Another day, another festival! The Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and online with five films that tackle urgent causes gripping the globe. Here’s a rundown of what’s playing at this year’s festival, which includes many filmmaker Q&As moderated by acclaimed journalists, directors, and experts in the field.
Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Dir. Evgeny Afineevsky
In theatre: March 8; Online as of March 13
The follow up to Evgeny Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated and TIFF People’s Choice Award winning documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom returns to the besieged nation that’s gripped the world in headlines. After chronicling the student protest movement turned civil rights rallying cry in Winter on Fire, Afineevsky looks at the nation’s resilience amid the recent invasion by Putin’s army. Freedom on Fire captures the Ukrainians’ solidarity as a united front as the doc delivers images from around the nation and weaves through the tumultuous period between the Maiden revolution and the present day. The epic scope adds to the film’s collective and collaborative nature. Shot by 43 cinematographers in 20 cities across Ukraine, the doc offers one of the fullest portraits of the Ukrainians’ struggle and strength yet.
Koromousso, Big Sister
Dir. Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan
In theatre: March 9; Online as of March 13
Emotions run high in Koromousso, Big Sister. This powerful NFB documentary directed by Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan tackles the personal toll of female genital mutilation. The co-directed effort lends an especially empathetic ear to the subjects as Ouarme appears on camera and offers a reassuring presence for women as they speak about violence committed against their bodies. Koromousso considers this outdated practice at a time when the women’s movement is in a particularly strange moment caught between #MeToo and a rollback on reproductive rights. The film gives women a forum to speak about the traumatic experience and the violence against sexual pleasure, yet in offering a comfortable place to break the stigma, Koromousso also asks direct questions of the West as women who have been subjected to mutilation cannot receive reconstructive surgery to restore their sexual health. The film is a tough, but fresh look at the topic.
Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
In theatre: March 10; Online as of March 13
Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite returns with full force with The Grab. This incendiary investigative thriller connects all the dots in the fight for the world’s natural resources. The film follows journalist Nathan Halverson as he embarks on a global quest, tracing the impact of land grabs by wealthy nations eager to control the world’s food supplies, access to fresh water, and land for development. The exposé leads him down a rabbit hole that connects pork chops with private militia, Saudi princes, forced homelessness in Zambia, and even the war in Ukraine. “I wanted the narrative to be essentially Nate’s investigation,” Cowperthwaite told POV during an interview following The Grab’s premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Having him let me watch that investigation unfold was the key to making the film. I felt like audiences could really connect and be excited by the process of peeling back. There were other stories that I knew we had to hear in the context of The Grab, so I would tee it up and Nate would have a story at the ready, and he would knock it outta the park. It was a symbiotic give-and-take that worked over the course of six years.”
Uýra: The Rising Forest
Dir. Juliana Curiz
In theatre: March 11; Online as of March 13
Festival circuit hit Uýra: The Rising Forest gets a Toronto encore following its award-winning stop at Planet in Focus last fall. The film introduces audiences to a memorable character in Uýra, a transgender Indigenous artist in the Brazilian Amazon who harnesses the spirit of the rainforest to deliver a message of hope, renewal, and transformation. With a truly cinematic eye, Juliana Curiz captures the fabulous theatricality of Uýra’s artistic process. But the film itself is a defiant act. In a country with one of the world’s most notorious reputations for committing violence against the bodies of transpeople, this full-bodied portrait puts the human form on full display. The film finds stirring parallels between the transgender community and the rainforest as both experience devastating harm through the unrelenting hunger of colonial forces that wreak havoc upon the land.
Dir. Ike Nnaebue
In theatres March 12; Online as of March 13
Nigerian filmmaker Ike Nnaebue offers a cinematic road movie of sorts as he retraces a journey he took two decades ago. The film tells how he used a circuitous path to leave Nigeria with plans to land in Europe, but was forced to turn back when he hit Morocco. Cut to 20 years later and the world’s migration crisis is even worse. Nnaebue looks at his own journey being undocumented and how that weighs on a person as he encounters travellers who embark on the same route with hopes to arrive at a similar destination: rootedness. No U-Turn received a special mention for best documentary at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival.
The 2023 Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs in theatres at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema from March 8 to 12, and online as of March 13. Admission is free or by donation.