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.


First-time feature documentary filmmakers Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel restore the priorities in the “Save the Amazon Rainforest” from a trendy charity catchphrase or hashtag to a life and (tragic) death political movement galvanized by a charismatic leader to save the indigenous people of Peru.  Though the heavy use of news clips makes this the most conventional-looking of the women-directed films at the HRW Festival, the intimate focus on Alberto Pizango, even within a whirlwind, is riveting.  

Peru signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, but not long afterwards President Alan Garcia pushed through a decree to open up 70% of indigenous lands for corporate resource extraction, especially by oil and gas companies.  Passionately connected to his people’s land and water-dependent traditions, Pizango leaves home to help organize AIDESEP (the Spanish acronym for Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest), bringing together for the first time over a thousand communities representing almost half a million indigenous people with different languages and customs.  Delegates travel many miles through the Amazon rainforest, by many modes, wearing many colorfully traditional outfits, to hear and support Pizango’s plans for massive nonviolent protest.  They are determined to shut down first, a pipeline and gas field, then, if necessary, access to the capital of Lima, in their first public lobbying effort, until the environmentally damaging legislation is repealed.  The filmmakers had to earn their unique access to the movement through spiritual tests of their integrity.

Tensions ratchet up on screen, as two months of protests and a state of emergency provoke horrible violence from both sides.  Accusations are bruited about the United States pressuring the government to break the strike and let development continue in order to fulfill a trade agreement; evidence to support these claims has been revealed in Wikileaks documents that aren’t included here.  Unlike the one-sided reports in the capital about “savages”, the filmmakers track down who killed whom, where, and how.  (The film is dedicated: “In memory of all the fallen in Baguaon on June 5th, 2009.”)  Though the legislature does pass the concessions, in a major victory for the indigenous peoples as a whole, the president targets Pizango as a terrorist.  In poignant follow-through that emotionally emphasizes the personal cost of political courage, Pizango asks co-director Heidi Brandenburg to follow him into exile in Nicaragua to present his side, and lonely decision to finally return and face arrest.  Funded in part through the Ford Foundation’s exemplary JustFilms, the stirring documentary begins a run at New York’s Film Forum on August 17.

Also on the program was THE UNCONDEMNED, directed by broadcast journalist Michele Mitchell and the late Nick Louvel, which documents the witnesses and lawyers who in 1997 successfully prosecuted rape as a crime against humanity for the first time.  The documentary was not made available for review because the producers “are targeting a fall 2016 theatrical release of the film”.

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: Community members protest environmentally damaging government policies.

Photo Credits: First Run Features.



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, Heidi Brandenburg, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Mathew Orzel, Nora Lee Mandel, When Two Worlds Collide

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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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