There’s a world of difference between last year’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me.” The former is a stodgy, endless biopic that valorizes an already established titan. The latter is an essayistic documentary that uses him as a jumping off point to explore actual issues. It addresses the concept of Mandela as a figure and asks all the tough questions, including how does Apartheid compare to the German Democratic Republic and what exactly did famous, Western celebrities seek when they took selfies with him?
Khalo Matabane’s restlessly curious doc is one of many like it in the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which since 2003 has toured films that, like “Nelson Mandela,” try to challenge viewers rather than merely appeal to armchair liberalism. In “Return to Homs,” we witness Talal Derki’s first-person account of the Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011. But unlike the similar “The Square,” about the Egyptian Revolution, there are few spots for celebration. The rebellion is quickly pounded into tiny fragments, each scattering about for stray morsels of success and hope. Long stretches of failure and boredom remind viewers that revolution is gruntwork, and rarely glamorous.
How to present far-off horrors to the rest of the world and how to enact actual change through art are two questions at the heart of “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus.” The only country in Europe still ruled by a dictator, one Alexander Lukashenko, it’s a land that stifles free speech, but hasn’t completely squashed the Belarus Free Theatre, whose productions — played to viewers sitting on hard floors — sometimes simply contain actors relating true, harrowing stories. The film’s Belarusian footage had to be smuggled out of the country, while the troupe — following a sham of an election — find themselves only able to perform abroad, using bold theatrics to win awards and celebrity advocates.
The series’ scope runs almost as wide as the globe itself, with films on refugees in Cyprus (“Evaporating Borders), abortion in Nicaragua (“A Quiet Inquisition”), the son of a Hamas leader ("The Green Prince"), a transgender former Navy SEAL (“Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story) and even George Takei (“To Be Takei”) — a relative lighter note in the festival that still brings the seriousness of the “Star Trek” actor’s LGBT activism into focus.
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If you go:
Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center
June 12 through June 22
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge