It’s been a touch-and-go start to the year, and in many ways a rude awakening to the reality of life in a democracy as fragile as the one we’ve come to accept as our own. While chaos reigns in the halls of Westminster and the White House, the future is suddenly more uncertain than many of us are comfortable and, indeed, equipped to deal with. Perfect timing then, for London’s annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival (6-17 March 2017) to inject a dose of sobering reality, invigorating the senses and widening perspectives half a foot wider than our media diet normally permits.

Researching, highlighting, and funding resistance to some of the world’s most overlooked human rights violations, HRW is a veritable Robin Hood figure for the moral age, taking the spotlight off the rich and placing it firmly on the poor and dispossessed victims of greed-fuelled oppression. From the Oscar-nominated struggles of James Baldwin to be seen as a man instead of a leftover burden from the colonial age (I Am Not Your Negro) to the physical and mental trauma of Moroccan and Yemeni girls utilised for marriage and childbirth long before their fragile bodies are ready for either (Child Mother), the film festival is a trip around the world, an invaluable look through strangers’ eyes, and a roller-coaster ride through history.

Those of us feeling helpless in the wake of recent events might find strength in the uncompromising bravery of Nori Sharif (Nowhere to Hide) as he treats the maimed and broken bodies of Iraqi civilians punished by the global struggle for power over the Middle East, working tirelessly under the ever-looming threat of bullets, bombs, and kidnap. His ultimate decision to abandon the village for the sake of his family resonates with a universal desire for peace and safety of our loved ones, shared by the peoples and tribes of every community on earth.

Exposure to the worlds parallel to our own inevitably leads to the revelation of some harsh truths, perhaps even the realisation that the stability of our own society depends rather heavily on the circumstances of others, or, in the words of Dr. King – “no man is free until we are all free.”

While the idea of indulging ourselves in the grief of countless others, especially in the midst of a significant number of potential crises of our own making, might seem like an exercise in emotional self-destruction, it’s the very knowledge of the scale of human suffering across the globe that raises our expectation of victory to heights that can benefit all instead of just some.

Can we ever truly be happy with an alternative US president when the construction of ever-slicker mobile phones is releasing a devastating poison into the nervous systems of countless Chinese factory workers (Complicit)? Could a reversal of the Brexit decision really lead to harmony in a world where religious zealots operate on a biblical right to invade the homes and farmlands of others (The Settlers)?

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival might have been a painful two weeks of cinema, but, as my father used to say, it’s often the most bitter medicine that does the most good. Instead of recoiling at the pain, let’s work together make sure that, in the years to come, material for such films and organisations becomes significantly more difficult to come by.


Words: Eva Baranova
Photo: I Am Not Your Negro (Library of Congress)