The 23rd annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicked off Friday night with the New York premiere of journalist and first-time director Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Intriguing as much as it is troubling, the film—which won audiences over at Sundance this year—looks at the life of the artist and political activist who pushes China to grapple with its own social and political shortcomings, and challenges the government’s capricious, heavy-handed approach to silencing political dissent.
For the next two weeks Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater will be festival HQ, hosting a series of new films (14 New York debuts), panel discussions with experts and filmmakers, and an exhibition by South African photographer Brent Stirton, which investigates rights abuses committed against residents living near Papua New Guinea’s Porgera gold mine.
Focusing on five essential topics—health, development and the environment; LGBT and migrant’s rights; personal testimony and witnessing; reporting in crisis; and women’s rights—the uniting theme at this year’s festival is the power of the individual to impact change on a global scale, be it a single person standing up for what is right, or a community banding together to demand justice after impunity.
Annie Goldson and Rob Hamill’s documentary Brother Number One recounts the true story of the Kiwi filmmaker’s quest for justice following the torture and death of his eldest brother, Kerry Hamill, and two sailing mates at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The film follows Hamill’s journey to Cambodia where he attends a War Crimes Tribunal and confronts his brother’s killer: Comrade Duch, former commander of the notorious S-21 prison. The film takes its name from Pol Pot, the leader of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who nicknamed himself Brother Number One, and was responsible for a campaign of genocide in Cambodia that killed nearly 2 million people.
And there are many more: Bitter Seeds by Micha X. Peled follows a young journalist as she investigates a suicide epidemic among Indian cotton farmers who are deeply in debt after buying into a genetically modified seed program. Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight focuses on a community of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants at Frambois detention center in Switzerland.
The United States has its fair share of submissions as well. Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke examines the United State’s failing healthcare system, and Bidder 70, by Beth and George Gage, recounts the fallout from an act of sabotage by Tim DeChristopher that derailed an auction of oil and gas leases on public land in Utah by the Bureau of Land Management, and landed DeChristopher in federal prison.
Each film, by turns provacative, revelatory, disturbing or cathartic, invites reflection and consideration from the audience. Which brings me back to the ubiquitous Ai Weiwei, who has once again collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (the threesome created Beijing's Bird's Nest for the 2008 summer Olympics) to construct this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (open until October 14) in London's Kensington Gardens.
This year the pavillion draws visitors under a floating platform beneath the Serpentine lawn into a multi-tiered cork landscape that invites visitors to explore the what lies beneath the surface today, and to reflect on the past and its ghosts.
The Human Rights Watch Film Fesitval co-presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center takes place between June 14-28 at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets and a complete program of screenings, visit the website.
Marguerite A. Suozzi is an Assistant Research Editor at Travel + Leisure.