Women direct intensely personal autobiographies, portraits at HRWF

Women directed/co-directed more than half the films (seven of 13) in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, at New York City’s Lincoln Center and IFC Center, June 14–20.  They were intensely personal autobiographies and portraits.  In 30th Anniversary trailer, past participating director Pamela Yates admires that the Fest “is not just about denunciation and exposure, but also about finding a way forward.”  Q & A with filmmakers, moderated by HRW staff experts, accompanied each crowded screening.  


In Search

Beryl Magoko became a director to reveal the continuing tradition of female genital mutilation; she is one of 200 million women and girls so marked.  Since filming proponents and opponents in her Kenyan home village for her Kampala University graduate short The Cut (2012), she realized her own “cut” at 10 traumatized her with guilt. She frankly filmed her medical exams and her agonizing indecision on surgery to ameliorate physical damage.  (Neglected: WHO cautions there is not yet evidence of the procedures’ safety and effectiveness.) Winning the Festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, Magoko’s sensitive conversations, including her mother, and even in the recovery room, plumb emotional depths.

Born In Evin

Director Maryam Zaree emotionally searches to fill in blanks from her 1983 birth and early childhood inside Tehran’s horrible Evin Prison where political prisoners were tortured under Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1980’s persecution.  Like her mother granted asylum in Germany, few will talk; expatriate psychologists sympathetically describe the ramifications of painful memories. Through gatherings of Iranian exiles, she finds touching stories of solidarity towards pregnant women, even from those facing imminent execution.  Zaree gradually sees beyond herself to the need for documentation of all women survivors.

One Child Nation

Co-director Nanfu Wang’s new baby inspired her rural family in China to open up for the first time about 35 years of personal impacts from the government’s ruthlessly enforced “one child policy.” Between their memories of bullying, female infanticide, and child abandonment, Jialing Zhang co-directs interviews, including: remorseful midwife; patriotic family planner; ex-con caught selling babies to state orphanages profiting from international adoptions; artist and journalist haunted by millions of females “missing” since 1979 (per Nobel winning economist Amartya Sen).  Amidst pervasive propaganda images, captured before current exhortations for two children, patriarchal and misogynist traditions are occasionally recognized as negative forces within the Communist Party’s successful ambition to be world’s second economy.  Wang’s brother feels guilty their parents preferred him. In theaters August 9.  


No Box For Me. An Intersex Story 

Almost two per cent of humans are born with sex characteristics that don’t fit binary expectations of male or female bodies; the French title translates as Neither Adam Nor Eve.  Swiss director Floriane Devigne presents a growing epistolary relationship.  In Lausanne, Switzerland, Deborah researches her PhD by sharing the intersex experience and reaching out to others: “I’m here to break the taboo.”  M in Paris, in animation then masked, is thrilled to find someone else who suffer secrets, embarrassments, surgeries, and hormones. Between YouTube videos, film clips, and interviews with “out” intersex activists in U.S. and elsewhere, Deborah guides M through an exotic museum of “hermaphrodites” in myth and art to find insight for individual nuance.  All agree that medical interference on children must stop. 
Two mostly cinéma vérité documentaries closely follow key figures through wrenching legal cases.  

Accept The Call

Singaporean immigrant director Eunice Lau empathetically listens to Somali Sufi refugee father and educator Yusuf Abdurahman in Minnesota as he struggles to understand how his teenage son Zacharia was radicalized by ISIS.  Mending their estrangement, he helps his imprisoned son find the words on the telephone to assess the combined pressures of American racism and their Muslim community’s change to Sunni Wahhabism exported from Saudi Arabia.  


Lea Tsemel is the only lawyer defending Palestinians in Israeli courts.  American-Israeli co-director Rachel Leah Jones, with French-born cinematographer/co-director Philippe Bellaïche, take an admiring biography inside halls and offices during two of her most problematic cases in 50 years of determined defense.  Caught with weapons, the 13-year-old boy and depressed young bride are respected under news collages and drawings. Tsemel is frankly practical, but warmly maternal, advising families of what limits she can achieve in audaciously confronting media storms and the legal system.

The Sweet Requiem

In one of two docu-dramas screening, co-directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam from India create heartbreaking composites of Tibetans in exile since China’s 1950 invasion and continuing repression.  Beyond political resistance and physical hardship endured by Gompo (Jampa Kalsang), Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker) suffers the second generation’s anguish from growing up without family, language, and culture.   Returns to IFC Center July 12.
Look for these selections playing in HRW Film Festivals during the year in over 20 cities.
© Nora Lee Mandel (7/1/19) FF2 Media
Featured image: In Search … 
Photo credits: Human Rights Watch Festival

Tags: Born in Evin, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, In Search, One Child Nation

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Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. After high school weekends spent learning film history at NY’s Museum of Modern Art, she studied film criticism at New York University. In addition to many years of writing for national and New York City organizations in the arts, education, history, and city planning, her reviews of documentaries, independent, and foreign-language films, books, television, exhibitions, and music have also appeared in such outlets as: Film-Forward.com, FilmFestival Traveler and Lilith Magazine, the independent Jewish feminist quarterly. Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies, TV, and Pop Music has been the basis for her talks around the New York region.
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