Women Documentarians Reveal Injustice and Hope at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

By Nora Lee Mandel

I used to think of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as “The Depressing Festival” in coverage over the past nine years.  But the programmers more and more balance artistic merit with the sponsoring NGO Human Rights Watch’s exposés of terrible injustices around the world, and even, sometimes, give the audience hope.  In this 27th year in New York City, they also broke barriers behind the cameras — 10 out of the 18 films in the program were directed or co-directed by women, many times with the intimacy from establishing a close relationship with the subjects, many in attendance at the Festival.  Not only did these documentaries sensitively spotlight a wide range of women’s issues in Afghanistan, China, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Mississippi, but women filmmakers were showcased gaining revealing access to difficult, diverse places — a maximum security prison and the Amazon rainforest.  

In New York City June 10-19, the film festival has expanded over the years, co-presenting uptown with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at the IFC Center, accompanied by related exhibitions and post-screening discussions on the issues with the filmmakers, HRW staff, and other experts.  Versions of the festival also travel: this year to Amsterdam and San Diego in January; its 20th anniversary in London in March; Toronto in April; Los Angeles and Miami in May; Chicago and Sydney in June; and selections shown in over a dozen other cities.  Many of these films continue to make the festival rounds elsewhere, as well in theaters.


Violent organized crime has become so institutionalized in Mexico that the cartels and the state governments intersect, with civilian lives crushed between them.  Director Tatiana Huezo remarkably uses the deceptive beauty of a travelogue to reveal the psychological pervasiveness of fear and nightmares under what’s visible for two women.  These are important witnesses to abuse.

Every silent, sleepy person on a bus has a story.  But Miriam’s voice-over is about much more than just re-enacting her 1,300 mile journey from Matamoros in the north back to her home in the south, along urban highways, crummy rest stops, through open fields and thunder storms.  Police sirens and military checkpoints are the first clues.  As if she were sitting next to us on the long-distance bus, Miriam, an old friend of the director, slowly and quietly reveals, for the first time, how just before her factory shift ended and she was about to pick up her child from the sitter, she was pulled out and arrested.  Beaten in a dark police station slippery with the blood of people killed in front of her, she was brutally interrogated about her alleged crime of “people trafficking”.  At night on the bus, we hear her tearful description of transfer to a prison run not by the police, but by a cartel, where the currency was human degradation beyond the fictional jail of HBO’s Oz or the classic mental institution exposé of Snake Pit (1948), into horror movie depths.  Amidst bucolic scenery outside the bus windows, her proud voice credits holding on to her sanity by entertaining the prison bullies with songs and dances, and her humanity by writing poems on scraps.  

A casual detour off a rural highway to a traveling family circus seems like a joyous respite.  They clean out their caravans, set up the tent, teach their adorable children performance skills, and the troupe of women clowns laugh and apply their make-up.  Adela’s voice-over recounts her pride and diligent work for her daughter Monica to be the first university student in the family.  But talk about the tears of a clown – even as she re-lives that happy childhood for audiences of other children, her voice strains recalling the day her daughter went missing.  Instead of help from the police, she got warnings to stop searching, harrowingly similar to the more notorious case of the abducted male students in 2014.

The gorgeous cinematography by Ernesto Pardo (Huezo has been a D.P. on other documentaries) and lovely score by noted Mexican film composing team Leonardo Heiblum & Jacobo Lieberman set visual and aural contrasts between the country’s sylvan landscape, the callousness of the authorities (films from south of the border at previous HRW Fests call this out as “impunidad”/”the impunity”), and the PTSD ravaging these women’s hearts and minds as they magnificently struggle to keep moving through each day.

Thankfully, this year the Human Rights Watch Festival includes women directors providing some hope, with examples of individuals or communities taking action, even if any success is mixed or sui generis.  

Seek out these exciting women-directed selections from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as they travel to different cities, open in theaters, VOD, or broadcast on PBS or other channels over the year.

© Nora Lee Mandel 07/20/16

Top Photo: Miriam.

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch Film Festival



About Nora

Nora Lee Mandel [] is a member of New York Film Critics Online and Alliance of Women Film Journalists; her reviews are counted in Rotten Tomatoes’ TomatoMeter [].  She reviews films and television in Film Festival Traveler, Film-Forward, Lilith, and NH Jewish Film Festival’s Film Buzz.  Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies and TV [] has been the basis for talks to audiences in New York and New Jersey, and Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.  @NLM_MavensNe

Tags: FF2 Media, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Nora Lee Mandel, Tatiana Huezo, Tempest, Tempestad

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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