This Year’s Human Rights Watch Festival Pushes Documentary to Its Limits


Women are at the forefront of this year’s Human Rights Watch Festival, an annual showcase of documentaries that tell stories of injustice,
oppression, and threats to civil liberty around the world. Women directed more than half of the festival’s eighteen films; many of the selections focus on issues concerning women in contemporary Mississippi, China, and Tehran, among other places. That choice feels vital: The problems considered in films like Sonita, about an Afghan girl who must evade her sale into marriage in order to pursue her calling as an artist, and Jackson, about the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, demand fresh and urgent re-examination precisely because they emerge from cultures that have long accepted indifference to women’s rights as the status quo. Such problems are always and especially at risk of disappearing in plain sight.

“We often forget we’re women when we’re working,” says the Chinese activist Ye Haiyan in Hooligan Sparrow, the festival’s tense, polished opening-night selection. “Full-time activists have no gender. But no matter what, we’re still women.” Director Nanfu Wang followed Ye through the ordeal that resulted from a protest staged by a small group of women against the appalling abduction and rape of a group of schoolgirls by their principal and other school officials. The result is a story of harassment, surveillance, and pursuit that explores China’s nightmarish gray zone, in which nascent democratic values and totalitarian systems collide.

A figure of controversy and renown in China, Ye encounters a pervasive defeatism from the public and the media: What is the point of her commotion? What difference could it possibly make? She is followed everywhere, jailed, persecuted, evicted from her home; eventually Wang also gets targeted by police and becomes part of the story she set out to document. Those citizens who privately, quietly, or anonymously voice their support of Ye — her cause develops a following online — seed Hooligan Sparrow‘s bleak portrait with some hope, as does the bright, indomitable presence of the activist’s adolescent daughter, a student of resistance in her mother’s mold.

Few documentaries make the ethical quandaries of the form as plain as the
closing-night selection, Sonita, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s portrait of an Afghan girl living in Iran. Sonita and her family left Afghanistan to escape the war, but that country’s traditions dog the intensely charismatic teenager, who dreams of
being a rap star. In the most vivid scenes, Sonita freestyles with abandon; she raps about a young card hustler’s contempt for her customers (“You have no hope, how can you encourage me?”) and the sale of young girls by their families. Initially it
appears that Sonita will depict its subject’s struggle to make a record in a country where it is illegal for women to sing.
When it becomes clear that Sonita’s grandmother is planning to sell her into marriage for several thousand dollars,
returning her to Afghanistan, Maghami must contend with both a narrative and
an ethical dilemma.

Maghami consults with the head of a refugee support center about whether and how to intervene. During their conversation, the boom operator is moved to interject, telling Maghami it is her duty to stay neutral, to let the story take its course. But no one asked the boom guy, and Maghami becomes a pivotal actor in Sonita’s life. Documentaries that set out to depict challenges to and abuses of human rights often demand a strong perspective; a director like Maghami may find she cannot both present or litigate a case and maintain a journalist’s claim to objectivity. A number of this year’s selections engage and investigate on a secondary level the viability of that claim — in documentary and beyond.

Also set in Tehran, Starless Dreams captures a rare, sorrowful, infinitely complex milieu — that of a juvenile rehabilitation center for “delinquent” girls. Mehrdad Oskouei spent years attempting to gain access to the facility, and the stories, dynamics, and personalities he finds within it are radiant with sadness and, again, hope. Oskouei focuses not on the institution but its detainees, who sing, carouse, and play but also weep, despair, front, and even eke out their stories. Over one meal the girls interview each other in Oskouei’s tender,
allusive style (he uses the word “bothered” as code for sexual abuse), and the scene is layered, funny, and fascinating. It lends to Oskouei’s extraordinary film an uncommon ring of truth.

American stories make up a significant portion of this year’s festival: Growing Up Coy depicts the difficulties of a Colorado family’s attempt, in clashing with their school district over their transgender daughter’s access to the girls’ bathroom, to set a precedent for transgender rights; the sensitive Almost Sunrise follows two Iraq veterans through and beyond the cross-country walk they completed to raise awareness of veteran trauma and begin their own healing. Do Not Resist and Solitary offer disturbing portraits of this country’s increasingly militarized police forces and broken
incarceration system, respectively.

In its focus on that final surviving Mississippi abortion clinic, Maisie Crow’s elegant, unsettling Jackson finds issues of class, race, religion, executive power, and women’s rights to be tightly interwoven. Crow builds through character studies a sense of how individual people and predicaments can engender urgent national debates. Using an unobtrusive, observational style, the film maps the intersection of the lives of Shannon Brewer, the director of the clinic, April Jackson, a young black woman pregnant with her fifth child, and Barbara Beavers, an activist who — along with her governor — is intent on making Mississippi the first abortion-free state.

That abortion is legal in the United States counts for surprisingly little when a state’s balance of power is so open to disruption. Similar scenarios play out across this year’s festival selections: Rights established but not upheld are no rights at all. To be reminded of that fact, by films like Jackson, is both an imperative and a privilege.

Human Rights Watch Festival

June 10–19, Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center