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.

Two documentaries are by and about activist women in the Middle East trying on their own to make a difference against entrenched attitudes.


Afghan refugees fleeing sectarian violence and the Taliban are sadly familiar victims on our TV screens.  But Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami listens closely to the girls in her cousin the social worker’s Tehran refuge, the House of Affection, and finds they are also desperate to resist a patriarchal culture where young women are a resource to be exploited like a cash crop.  

For 18-year-old Sonita Alizadeh, American pop music provides the artistic means to express her desire for freedom.  Since the dangerous trip from her Afghan village to a small sheltered space outside Tehran, she has been able to indulge her obsession with the likes of Michael Jackson and Rihanna such that she thinks of herself as “Sonita Jackson”.  In between housekeeping at the center and babysitting her little niece, she writes and raps to the younger girls who hang on her words for hope that they, like her so far, can avoid being a child bride: “Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent. . . this is our tradition.”

Maghami is inspired by her talent and brings her to a recording studio.  They figure out how to make and post a music video to YouTube.  As excited as Sonita is by the growing number of views, she’s homesick and convinces her mother to come join her.  But their emotional reunion abruptly crashes into the expected trajectory of their lives: the mother only came on condition that Sonita return with her for the arranged marriage she fled from years ago.  Her elder brother needs the $9,000 she’s worth in order to pay off the father of the woman he wants to marry, and their insistent mother, really pouring on the guilt, defends the deal as the same she had to suffer as a thirteen-year-old.  A dark truth of traditional societies is the role of the oppressed older generation of women in maintaining these damaging cycles for the status quo, but rarely captured on film so clearly.

The suspense ratchets up.  Maghami goes all in – putting up a portion of the bride price to gain time to find an alternative plan.  Once again the internet provides an astonishing deus ex machina as Sonita’s plaintive song becomes a rallying cry for the voiceless with international attention.  As a stateless person in Iran she shares a common problem for any refugee — she can only take advantage of a scholarship offer in the U.S. if she risks getting in time her identity papers back home and an Afghan visa.  Her hidden camera adds to the feeling of a spy thriller.

Her victory is a spectacular Hollywood ending, that the persistent filmmaker could never have predicted in following Sonita’s story, albeit with a few nagging qualms.  Though the Wasatch Academy appears in the snowy Utah Rockies like a white Lady Bountiful to save her, half of its 350 secondary school students are from abroad, with many young refugees.  Sonita in her early appearances at festival and conference screenings, such as at the “Women In The World London Summit” in October, 2015 as an activist against “daughters for sale”, was dressed more traditionally, like Malala Yousafza when promoting her documentary.  But the poster for this closing night feature at the Human Rights Watch Festival shows her now wholesale adoption of African-American hip hop cliché style.  No doubt freedom of choice can be overwhelming for a young woman, but if anyone can surmount expected behavior it is surely Sonita.

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: Sonita Alizadeh.

Photo credits: Women Make Movies.



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: FF2 Media, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Nora Lee Mandel, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

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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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