10 Documentaries To Watch At The 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) takes place via Barbican Cinema On Demand from 18-26 March. The event features ten powerful and uplifting documentaries and each film is followed by a live, online discussion with filmmakers, film participants and Human Rights Watch researchers from around the world.


This year, the festival is focused on trailblazing women, activists’ resilience and resistance, education as an essential tool for change and a special spotlight on Latin America.


Let’s take a look at the festival’s documentary programme…


Opening Night Film - The 8th

Capturing a crucial moment in women's rights, this is the story of how Ireland overturned one of the world's most restrictive laws on abortion. The film follows veteran campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, and self-described glitter-activist, Andrea Horan, as they chart a bold strategy of grassroots activism to engineer the impossible and carry a traditionally conservative and

religious electorate over the line to extend rights to women seeking an abortion. 


HRWFF calls The 8th an “urgent narrative, a cautionary tale and a roadmap for progressive reforms in a modern era where authoritarianism is on the rise”. Andrea Horan, a film participant in The 8th, adds that it is "actually about more than what you're voting on - while we're voting on reproductive health care, it's also about the value we're giving women in Irish society, saying we do value them and we do trust them." 


Closing Night Film - Unapologetic

After two Black Chicagoans, Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, are killed at the hands of the police, the Movement for Black Lives demands justice and organises to challenge an administration complicit in violence against its residents. 


Unapologetic introduces us to Janaé Bonsu and Bella Bahhs, two fierce activist leaders whose upbringing and experiences have shaped their belief of what liberation could and should look like, as they urge for an expansive view of public safety that does not depend on the police. 


HRWFF describes Unapologetic as an invigorating documentary that “illuminates the love underpinning the anger and frustration that comes with being Black, queer women in the US and elevates those who are most often leading the way while being denied the spotlight”. Having watched this film, I wholeheartedly agree.


Belly of The Beast

When two powerful women find a pattern of illegal involuntary sterilisations in California’s women’s prisons, they launch a battle against the system. With a growing team of women inside prison working with formerly incarcerated colleagues on the outside, they uncover a series of state-wide crimes - from dangerously inadequate health care to sexual assault to coercive sterilisations - primarily targeting Black, Latinx and Indigenous women. 


Captured over seven years, this shocking legal drama is a damning account of a shameful and ongoing legacy of eugenics and reproductive injustice in the US, featuring a group of extraordinary women determined to ensure it ends here and now. A must watch.


A Thousand Cuts

When elected president in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte promised violence with a declared “war on drugs”. In A Thousand Cuts, we join prominent journalist Maria Ressa and her publication Rappler as they investigate thousands of government-sanctioned murders of primarily poor people accused of using or selling drugs. 


To suppress reporting on his mounting abuses, Duterte unleashes a powerful disinformation campaign on social media, targeting journalists with arrests, and violent threats. In this disturbing and gripping searing film, we follow Ressa and her fearless team as they risk their own freedom in defence of truth and democracy.


I am Samuel

Samuel, a gay Kenyan man, balances duty to his family with his love for his partner, Alex, in a country where their love is criminalised. Samuel grew up on a farm in the Kenyan countryside, where tradition is valued above all else. 


He moves to Nairobi in search of a new life, where he finds belonging in a community of fellow queer men. There, he meets and falls in love with Alex. Their love thrives even though Kenyan laws criminalize anyone who identifies as LGBTQ. Together they face threats of violence and rejection. 

Click here for my review of I Am Samuel


Mujer de Soldado (Soldier’s Woman)

Magda Surichaqui Cóndor was a teenager when soldiers arrived in her small Peruvian village in 1984. Sent to root out members of the Shining Path, soldiers of the Peruvian army used their sweeping powers to rape and humiliate local women, leaving them shunned by their own communities, often with children in tow. 


Three decades later, Magda has joined a number of other women in bringing charges against their abusers. With stunning cinematography and respectful intimacy, Patricia Wiesse Risso accompanies Magda and her friends as they reminisce over their youth and their lives since, whilst they sit and chew coca leaves, peeling potatoes and

spinning wool. 


A La Calle (To the Street)

A La Calle is a first-hand account of the extraordinary efforts of Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. Maduro’s policies have plunged the country into a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.


Working with a network of clandestine camera crews, the filmmakers spent three years with key figures, including opposition leader Leopoldo López, grassroots activist Nixon Leal and everyday citizens willing to share their experiences. A La Calle captures the remarkable courage of the Venezuelan people as they unite to restore liberty, fundamental rights, and the rule of law - all while facing the more immediate struggle for survival amid severe food, water and medical shortages. 


Bajo Fuego (Under Siege)

In November 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the office of President Juan Manuel Santos signed the Colombian peace deal. Many hoped this would mark an end to 52 years of armed conflict. For farmers in the coca growing region of Cauca however, this “peace” has proven to be short-lived. 


Bajo Fuego follows “cocaleros” as they mobilize to protect their livelihoods after the government instructs them to destroy their crops as part of the “war on drugs”. As new armed groups arise, the promised peace turns out to be an illusion for these farmers whose lives are threatened and who are displaced from their homes. 


The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

The timely sequel to the multi-award-winning The Corporation (2003) sets its sights on the sly rebranding of corporations as socially conscious entities – on a mission to convince the public they want to use their power to better the world. 


In sharp contrast, we witness recent groundswells of resistance as, around the world, people take action in pursuit of justice and the planet’s future, creating hope that current world events might yet offer a catalyst for change. 


The Lesson

It is often said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. At the age of 14 every school child in Germany is taught about the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. Filmmaker Elena Horn returns to her small hometown in rural Germany to follow four children as they first learn about the Holocaust. From their study of the topic in history class, to their school trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, each of the children grapple differently with the gravity of their findings. 


Filmed over five years, the film offers a window into deeply rooted social and political attitudes in Germany amid a resurgence of the far-right and violent xenophobia. 


Tickets for HRWFF go on sale to the general public on 18 February 2021. Click here for more information

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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