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New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2018 Spotlights Bravery and Resilience

With screenings held at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center in NYC, the 29th edition of the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2018 boasted an impactful roster of 15 powerful and topical feature films. These works showcased bravery in challenging times and the power of the human spirit in the continuing fight for justice. Human Rights Watch ( is an independent international organization that works as part of a vibrant movement to uphold human dignity and advance the area of human rights for all. Their far reaching incredible work is manifested in the powerful events that took place from June 14th through the 21st. Twelve of the fifteen films were directed or co-directed by women.

The opening night film, ON HER SHOULDERS, is a powerful look at the life of 23 year old Nadia Murad, a survivor of the 2014 atrocities against the Yezidi in northern Iraq. Director Alexandria Bombach shares Murad’s tale as she escaped sexual slavery from ISIS as well as witnessing the murder of her family and friends. Turning her anguish into international action, she has become a key public figure who serves as the lifeline to the Yezidi community, an incredibly exhausting role for someone so young. This beautifully composed feature gives us a glimpse into Murad’s new life, from testifying at the United Nations Security Council, a far cry from the girl who once dreamed of opening a beauty salon in her village.

One of the strongest films, THE CLEANERS, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, features the life of five “digital scavengers” among the thousands of people outsourced from Silicon Valley. Their job is to delete inappropriate content from the internet. Based in places like Manila, these young adults spend their days on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, watching the most disturbing acts of violence, depravity and intolerance. As one young woman points out, she knew she had to go to school and was thankful for the living wage so she wouldn’t have to be a garbage picker; the constant bombardment of disturbing content takes its toll on their lives, as they work in the shadows in this covert career track.

In THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS, from director Simon Lereng Wilmont, we are given a disturbing look into the world of Oleg, a 10 year old boy who lives in Eastern Ukraine. Oleg lives with his grandmother and we follow his story for a year as he lives in a village torn apart by war. Neighbors leave, the bombs erupt nearby and any sense of innocence and security Oleg has is slowly stripped away by the proximity to the front line. With nowhere to go and in the wake of his mother’s choice of a boyfriend over her family, Oleg and his grandmother try their best to hold on and maintain some semblance of normalcy in a fast-disintegrating situation.

One of the most chilling films is WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY from Norwegian-Pakistani director Iram Haq. She weaves the story of sixteen-year-old Nisha who lives a double life, one under the rules of her conservative Pakistani family and one that involves parties with her modern teenage friends. When her worlds collide in tragic fashion, her world is turned upside down in the most extreme ways. The complicated and terrifying relationship between a father and daughter is eye opening and reflective on the ways tradition and modern life can exist at odds.

Closing night film THE UNAFRAID is a surprising look at a look of a group of High School seniors in Georgia who come to learn that college is out of their reach due to their immigration status as DACA recipients. Not only are they banned from attending the top five public universities in their state, but they are ineligible for in-state tuition at public colleges, defaulting to paying exorbitant international student fees simply to try and continue their education. Filmmakers Anayansi Prado and Heather Courtney shine a powerful spotlight on the current immigration situation, giving voice to students and their families as well as the fight they take on along the way.

Other films that should be on your radar include CHARM CITY by Marilyn Ness, FACING THE DRAGON by Sedika Mojadidi and ANOTE’S ARK by Matthieu Rytz.

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