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Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Humanizing the Headlines

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June 1, 2018

This March, Bethany Brown, Older People’s Rights Researcher at the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and I attended the HRW Film Festival Benefit Gala in London. The event showed the London premiere of the powerful documentary This Is Congo, at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The compelling documentary, directed by Daniel McCabe, exposes the longest running conflict in Africa through the lens of a whistle-blower, a patriotic military commander, a mineral dealer and a displaced tailor.

Over the past twenty years, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has witnessed the impoverishment of its population and decimation of 5 million citizens because of conflict. The country’s security has recently deteriorated, as government authority collapsed and rival rebels’ groups continue to fight one another.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila has postponed elections again, until the end of 2018, two years after the official end of his term. This is significant as people in the DRC are caught in a cycle of political turmoil and violence, in which the powerful and corrupt compete for the country’s vast mineral resources.

The film’s four protagonists expose all sides of the conflict in the eastern regions of the DRC, from the Rwandan and Ugandan backed M23 rebels to the national army, in an extremely humanising way. Beautifully shot, adopting many angles and not shying away from filming crude atrocities, the documentary depicts the struggles of people caught in the war action. Fergal Keane, Africa Editor at BBC News, described the film as “complex and compassionate” in the panel discussion that followed the screening.

The HRW Film Festival, now in its tenth year, currently screens over 500 films in over 20 cities around the world. It aims to “bring to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenges each individual to empathize and demand justice for all people”. Established and new filmmakers from around the globe take part in the festival to shine a light and give a voice to the unheard.

The Film Festival is just one of the ways HRW engages with individuals in defending and protecting human rights. By attracting people who may not think they have an interest in human rights but enjoy documentaries, the HRW Film Festival democratises the denunciation of human rights violations and empowers audiences with the knowledge to think, talk and act upon what they have seen.

While some films shed a light on issues most of us may be exposed to through the news, such as the Venezuelan crisis, others shed light on the immense complexity of problems we do not usually hear about, such as the situation in the DRC.

A week after the Film Festival Benefit Gala, I saw a documentary by Venezuelan-French director, producer and screenwriter, Margarita Cadenas, titled Women of the Venezuelan Chaos, documenting the plight of five women in the South American country.

Shot over a month in the summer of 2016, Margarita and her team follow women from different socio-economic backgrounds and generations in their struggle for survival. In what was once the wealthiest country in Latin America, the five women share their own tale of daily resilience amidst the worst political, economic and social crisis of the country’s 200-year history. Addressing issues of food and medicine shortages, political prisoners and injustice, the documentary reveals the dreadful living conditions that the government systematically denies.

HRW Film Festival goers often have the chance to engage with the director of a film, who is often present at the projections, through a Q&A with the audience. The films screened globally reflect the tremendous advocacy work the independent organisation does online and on paper. For example, the Women of the Venezuelan Chaos aligns with an online campaign HRW is running, #TodosConVenezuela, to denounce the “heart breaking human rights and humanitarian crisis that President Maduro’s administration denies is happening”.

Citizens all around the world are urged to act now and show their support for the Venezuelan people.

This year, the HRW Film Festival ends its journey in New York City, where it will run from June 14-21. To not miss the opportunity to witness gripping documentaries, you can find out more about which inspiring films will be shown in NYC here!