The hallmark of an unforgettable film is its power to take us to unfamiliar places and undiscovered stories.
Many of the titles featured at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, premiering this week at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox (April 3 – 10), are unflinching examples. Offering unique windows onto global crises, identity, and the complexities of contemporary life – the documentaries compelling messages aim to educate by promoting knowledge to inquisitive audiences.
Established in 2003, this year’s 16th edition of HRW embraces inclusivity: Four of the seven titles are directed or co-directed by women, with many of them highlighting themes of religious freedom, free speech, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Once seen, many of them are not easily shaken. Such is the case with the festival’s opening night selection, The Silence of Others (Wednesday, April 3, 8pm), which had the honour of being shortlisted at last year’s Oscars.
Tracing the victims of General Franco’s regime and their ongoing struggle against the Spanish dictator’s surviving thugs, directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo complied the documentary over a six-year span, following their subject’s ordeal as they organize the ground-breaking ‘Argentine Lawsuit.’
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the inspiring athlete at the centre of Life Without Basketball (Tuesday, April 9, 6:30pm), shows the same determination. Despite losing her dream of playing professional basketball – after breaking records and barriers as the first Division I player to wear a hijab – the controversial ban on religious headgear allowed her to re-examine the situation and pursue a successful fight to overturn it.
The inspiring film, directed by Tim O’Donnell and Jon Mercer, shows proof that one person can truly make a difference as Abdul-Qaadir begins coaching Muslim girls in an effort to encourage them to follow their own dreams.
Elsewhere, tackling timely issues with disturbing detail, The Cleaners (Sunday, April 7, 4pm), spotlights employees of a company in the Philippines who comb content for internet giants such as Twitter and Google.
Directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck follow five “cleaners” who describe the appalling aspects of their job – sifting and rating 25,000 sickening images and videos per day – and its lasting psychological effects. Moreover, the film delves deeper by providing interviews with researchers and former social media decision-makers who discuss the consequences of the online “global village” ideology succumbing to the fake news of today.
Whatever your preference might be, stories from real life engage the heart and the mind with in-depth research and emotional storytelling. While the same can certainly be said for the subjects at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, hopefully it can help prompt change, too.