Catch a World’s Worth of Activist Thrills at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest


For news junkies craving more potent stories about the U.S. health-care system, Chinese dissidents, and the wars on women and gay rights, this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (running June 14 through 28 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center) offers a copious dose of the urgently topical. But the films playing at the festival aren’t just ripped from the headlines. The strongest are cultivated with artistry and distinguished with an emotional lucidity beyond common reporting.

Opening this Friday with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—an engaging portrait of the famous Chinese artist—and closing two weeks later with Call Me Kuchu, which follows LGBT activists in Uganda, the festival is rife with individuals speaking truth to power. And while a festival of human rights movies might sound like a downer, the indefatigable spirit of these fighters lifts the showcase from pornomiseria to, at its best, an inspirational call to action.

Ai Weiwei is a case in point. In Alison Klayman’s film, which opens in theaters July 27, the Chinese art-star of the title emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism—and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter. (If you read Chinese, look for “aiww,” his active handle, and his dozens of daily tweets.) Klayman tracks Ai over the course of two years and documents the brazen performance-piece-style agit-art stunts that so often infuriate the authorities in his homeland. After being struck in the head by a cop, Ai and a team of camcorder-wielding assistants file a complaint in person at a police station and then go out for dinner, drawing fans and causing trouble. At the time, Ai tweeted, “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.”

Besides Ai’s “hooligan side,” as one of his colleagues describes him, Klayman uncovers the serious underpinnings of his art and activism. At one point, the camera clandestinely captures an exchange between the artist and his mother, who confesses, “I’m worried that Mommy won’t see you again.” Ai dismisses her concerns, but Never Sorry hinges on a final twist that proves that even celebrated provocateurs aren’t immune from tyranny.

Neither are homosexuals in Uganda. Like Ai, David Kato comes across as a fearless, charismatic rebel in Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s heartrending Call Me Kuchukuchu being Luganda slang for “queer.” Chronicling Kato’s campaign for LGBT rights, the film documents a scourge of institutionalized hate, with the media and the government likening homosexuals to political subversives, child abusers, and terrorists. Driven by a pervasive Christian agenda, the propaganda is Goebbels-like in its ubiquity and mendacity, but Kato continues to “fight for the liberation of my people,” as he says. Along with his fellow activists, he also lets off a little steam, in one of the movie’s best moments—watching a buoyant backyard drag queen contest—which under the circumstances, feels like Paris Is Burning by way of The Battle of Algiers.

The protagonists fighting for justice in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s high-profile entry The Invisible War (see page 36) also endure discrimination and violence. The cruel irony is these are members of the U.S. military who are sexually assaulted while serving their country. This year’s winner of the Néstor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, The Invisible War catalogs a startling number of teary-eyed first-person testimonials from rape victims, along with damning statistics: 20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, from the most prestigious ranks at a D.C. Army base to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But Dick’s occasional heavy-handedness points to the potential pitfalls of advocacy filmmaking. When he lets one of the young vets read her own suicide letter, an inherently powerful story tips over into the manipulative.

A subtler and more complex tale of abuse is the series highlight: Fernand Melgar’s profoundly affecting Special Flight, which follows a group of close-knit illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in a Swiss detention center. The movie presents a deeply humanistic portrait of the men, hailing from Kosovo to Kinshasa, as well as their kind Swiss caretakers. But the genteel surroundings and tender treatment belie the painful hypocrisies of their situation. The Swiss system might have a pretense of civility, but as the increasingly disgruntled detainees eventually discover, they’re screwed from the start. One inmate says it best: “We get overfed, but we’re deprived of our freedom.”

Thirteen-year-old Lydia, the protagonist of Lieven Corthouts’s beautifully observed Little Heaven, endures another kind of entrapment. Living with HIV and heart problems in an Ethiopian orphanage, the bright, ambitious girl is yet another kind of freedom fighter, overcoming prejudice, illness, and fears of trigonometry to tentatively live the life of a “normal” kid.

There are more overt activists at the festival addressing a wide range of social, political, and corporate ills. From the doctors, reporters, and policy wonks trying to remedy America’s medical system in Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke’s elucidating must-see Escape Fire (which should serve as the health-care debate’s An Inconvenient Truth), to the young Indian woman trying to expose the evils of Monsanto in Micha X. Peled’s poignant Bitter Seeds, to the brave Mexican journalists who risk assassination to expose corrupt politicians and narco traffickers in Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero, there’s a whole lot of pugnacious resistance going on at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. As, perhaps, there should be.