Women Documentarians Reveal Injustice and Hope at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

By Nora Lee Mandel

I used to think of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as “The Depressing Festival” in coverage over the past nine years.  But the programmers more and more balance artistic merit with the sponsoring NGO Human Rights Watch’s exposés of terrible injustices around the world, and even, sometimes, give the audience hope.  In this 27th year in New York City, they also broke barriers behind the cameras — 10 out of the 18 films in the program were directed or co-directed by women, many times with the intimacy from establishing a close relationship with the subjects, many in attendance at the Festival.  Not only did these documentaries sensitively spotlight a wide range of women’s issues in Afghanistan, China, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Mississippi, but women filmmakers were showcased gaining revealing access to difficult, diverse places — a maximum security prison and the Amazon rainforest.  

In New York City June 10-19, the film festival has expanded over the years, co-presenting uptown with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at the IFC Center, accompanied by related exhibitions and post-screening discussions on the issues with the filmmakers, HRW staff, and other experts.  Versions of the festival also travel: this year to Amsterdam and San Diego in January; its 20th anniversary in London in March; Toronto in April; Los Angeles and Miami in May; Chicago and Sydney in June; and selections shown in over a dozen other cities.  Many of these films continue to make the festival rounds elsewhere, as well in theaters.

Many of these very different films compellingly emphasize the power of government to use the legal system to stifle individual rights.  Thankfully, this year the Human Rights Watch Festival includes women directors providing some hope, with examples of individuals or communities taking action, even if any success is mixed or sui generis.


The impacts of China’s one-child policy since the 1970’s have mostly been seen in economic terms, such as looming labor shortages.  Italian director Sophia Luvara found that this lingering mandate intersects with traditional Chinese family norms to create added pressures on educated gay people with good jobs in booming, sophisticated cities like Shanghai who are only beginning to come out.  While Americans are familiar with gays who felt socially coerced, in the past and continuing now, to be on the “down low” in unhappy marriages to hide their sexuality from their families, young Chinese are trying for more satisfactory solutions.  Luvara accompanies gay men and lesbians at a “fake-marriage fair” who are looking to make a “match”, and are also exploring surrogate birthing and illegal adoption options.  

Luvara’s interviews (the more educated converse in English) well draw out the emotional turmoil young people face in trying to find partners who can accept these conditions, following over time the struggles of Andy with his perplexed father and Cherry with her reluctant partner and insistent mother.  But Luvara, in her first feature film, seems less interested in understanding the Chinese context of why their parents are so aggressive and demanding, for what makes them different from parents of gay children in other evolving societies.  When the children visit home, we can see parents who grew up in rural areas under a more rigidly puritanical Communist Party rule when homosexuality was first illegal, then considered a mental disorder until 2001.  They also lived under a system of mandatory community intrusion into their procreative choices which seems to continue now as gossipy competition and peer pressure.  Not explored is that so much of their expectations on their one child to marry and have a kid is in order to assure they will be cared for and supported in their old age and that a grandchild will assure the family’s future.  Luvara does pick up what the gay men don’t seem to get– the additional objections of potential participants who see that even in a “fake” marriage a “fake” daughter-in-law still is expected to take on the considerable burden of primary responsibility for filial piety.

Seek out these exciting women-directed selections from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as they travel to different cities, open in theaters, VOD, or broadcast on PBS or other channels over the year.

© Nora Lee Mandel 07/20/16

Top Photo: Andy and Cherry.

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch Festival.



About Nora

Nora Lee Mandel [] is a member of New York Film Critics Online and Alliance of Women Film Journalists; her reviews are counted in Rotten Tomatoes’ TomatoMeter [].  She reviews films and television in Film Festival Traveler, Film-Forward, Lilith, and NH Jewish Film Festival’s Film Buzz.  Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies and TV [] has been the basis for talks to audiences in New York and New Jersey, and Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.  @NLM_MavensNest

Tags: FF2 Media, Film Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, INSIDE THE CHINESE CLOSET, Nora Lee Mandel, Sophia Luvara

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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