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April) turns to his native Haiti with the fest’s Centerpiece selection, Moloch Tropical, a Shakespearean portrait of a power-mad fictional modern-day president (loosely inspired by early-19th-century ruler Henri Christophe) ruined by greed, arrogance, and hubris. His story confined to the luxurious hilltop mansion where the poor country’s commander-in-chief authorizes torture and sexual assaults as his political standing disintegrates, Peck’s latest—a spiritual companion piece to Aleksander Sokurov’s Hirohito-in-defeat drama The Sun—is a hothouse study of a man and country crippled by corrupted ideals.
While Moloch Tropical interrogates one individual’s heart of darkness, Presumed Guilty excoriates an entire body politic via the plight of a young Mexico City man who was arrested in 2005 and convicted for murder despite a wholesale lack of evidence. Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith’s blistering documentary exposes a retrograde and rigged criminal justice system in which innocence isn’t assumed but must be established, and where basic legal logic and civil liberties take a backseat to the crooked self-interest of police officers, prosecutors, and judges.
Art proves a piercing vehicle for exposing wrongs and demanding rights in Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People. Having lost his family to Cambodia’s Killing Fields in the late ’70s, Sambath, a journalist by day, spent the past decade pointing his camera at those responsible for the atrocities, eventually befriending and coaxing admissions of treachery from rural killers as well as Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Nuon Chea. His documentary is a dogged quest for truth that epitomizes HRW, just as Chea’s cold, obstinate refusal to assume moral guilt for his crimes reveals the continuing need for the human rights struggle and, by extension, for this righteously angry fest.