Five Films To See At The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2020

Heading into their first online-only edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this year’s edition is one for the books. Collecting 11 films from across the globe, the 2020 edition of the HRWFF is as essential an edition as ever, featuring a variety of topics ranging from police brutality to LGBTQ activism in brutalist Chechnya, and all made available to the general public from June 11-20 at their official website. Yet, with just a pinch over a week to watch all these films, where should one begin? Well, here are five of this incredible lineup’s numerous must-see pictures.

5. Coded Bias

With the news of IBM stopping all work regarding facial recognition software arriving to almost unanimous praise, the latest film from director Shalini Kantayya is almost comically timely. Looking at the work of MIT researcher and activist Joy Buolamwini and her work to bring about legislation governing against what is very clearly racial bias found within the use of facial recognition software, Coded Bias is a film that may seem superficially void of much new content regarding this debate. However, while it may be a bit lacking in style, Kantayya’s film is an assured and often haunting look into tech algorithms and the bias that’s been coded within quite literally their very DNA. As more and more companies gather more and more data about their customers or users, it’s increasingly important to have transparency regarding how that data is being used, and this captivating documentary looks at the work of one activist and her attempt to bring about that very transparency on a judicial level.

4. The 8th

Directed by the team of Maeve O’Boyle, Lucy Kennegy and Aideen Kane, The 8th is a fascinating look at a topic seen throughout modern non-fiction cinema (the battle for abortion rights) yet seen through a lens rarely talked about (Irish activists fighting to repeal the 8th amendment of their Constitution). While it’s clear that the directing trio fall squarely on the pro-choice side of this debate, there are brief moments like one radio personality discussing her move to the pro-life side of things following a friend’s suicide attempt post-abortion. Brilliantly capturing the rawness of this debate, the battle had by women with the hopes of getting the literal right to choose what they do with their bodies is a black and white debate, a debate of incredible passion and deep seeded beliefs. In that vein, the film’s style may be a bit rudimentary, but what makes this a must-see film is the directing team’s ability to paint a nuanced and textured portrait of a debate that’s often seen as, rightly, being polarizing.

3. Reunited

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the world taken over by beautiful, bewilderingly moving protests getting back in the face of police injustice and systemic racism that’s plagued this nation for centuries (more on that in a moment), the continuing war being raged against immigrants by nationalist governments has seemingly taken something of a back seat on a global level. However, borders and their ability to destroy families hasn’t changed, and this is the topic of the new, almost nightmarishly intimate documentary Reunited. From director Mira Jargil comes this story of Rana and Mukhles, two parents separated by thousands of miles (the former being located in Denmark and the latter Canada) while their children remain in their native Turkey, with the film being drawn from various things like phone calls and home movies in order to craft a film that gives a first hand account of what it’s like to be a family completely at the whims of existential forces. A powerful and engrossing work of non-fiction filmmaking, at just under 80 minutes this is one of the more powerful and potent documentaries yet this year, a moving and urgent ode to family.

2. Welcome To Chechnya

Probably the biggest name on this list, Welcome To Chechnya may seem like a strange pick here given the relative support its received from outlets like HBO (who will be airing the film on June 30), but director David France (How To Survive A Plague) returns with another incredible documentary. This time France shines his light on activists not here in the states, but Russia instead, with a film that looks into a group of activists battling against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in Chechnya. Playing out as almost a white knuckle thriller instead of just a straight forward documentary, France crafts what is in many ways the most accomplished film visually within this year’s HRWFF lineup, with the director using everything from hidden cameras to face swapping technology to make what is both a genuinely groundbreaking experiment in activist filmmaking and also simply one of the most thrilling and unforgettable filmgoing experiences yet in 2020. I hesitate to talk to much more about the film and all of its thriller aspects for fear of potentially spoiling what is a genuinely unflinching look at a group of queer activists as they attempt to free members of the community from a government that would love nothing more than to stomp them out, quite literally. It’s really a masterpiece.

1. Down A Dark Stairwell

Finally, probably the most timely and fascinating documentary in this year’s festival. Following a tragic police shooting in 2014, Down a Dark Stairwell introduces viewers to the story of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American policeman and Akai Gurley, the innocent unarmed black man he shot and killed. Taking place in the titular “dark stairwell” in a Brooklyn housing project, the shooting lights a fuse within the community, putting at odds two different communities of color in what is one of 2020’s more textured and emotionally nuanced looks at a topic that’s taken the globe by storm. While it’s clear that director Ursula Liang has a clear point of view regarding who she may or may not think is the guilty or “at fault” party here, what makes this film so essential is its focus on both the police/civilian aspect of this issue as well as the battle waged on a cultural level between two communities themselves oppressed by larger forces within the US. At just 83 minutes the film’s brisk and yet doesn’t shy away from the knottier debates within this story, a film of remarkable nuance that’s rightly angry and yet never lets its vision get blurry. A must-see bit of American filmmaking.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.