Now in its 18th year, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from 18-28 March 2014 with a programme of twenty 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 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 rise in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi.
Much of the footage, 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 crisis and how quickly the tide can change. This is brutally highlighted by the horrific mass murder of almost a thousand Muslim Brotherhood protesters on 14 August 2013.
On 20 March, the Opening Night of the festival at the Curzon Soho welcomes the UK premiere of Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (2013). 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 Big Men (2013) (22 March 6.30pm, 23 March 6.00pm) 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.
Another memorable feature is the UK premiere of Before Snowfall (2013) (26 March 8.45pm, 27 March 8.45pm), 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 documentary 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 also organised around five themes: Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring; Human Rights Defenders, Icons and Villains; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights; Migrants’ Rights and Women’s Rights & Children’s Rights.