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.

Many of these very different films compellingly emphasize the power of government to use the legal system to stifle individual rights.  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.


Since 2010, state legislatures have passed almost 300 Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws to regulate abortion clinics to death.  Earlier this year (and broadcast on PBS) Dawn Porter’s documentary Trapped earnestly profiled the impact these laws are having on the staffs of the last three abortion clinics in Alabama and Texas, and the New York lawyers of the Center for Reproductive Rights who successfully led the legal challenge against such in the Texas case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.  

But Jackson goes more in-depth and 360 degrees around Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic in the best film on these continuing conflicts after the Supreme Court confirmed women’s basic right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973 since Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th & Delaware (2010).  Maisie Crow’s documentary feature debut, in its New York premiere at the Festival, looks close-up and personal at women caught up on all sides of the issues.  After first documenting the struggles over six months of the clinic at the center of the court case Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in a multimedia project and short film The Last Clinic (2014), Crow sensitively expanded her coverage over three years.

Not only is Jackson, Mississippi the opposite of the sexy place Johnny Cash & June Carter made it sound, but Texas native Crow is sharply attuned to the racial and class issues that underpin the religious tensions.  The clinic’s African-American director, Shannon Brewer, is a hefty 40-year-old mother of six who brings the force and empathy of her personal experiences to her defiant determination.  (The clinic’s noble ob-gyn Dr. Willie Parker was also interviewed in Trapped).  In addition to the usual images of aggressively prayerful, sign-toting, slogan-shouters just outside the clinic, Crow weaves in the sophisticated pressuring, lobbying, and fundraising activities of Barbara Beavers, an elegant 52-year-old ever-smiling white dynamo at the Center for Pregnancy Choices, one of the 38 Crisis Pregnancy Centers in the state that are as anti-contraception as they are anti-abortion, and at the state capitol with legislators and Governor Phil (“We will make Mississippi abortion-free!”) Bryant.  Beavers’ rhetoric is put to the on-camera reality check of poverty when April Jackson, a 24 year-old African-American pregnant mother of four lovingly cared for young children, comes in for the heavily promoted free sonogram – and keeps trying to get the other promised help when she agrees not to have an abortion and to sit through evangelical counseling sessions.  

It is Crow who spends time at Jackson’s crowded house as her fed-up mother throws her out for repeating her same mistakes; her current man gets arrested and can’t provide child support; as she tries to pick-up shifts at fast food joints; somehow stay awake to study for her GED; and get to appointments to straighten out SNAFU’s in government paperwork.  Beavers does bring over a used car seat, but can’t hide her disdain for an obese woman she thinks “lacks self-control”.  (Let alone when Jackson, pregnant again, nags her at a state banquet full of well-dressed white pro-lifers.)  Crow’s clear-eyed focus on the real consequences of legislation and lawsuits on real women heartbreakingly humanizes what can otherwise be a strident and repetitive debate.

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: Activists protest anti-abortion legislation.

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_MavensNest

Tags: Dawn Porter, FF2 Media, Heidi Ewing, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Jackson, Maisie Crow, Nora Lee Mandel, Rachel Grady, Roe V. Wade

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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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