Boy do we have it good. For sure, every place, every culture has its struggles, its persecuted communities, its tensions between wealth and poverty and how to mitigate the differences in society. And these are challenging times in so many places: the persecution of gays and lesbians from Russia to Arizona, the cancer-stricken natives living in the shadow of Alberta’s oil sands developments, not to mention the planet we despoil and scar in ways too numerous to even comprehend, let alone change. It’s tough all over, but wading into the films of TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Festival, two irrefutable facts come to mind. One, whatever buffoonery or political chicanery we encounter here, it’s got nothing on the shit going down all over the everywhere else. And two, there is a flipside to our seemingly boundless capacity for awfulness, namely the extraordinary resilience of some to rise above, to inspire, and to transform the stage upon which they walk. Let’s meet some bonafide heroes, after the jump.
This is the eleventh year that TIFF and Human Rights Watch have collaborated to bring this festival to Toronto. With eight films in as many days, these selections call attention to human rights violations in Canada and around the globe, and share remarkable stories of perseverance, hope and the need for change. Winner of audience awards at both Sundance and TIFF in 2013, The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, opens the festival on Thursday, February 27th. As with the unrest currently rocking the Ukraine, here we are given the conflict of Egypt undergoing paroxysms of change. From the revolution’s inception at Tahrir Square in 2011, we meet a few key individuals and follow their stories on the streets. Whether secular or Muslim, it’s fascinating to watch how the story shifts, the first optimistic rumblings as all manner of beliefs unite in their need to throw off Hosni Mubarak’s long-standing dictatorship. That idealism remarkably succeeds and Mubarak is deposed, but quickly the people’s hope founders, as the ever-cunning military that really runs Egypt sets the Muslim Brotherhood against secular factions in the revolution. Islamist Mohammed Morsi then takes control, only to create an even more totalitarian and now religious state. The country descends into anarchic violence, eventually “forcing” the military to step in again and remove Morsi from office amidst stunning, millions-strong protests. Through it all, the documentary crew is right there in the thick of the action. The excitement is palpable, and as the mood sours and the military and thugs are brought in to break the people’s spirit, the violence is chaotic and terrifying. At great danger to themselves, the filmmakers capture every moment, and you are truly there in the messy midst of revolution. The focus on eloquent secularist youth Ahmed and noted actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner), paired against the sympathetically principled Magdy of the Muslim Brotherhood, makes for a riveting study of the ways in which the conflict brings them together, and then sets them against each other.
“The people pay the price for everything,” Ahmed observes in The Square. “The people always pay the price.” In relatively recent times, Cambodia personifies the horrific price revolution can exact on a people. The Khmer Rouge fomented an agrarian, backward-looking revolution in the seventies worthy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution the decade before in China. Artists and intellectuals were killed en masse, and all urban dwellers were evacuated from the cities and forced to take up rice-farming in a demented rejection of all things bourgeois and capitalist. Everyone’s possessions were taken from them, save for a spoon, so they could eat. This was disastrous of course, and led to widespread famine, starvation and death. The killing and oppression the Khmer Rouge committed against their countrymen was matched only by their own savage infighting, replete with vicious purges. Rithy Panh grew up during this unrelentingly grim tenure, and directed The Missing Picture to tell his experiences and reclaim his memories from the Khmer Rouge’s terrifying oppression. With the only surviving film footage of the time coming from the Khmer’s own propaganda films, Panh uses hand-crafted, beautifully painted clay models to counterpoint that footage, illustrating his experiences with brilliant tableaus. These still totems are surprisingly moving, as he imbues them with his own distinctly personal observations of a nightmare buried in the rice paddies years before. The Missing Picture won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s a moving testament to the ways in which art and reason can redeem unimaginable suffering.
As much as a state can visit shocking trauma on its citizens, equally horrific is the spectre of cruel and systemic domestic violence. Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face tackles the gruesome problem of Pakistan’s alarmingly frequent acid attacks on women, many of them perpetrated by spouses and close family members. The film follows two survivors in their attempts to bring their assailants to justice, as a plastic surgeon sets to repairing the catastrophic damage inflicted on them. This Academy-award winning short documentary is challenging viewing, but inspiring nonetheless. The plight of these women is taken up and addressed at last by the Pakistani parliament, acknowledging the structural inequalities that persist in a society that allows such crimes to go unpunished. We’re talking hundreds of women here, grossly disfigured by their own families, for the crime of arranged marriages gone bad. As their cause is heard, these women gain strength, earning a rare and gratifying victory where they are so clearly not valued. The fear of reprisal remains, however. After the film was finished, the Acid Survivors Foundation filed a suit to keep the film from being shown in Pakistan, lest more acts of violence be committed against acid victims. Change is so very hard.
Other films in the festival include In the Shadow of the Sun, following two Tanzanian men afflicted with albinism and the virulent racism they encounter; Bethlehem, about a young Palestinian informant for the Israeli security service who discovers his employers are plotting to assassinate his radical brother; Valentine Road, which investigates the murder of openly gay California teenager Larry King by his school crush Brandon McInerney, delving into the homophobia, sexism, racism and classism of American youth; and Big Men, a compelling look into the rapacious world of the global energy industry and African oil deals. The festival closes on March 6th with the world premiere of Canadian director Matthew Smiley’s Highway of Tears, a hard-hitting look at the decades-long string of murders and disappearances of young Indigenous women along British Columbia’s Highway 16, and the selective blindness that allowed these cases to be ignored by investigative authorities for years. All the screenings will feature introductions and discussion by the filmmakers, Human Rights Watch researchers, or experts in each film’s area.
“We no longer live in a world where we can plead ignorance,” observes Helga Stephenson, Chair of the festival. “For those seeking the truth, our festival offers personal and poignant glimpses into the world of survivors who in turn inspire us to care, to become active in the fight for human rights around the globe.” Seeing the challenges these remarkable individuals face and overcome, we see the cost of courage but also what it can accomplish. If we’re lucky, this courage thing could be contagious.
For a full schedule of the film’s appearing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, see here. If you’re in the U.S., you can watch The Square on Netflix. Saving Face can be found on several international iTunes stores.