Human Rights Watch Film Festival Goes Digital

And struggles with diversity issues

The New York Digital Edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival launched last Thursday with a slate of 11 documentaries, available for streaming across the U.S. through Saturday, June 20. HRW follows a large number of post-pandemic festivals internationally in going virtual. “It’s all about the films and the urgent issues they present. We just couldn’t consider waiting a whole year. These films need to be seen now,” says director John Biaggi of the decision to adapt rather than cancel or postpone.

The festival exists under the larger Human Rights Watch organization and distinguishes itself with a selection of issue-oriented films that undergo uncommonly thorough scrutiny. After a committee of pre-screeners and festival programmers rate them, they forward the films to HRW employees with particular sets of expertise for fact checking and review. HRW then programs the work that passes the process at events year-round in over 20 cities worldwide. Although both fiction features and documentaries are eligible, the latter tend to dominate because, as Biaggi puts it, “presenting current and urgent human rights issues is what documentaries do best.”

As Black Lives Matter protests continue to push arguments for police and prison abolition, a handful of films in the slate deal directly with the experience of blackness, including Ursula Liang’s Down a Dark Stairwell, which traces the fallout after a Chinese-American police officer’s 2014 murder of an unarmed black man in New York City.

Film festivals, however, remain complicit in the larger exclusion of black voices. Human Rights Watch counts only one black director among the lineup and, like many other festivals, there is no black presence on the leadership team. “This is an issue we are very mindful of and one which impacts all of our staff planning and programming discussions. And though our festival budget is small–and sadly has been growing smaller every year– if given the opportunity to bring on a new staff member, our top priority would be a diversity of potential candidates,” says Biaggi. Both the lineup and team feature a female majority.

Coded Bias, part of the Human Rights Watch Digital Film Festival.

Other highlights in the tightly-curated lineup include Coded Bias, about a researcher’s discovery of facial recognition technology’s tendency to misidentify women and dark-skinned people, Peter Murimi’s I Am Samuel, which depicts a young man’s relationship with queerness in Kenya, a country that criminalizes LGBTQ identification, and The 8th, an inspiring recap of Ireland’s successful challenge to a draconian abortion law.

“It is forever humbling to show these films which speak loudly to our shared humanity and the courage and strength of those profiled in the films,” said Biaggi. All 11 films will be available to rent through the 20th, either individually or through the purchase of an all-inclusive pass. Live Q&As moderated by HRW experts will take place each night, and HRW has recorded them for later viewing.

Inney Prakash

Inney Prakash is a writer, film curator and actor, plus whatever else he needs to be in this economy, based in NYC.

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