Spotlight: Human Rights Watch Festival 2016

We are in a crowded, dirty boat, packed with Syrians of all ages on the run, headed towards Italy. It is the seventh day of their journey and their resources are soon running out. As elders survive on coloured ORS water, children are trying to smile although the going is getting tougher by the hour. Amidst the raging waves and the purple night sky, we see a beacon of light. Rami, the middle-aged programmer who is filming this ‘crossing’ over, wonders aloud whether this is a “dream.” The huge oil tanker reveals itself and the fleeing group sees humans other than them on sea for the first time that week. They are now literally and figuratively “at sea.” Not knowing if the men aboard the oil tanker can be trusted because one small wrong step would mean nothing less than death to them, they call out and ask them to ‘promise by God’ that they were, in fact, about to rescue them. Ultimately, they do take the chance and are rescued to Europe.

But their journey, as one of the protagonists in George Kurian’s deeply affecting documentary The Crossing puts it, has just begun. Navigating through the bureaucracy in various parts of the European continent, they try hard to merge in, although they know that they stand out. While sitting through the 55-minute long documentary, we realize that these are people like you and me—hailing from the middle-class, smart and educated—who worry about things like whether they would get ‘shower gel’ to clean themselves once they get to Europe. They are not running away to a ‘better life,’ Nabil, one of the refugees, informs us; they are running ‘for a life.’ Filmed partly by the refugees themselves, the film gives us a chilling first-hand look at what it feels like to leave behind your country, your life, your family and friends to start a life elsewhere, not out of choice, but out of compulsion. Despite having crossed over to an alien land physically, Rami feels they are all still aboard the boat, sailing on without a destination in sight.

For many of us, these are stories of the lives of others. People we do not know; things that do not affect us directly, happening halfway around the world. Most of them are stories that are pertinent and need to be heard but go unreported or get brushed under the carpet. And, that is the reason why each of these films become important. Most of us inhabit more comfortable and secure spaces than those pictured in the 21 films in this year’s lineup of New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, running June 10 – 19. They put in front of us raw tales of rights denied and paint a picture with the words of those who are wronged. What jolts us in most of these films is the outright flouting of existing laws by the authorities themselves and the way the media, which is hailed as the fourth pillar of democracy, distorts facts and indulges in public trials, thus, planting the seeds of prejudice and mistrust in society.

Portraying a kind of ‘crossing over’ quite different from that seen in Kurian’s film is Eric Juhola’s documentary Growing Up Coy. The filmmaker follows 6-year-old transgender girl Coy Mathis and her parents as they fight against her school for having banned her from using the girls’ bathroom. At one point through the year-long legal fight and continuous media attention they are subjected to, Coy’s parents’ relationship takes a beating. As soon as they open up about the girl’s gender identity, the highly transphobic society alienates them and armchair social media activists from around the world attack the parents for making their ‘son’ believe that he is a girl. Their courage and resilience leads to a landmark judgement in civil rights discrimination but leaves their lives changed forever. While the world celebrates Coy and her parents’ determination through the film, the Mathis family has retreated into a quiet life, trying to piece back their life.

While Coy’s mother Kathryn emerges, in her lawyer’s words, a natural fighter, another mother on the other side of the world has to flee for having taken a stand. Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow, made news internationally when she offered free sex as a move to advocate the rights of sex workers and urge the Chinese government to legalize prostitution. She worked with sex workers for a long time, but it was when she decided to protest against the horrific, publicized Hainan rape case (in which a school principal allegedly offered six of his students as sexual bribe to government officials) that her life took a turn. She was hunted down by goons of the powerful and the police deny her citizen protection even after repeated assaults on her and 13-year-old daughter. To keep her daughter safe, Ye travels the length and breadth of her motherland, almost always to be turned away by citizens who are afraid of the totalitarian government. She finally finds solace temporarily in the village she was born in, where she now leads the life of a common Chinese peasant lady.

Nangfu Wang’s documentary that shares the activist’s moniker is not just the story of Ye, but of many men and women like her who are being repeatedly and unlawfully prosecuted for having dared to raise their voices against the anarchic ways of the state. “We forget that we are women when we work,” Ye says in the film. “Activists have no gender.” Many a time during the 83-minute runtime of Hooligan Sparrow, which is shot engagingly in a guerilla style, we wonder what motivates these activists to put their lives on the line when all they get in return is the brutal insouciance of the ruling class or the contempt of the working class. In what is one of the most defining moments in the film, the activists face the camera one by one and record what could very well be their last words, urging those around them to ‘look for them’ in case they disappear midway through their protest against the power lobbies. Filmed in an extremely hostile environment, sometimes navigating repeated threats to equipment and life, Hooligan Sparrow, which opens the festival this year, is funny, painful and provoking at the same time.

One of the must-watch films at the festival, this time, is Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, which is a moving portrait of the inmates of a correction home for girls in Tehran. Having ended up there for crimes ranging from petty robbery to possession of drugs and even murder, the girls manage to find happiness in their hopeless and dreary existence. Their stories are similar: broken families, abusive male relatives, jailed siblings. Having been picked up from the streets, they do not believe in the false hopes the authorities give them about a better life once they are set free. The vivacious girls—Khatereh, ‘Nobody,’ ‘651,’ Masoumeh, Somayeh and the others—find it far more comforting and even reassuring to be locked up in the juvenile home than to give the freedom to live with their families. They fear that they will fall back into the lives they led before they reached the home and all they crave is a sane and secure nest to live in. Freedom takes on a whole new meaning in the lives of these girls, making us wonder whether the rights that we so fervently advocate will make any difference to their lives at all.

On the other end of the spectrum is the harsh punishment meted out to the men in Red Onion, the Virginian State Prison that confines its inmates in 8ft x 10ft rooms for 23 hours in a day. The amusing part of this arrangement, reveals Kristi Jacobson’s film Solitary, is that this sentence is decided upon not by a court or a jury, but the police officials themselves. Men who have been subjected to solitary confinement for years open up about what goes on their minds when they are locked up within the four walls of their cells. Does this kind of a punishment lead to repentance or just more anger and frustration? The film, although a bit skewed in perspective, depicts the monotony in the lives of these prisoners trapped behind frosted fences and bright blue steel doors.
Each of these films brings to us stories that question the choices we make and the ideals we believe in. They show us how people around the world are fighting against curbed freedoms and for rights denied, despite the impossible situations they encounter every day. There are also stories of individuals and groups who have risen above the deep-seated prejudices and injustices in society to help their fellow beings lead a better life. Their selflessness is what breathes hope and turns into the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud of gloom and misery. By the end of it, they teach us to look at these stories as not of others, but as of our own. We realise that we are no different from the girls in Tehran, the prisoners in Virginia or the women of China. We are the world and we need to raise our voices. Against abuse, injustice and oppression. Raise them louder if they are being drowned out by the noise of political agenda or social incarceration.
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