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.


If you think of solitary confinement as being thrown in “The Hole” for a few days in such movies as The Shawshank Redemption, Kristi Jacobson’s in-depth portrait of the Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in southwest Virginia, is a revelation about the modern system of full-time incarceration in the over 40 supermax prisons.

Gaining access with an ostensible goal of showcasing the reformist Administrative Segregation Step-Down Program that prepares inmates to return to the general prison population, Jacobson got unprecedented access to talk to those there, both voluntarily (staff from the warden to corrections officers and counselors) and involuntarily (those transferred from other prisons because of violent behavior).  Built in 1998 amidst the isolated rural beauty of the changing seasons of the Appalachian Mountains as a major employer when the coal mines were shutting down, the facility can “restrictively house” up to 500 prisoners in 8′ x 10′ solitary confinement cells for 23 hours a day.

Even chained in a tiny visitors’ room, the prisoners are clearly pleased to not only have someone to talk to, but also be listened to, especially I think to open up because Jacobson (a protégé of groundbreaking documentarian Barbara Kopple) is a woman and came back to the prison many times over a year.  From young to old (with a mother too elderly to visit any more), white and black, they reveal childhoods of abuse to explain but don’t excuse the violent acts that first got them in prison, and the horrendous actions that they committed in prison that got them into solitary as the corrections’ system’s last resort.  (The African-American prisoner, from “South Central, Los Angeles”, bitterly blames Virginia’s strict three-times-you’re-out and lengthy required sentencing guidelines for drug dealers that got him 38 years inside.)  A major incentive for prisoners to participate in the work program is the opportunity to even just converse with the other participating inmates in the only communal space allowed, though the daily sounds are heard by all.

Their crimes can’t help but make the audience sympathetic to the control issues the State Department of Corrections faces.  But the extremity of this isolationist solution is claustrophobically apparent, including on guards, let alone on those inmates too disturbed from not being able to cope after years like this who are not functional enough for extended interviews.  While there has been a lot of media angst about this country’s high rate of over-incarceration and recidivism leading to unemployment for ex-prisoners, this indelible documentary gives thoughtful consideration to the conditions of the people inside with virtually no chance to get out.  Since its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Solitary will be shown on HBO later this year.

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: At Red Onion State Prison.

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch Film 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: Barbara Kopple, FF2 Media, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Kristi Jacobson, Nora Lee Mandel, Tribeca Film Festival

Related Posts

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.
Previous Post Next Post