Perhaps more so than any other genre of filmmaking, documentaries provide an opportunity for filmmakers to tell the types of stories that would otherwise go unheard, and to give a voice to those without one of their own. Films like these take us out of our comfort zone to explore and question the frightening realities of our human condition, which often means they are more difficult to watch, and at the same time, more powerful and inspiring. The following two films – both of which are official selections at this year’s Hot Docs festival – accomplish precisely this, telling important human stories which beg to be heard, and reminding us of the power and importance of documentary filmmaking as a means to incite change.
Watchers of the Sky (USA, Dir: Edet Belzberg)
Oscar-nominated director Edet Belzberg (Children Underground) tells the forgotten story of Raphel Lemkin, a lawyer and activist who dedicated his life to changing the course of international law when he invented the term “genocide” and began an uphill battle for progressive political change on a global level. After spending his entire youth studying cases of systematic mass-murder meant to eradicate an entire race or group of peoples, Lemkin determined that such horrific acts should not be permitted to go unpunished, despite the fact that there were no governing laws to deal with them on an international level. He developed a term to encapsulate this crime against human nature, and lead a movement to enforce it on a global level, which proved impossible during his lifetime due to the radically progressive nature of his vision, and its inherent contrast with individual national interests. As we look beyond Lemkin’s life and into his legacy – carried out by a select few who continue his fight for global change in their own contexts – we find that the same issues of shortsighted politics still plague the world today, and keep us from progressing towards an international answer to acts genocide. Belzberg’s powerful documentary explores these struggles against the backdrop of real-world cases as they appear in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Children 404 (Russia, Dir: Pavel Loparev & Askold Kurov)
In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a law forbidding “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” which has since caught the world’s attention. This “gay propaganda” law allows police officials to arrest or charge anyone who speaks in defence of LGBT rights, promotes gay pride in any way, or states that same-sex relationships are equal in value to heterosexual relationships. As a result of this law – which Putin believes is a tool to protect children from exposure – LGBT youth are rendered voiceless and confused, without the opportunity to become properly informed or to live a normal life due to increasing hostility from those around them. In response to this situation, a young Russian journalist named Elena Klimova started an internet project entitled “Children-404” which supports LGBT youth by offering an online community where they can come together to connect and support each other on an anonymous basis. Loparev and Kurov’s touching homegrown documentary examines first-hand accounts of the struggles faced by Russian LGBT youth in their everyday lives, including those of Klimova herself, and explores the growing tendency for these individuals to flee their homeland in search of a safer, more accepting country, where they can live a normal life free of prejudice and fear.