Human Rights Watch Film Festival - London

In its 18th year, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Film Festival will run from 18 to 28 March 2014 with a programme of 20 award-winning documentary and feature films screening at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Soho, Ritzy Brixton and the Barbican.

Jehane Noujaim’s award-winning documentary The Square (2013) serves as the Festival’s fundraising benefit at Curzon Mayfair on 18 March. Noujaim follows a group of young activists, including British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (United 93, The Kite Runner), as they demonstrate in Cairo’s main square and campaign for political change. They witness and document the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-long dictatorship in 2011, the military’s brutality during the protests, the rise in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in 2013.

Much of the footage, often captured on hand held cameras and mobile phones, gives a real sense of immediacy to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Particularly poignant is the central relationship between articulate campaigner Ahmed Hassan and fellow activist Magdy Ashour, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Morsi comes to power in 2012, many of the revolutionaries, like Ahmed, feel betrayed, accusing the Islamist party of having struck a deal with the military. The Square shows how friendships and allegiances are tested at moments of political crisis and how quickly the tide can change. This is highlighted by the horrific mass killing by security forces of almost 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood protestors on14 August 2013.

On 20 March, the Opening Night of the festival at the Curzon Soho will see the UK premiere of Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground collective of performers who used to hold guerrilla performances in Belarus, critical of President Lukashenko and his repressive policies. Using smuggled footage and uncensored interviews, Sackler follows the attempted censorship and imprisonment of various members and the eventual flight into exile of founding members, Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada.

Other highlights of the festival include Rachel Boynton’s enlightening film, Big Men (Saturday 22 March 18.30 | Ritzy Brixton, Sunday 23 March 18.00 | Curzon Soho) about American oil investment in Ghana (following the discovery of a large offshore oil field). This is adroitly contrasted with the governmental corruption and perennial problems experienced by the older oil nation Nigeria. Boynton reveals the pitfalls of oil production from a corporate and personal perspective but allows audiences to draw their own conclusions. She gained unprecedented access to various factions interested in African oil, including Kosmos Energy, a Texas-based oil startup, keen to invest and reap rich rewards in Ghana and the militants sabotaging operations in the Niger Delta.

Another memorable feature is the UK premiere of Before Snowfall (Wednesday 26 March 20.45 | Barbican and Thursday 27 March 20.45 | Ritzy Brixton), Hisham Zaman’s extraordinary film about honour killing. An Iraqi Kurd, Siyar, the oldest son in his household, follows his older sister, Nermin, through Europe to Oslo, Norway after she flees an arranged marriage. The film is damning indictment of this barbaric tradition and also exposes the various criminal connections that help to sustain the practice.

The HRW film festival has fast become one of the best showcases for documentaries and features that draw attention to the various human rights abuses and crimes being committed around the world with impunity. This year, it’s organised around five themes: Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring; Human Rights Defenders, Icons and Villains; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights; Migrants’ Rights and Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights.

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