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2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival streams social justice stories

Documentaries on social justice, including stories of incarcerated women, cultural identity, police violence, inclusive education, and government cover-ups, are in the spotlight at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, presented digitally beginning Wednesday, May 19.

The festival, now in its 32nd year, will screen 10 feature films digitally through May 27, and will also host free online discussions with the filmmakers and subjects, as well as with researchers and advocates from Human Rights Watch.

Feature films

The following are descriptions and trailers for the festival’s 10 features, only some of which have been previewed at press time:

“Apart” (Jennifer Redfearn, United States)

Approximately 80 percent of women incarcerated in the United States this year will be mothers, putting enormous pressures upon their children, partners and families. Director Jennifer Redfearn looks at the issue through the eyes of three Ohio women — Amanda, Lydia and Tomika — who have been separated from their children for years owing to their convictions for drug possession, trafficking, or robbery a pharmacy. We follow them as they petition for early release, participate in reentry programs and, finally, walk through the prison gate for the last time. With an astonishing intimacy, Redfearn’s camera captures both the pain of a child learning her mother will be staying in jail, and the awkward adjustments children make when their mother returns home after years in lockup. It’s not all joyful reunions, as the three former inmates learn that difficulties await when they try to pick up the pieces of their former lives, without returning to their former selves.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 20 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“Bajo Fuego (Under Siege)” (Sjoerd Van Grootheest, Irene Vélez-Torres, Colombia)

The 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels contained promises to aid farmers who had grown to depend upon harvesting coca and marijuana in order to survive. But government payments intended to eliminate trade in illicit drugs dried up, leaving the poor without their livelihood. The film follows farmers from the Cauca region at they attempt to mobilize for justice and to protect against the loss of their lands.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET, or May 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“Daughter of a Lost Bird” (Brooke Pepion Swaney, United States)

This moving story of a young woman seeking answers about her cultural identity works on several levels: as a personal journey for Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, who was adopted by White parents but wants to learn of her Native American ancestry; as an indictment of the U.S. government’s efforts to separate Native children from their parents; and as a self-questioning work of investigative journalism by a filmmaker who finds herself drawn to the narrative of her subject, seeking a dramatic closure even if none may be available in “real life.”

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“Forget Me Not” (Olivier Bernier, United States)

The opening night feature by filmmaker Olivier Bernier follows the bureaucratic and emotional rollercoaster that he and his wife Hilda experience as they try to find a New York City public school for their little boy, Emilio, who has Down syndrome, only to face obstacles to ensuring Emilio has an inclusive learning experience. While the education system may have improved beyond the institutionalization of the mentally disabled, “Forget Me Not” finds segregation still exists, even in the bluest of states.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“In the Same Breath” (Nanfu Wang, United States/China)

Director Nanfu Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow,” “One Child Nation”) explores the misinformation, propaganda and cover-ups that were spread by the Chinese and U.S. governments in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“A Once and Future Peace” (Eric Daniel Metzgar, United States)

Using animation to mask the identities of his young subjects, Emmy-winning filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar follows youthful offenders as they pass through a restorative justice program inspired by the peace-making circles of indigenous tribes.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“The Return: Life After ISIS” (Alba Sotorra Clua, Spain/United Kingdom)

Alba Sotorra Clua visited the Roj refugee camp in Syria, where Kurdish women’s rights activists are trying to assist women from dozens of countries seeking to be repatriated to their homelands. The problem: they’d followed their husbands into ISIS. The women, considered by their governments and the media to be stateless terrorists, now want to return, without the prospect of having their children removed from them.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 20 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“Tacheles – The Heart of the Matter” (Jana Matthes & Andrea Schramm, Germany)

A young Jewish computer game developer in Berlin opens old family wounds when his latest work involves a role-playing scenario set in 1940s Germany involving Jewish and Nazi figures. The film examines the ever-present and inherited effects of cultural trauma, as well as the lessons of treating history — especially one as enflaming as the Holocaust — as pliable.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“200 Meters” (Ameen Nayfeh, Palestine/Jordan/Qatar/Italy/Sweden)

The single fiction film in the festival carries the weight of current events, as it depicts a Palestinian father in the West Bank trying to reunite with his son on the other side of a dividing wall separating their villages. When he is not allowed through the formal checkpoints, his journey becomes a 200-kilometer trek through occupied territory. The movie was winner of the Audience Award at last year’s Venice International Film Festival.

Register for Live Q&A: May 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET


“Unapologetic” (Ashley O’Shay, United States)

In-your-face protests — such as loudly demonstrating in a restaurant while customers try to eat brunch — may not win many fans to the cause, but they are just one arrow in the quill of activists fighting police violence. “Unapologetic” follows two activists, Janaé and Bella, as they and the Movement for Black Lives advocates for a new paradigm of public safety.

More info

Register for Live Q&A: May 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET, or May 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET

How to stream

Tickets are $9 ($8 for members of Film at Lincoln Center, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and IFC Center). A festival pass may also be purchased for $70.

In addition to viewing these films on a laptop or other device, you can also watch selections on your TV using AirPlay to an Apple TV, or connecting via an HDMI cable.

Note: Although films will be available digitally, there are a limited number of tickets available for each film. Once you begin playing a title, you will have 48 hours in which to finish watching it. (You will not be able to re-rent it.) 

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