The 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival challenges tradition

The members of Russia's Pussy Riot, some of whom were arrested for "hooliganism," are portrayed in "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer." Credit: HBO Documentary Films
The members of Russia’s Pussy Riot, some of whom were arrested for “hooliganism,” are portrayed in “Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer.”
Credit: HBO Documentary Films

From year to year, country to country, the specific human rights being challenged or violated vary widely. But if there’s a general theme that unites the dozen-plus films in the 24th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, it’s the battle between traditional values and human rights. Of course, there are plenty of titles in the series that operate outside of this, including opening night film “Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” director Sebastian Junger’s ode to his friend, the late journalist who was killed on the job. Here are five others to consider.

‘In the Shadow of the Sun’
Already unusually susceptible to sunburn and skin ailments, those suffering from albinism have further problems in Tanzania, where they’re ostracized, abused and even murdered, in part for looking white. After a rash of killings — and the discovery that severed albino body parts catch top dollar — albino activist Josephet Torner leads a documentary crew as he tours the country, trying to mend relations with a population that irrationally fears and distrusts them. More moving than probing, it could stand to dig even deeper into what drives some to despise albinos to the point of murder.

‘The New Black’
When California’s Proposition 8 sailed through a statewide vote in 2008, some pointed to the black religious community for helping support it. Documentarian Yoruba Richen uses that as the jumping-off point to explore homophobia among African Americans, and how a race that faced so much prejudice can, in some cases, heap prejudice upon another. Richen dig up such examples as a pro-same-sex-marriage Baptist preacher and a gospel star who outed himself, revealing an issue that cuts deeper than a mere documentary can handle.

‘99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film’
Less a documentary than an extension of a movement that wasn’t always concise, the inevitable OWS movie tries to summarize what happened in the fall and winter of 2011, and what the group wants in the future. Despite the title, the collaboration has more to do with the footage, captured from hundreds of constantly rolling cameras. The message of the film, if not OWS at the time, is clear and focused (i.e., not fully collaborative), with claims buttressed by outsiders like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. More anti- voices are needed for a fuller portrait, both of OWS and the ideas it raised, but that’s for another film.

‘Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer’
The Pussy Riot incident — in which five members of the balaclava-clad feminist punk collective protested Putin by crashing a Moscow church, leading to the arrest of three on charges of “hooliganism” — gets its inevitable documentary. Those who are vocal about avoiding a return to the Communist era of suppressed speech suddenly find themselves longing to see women jailed for what they said (or sang). It’s wisely brought up that one problem was few of their targets understood what they were protesting, but still, there’s a happy(ish) ending.

‘Camp 14 — Total Control Zone’
Marc Wiese’s quasi-experimental documentary visits Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man born in a North Korean prison camp and the only known person to have escaped one and lived to tell his tale. And tell he does: He talks of being raised to know nothing about human connection and warmth. Indeed, he ratted out his own family when he believed they were trying to escape, an action that, he notes with great horror, is probably why he lives today. Wiese visits Shin, a half-formed man in a furniture-less apartment, whose horrific experiences of torture and starvation are presented in gray-on-gray animation. Chats with ex-guards, also traumatized and trying to forget their deeds, add to the despair.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Through June 23
Film Society at Lincoln Center and The IFC Center
http://ff.hrw.org/new-york



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