Art Meets Activism at Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov


By Pat Mullen

Audiences eager to connect art and activism can catch some urgent tales at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF). Kicking off at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Thursday, January 30, HRWFF offers a host of festival favourites that engage audiences with necessary questions about the world in which we live. In addition to scouting festivals for films that ignite a spark with their human rights parables, the films of HRWFF undergo an intense vetting process in which lawyers and experts in respective fields assess candidates’ sensitivity to human rights issues. The resultant programming ensures that audiences are motivated with the right signals and call to action while respecting the rights and dignity of subjects within the films. All HRWFF films are free to attend.

Here’s what’s playing at the 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival on the documentary front:

I Am Not Alone

Human Rights Watch FF kicks off with a Toronto encore of a TIFF favourite. I Am Not Alone was a runner-up for the People’s Choice Award for Documentary at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and it’s easy to see why its revolutionary spirit captivated audiences. System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian provides the musical score and lands an executive producer credit on this documentary about the 2018 Armenian Revolution. The film illustrates how art and activism go hand in hand as director Garin Hovannisian takes audiences to the front lines of a social movement. Immediate footage from protestors on the ground and objective interviews with parties from all sides combine for an intense and urgent snapshot of history in the making. If you liked The Square, this doc’s for you.

On the President’s Orders

This incendiary film offers a provocative exposé on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drug users. On the President’s Orders blew the roof off Hot Docs when it premiered last year and the HRWFF encore is another stop on a successful festival run that’s helped open eyes to a grievous spree of state-sanctioned bloodshed. “There are no answers to be found in the film, no moments of catharsis that might suggest that somehow this situation is going to get better,” wrote Jason Gorber while reviewing the film at Hot Docs. “If anything, it’s a warning about the global rise of authoritarian regimes that have led to the de-liberalizing of democracies, where the majority supports (at least temporarily) a ruler that will “clean the streets” no matter the cost.” But the best praise? The International Criminal Court is now using On the President’s Orders as evidence in its case against Duterte.

Gay Chorus Deep South

A story of true courage should stir HRWFF-goers with Gay Chorus Deep South just as strongly as it did at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Festival last summer. This film by David Charles Rodrigues looks at a group of committed Americans who sought to bridge divides following the divisive 2016 election that brought new levels of hate speech and prejudice out of hiding. Gay Chorus Deep South follows the members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir as they travelled across the American South and shared notes of optimism. Confronting prejudice and facing homophobia and bigotry head-on, the film provides an inspiring call to action for Americans to imagine a better tomorrow. The screening includes a special performance by Toronto’s LGBTQ+ chorus, Singing Out.

Born in Evin

Audiences looking for a personal reflection should catch Maryam Zaree’s debut feature Born in Evin. Zaree shares with viewers the discovery that she was born in Evin, a notorious prison in Iran. The filmmaker also learns that she was not the only child to begin her life behind bars. Considering the implications of trauma and memory, Zaree opens up her family history and dives deep into the secrets that families hide from their own loved ones. “Despite the horror stories, Born in Evin has many touching, ebullient moments,” wrote Maurie Alioff while reviewing the film at Hot Docs. “Zaree’s first documentary was made with simple means, including evocative VHS home movies from her childhood…This is a film that should be seen.”

The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov

The prime ticket of HRWFF might be Askold Kurov’s The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov. In addition to being the lone premiere of the line-up, The Trial gives audiences an intimate glimpse at the face featured in social media campaigns pleading for his freedom. The film features candid footage with Ukrainian film director and Maidan activist Oleg Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison after being dubiously charged for an anti-Russian terrorist movement. There is a mild spoiler alert to entice audiences to attend the screening: Sentsov will participate in a live Q&A following the screening.


The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov (English subtitles) from Rise and Shine World Sales on Vimeo.

The 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival starts on Thursday, Jan. 30 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.