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Previewing the 2020 Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival

January 30, 2020

By John Corrado

The 17th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicks off tonight in Toronto, showcasing a total of six timely and relevant films over the next six nights, most of which played at other Toronto festivals over the past year.

All of the screenings will be taking place at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and it’s worth noting that the tickets are free. More information can be found right here.

The festival begins with a screening of director Garin Hovannisian’s very engaging documentary I Am Not Alone (Thursday, January 30th, 7:30 PM), which had its world premiere at TIFF a few months ago. The film documents journalist turned Member of Parliament Nikol Pashinyan’s 2018 walk across Armenia in protest of the government led by Serzh Sargsyan, who had served his maximum two terms as President, and was trying to appoint himself Prime Minister after changing the constitution to give the PM increased powers. Moving at a fast pace, and featuring fascinating interviews with both Pashinyan and Sargsyan, the film offers an inspiring look at how one person can bring about monumental change.

The second screening is On the President’s Orders (Friday, January 31st, 7:00 PM), which premiered at Hot Docs in 2019 and, at a compact 72 minutes long, offers a terrifying, on-the-ground look at Rodrigo Duterte’s “War on Drugs” in the Philippines, which included giving the militarized police department permission to shoot drug dealers and users on site. This was one of the best documentaries I saw last year, even gaining a spot on my top ten list. It’s a shocking and powerful film that unfolds like a real life thriller, and demands more of an audience.

Next up is Gay Chorus Deep South (Saturday, February 1st, 7:30 PM), a crowdpleaser of a documentary that also played at last year’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. The film follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir as they embark on a tour of the extremely religious Deep South in the wake of the divisive 2016 election, bringing their message of love and inclusion to churches and community centres in places like Mississippi and Alabama, where anti-LGBTQ discrimination still exists. With some of the members having familial ties to the South, the concert tour presents a homecoming of sorts, and there are plenty of moving scenes along the way as they grapple with some big questions about faith and acceptance. Yes, there are sad moments, but this is ultimately still a feel good film.

Next is Born in Evin (Sunday, February 2nd, 1:00 PM), a holdover from last year’s Hot Docs, which finds German-Iranian filmmaker and actor Maryam Zaree grappling with the fact that she was born inside Evin, a notorious prison in Iran, after her parents were imprisoned for protesting in 1979. As much a personal story as it is a broader look at the oppressiveness of Iran’s regime, Born in Evin follows Zaree as she tries to find out the exact circumstances surrounding her birth, with her mother reluctant to talk about it. The result is an interesting political documentary that also functions as a moving look at trauma and how we process pain from our earliest years.

The themes of political prisoners carry over into The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov (Monday, February 3rd, 7:00 PM), a 2017 documentary which focuses on the case of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, a Maiden activist who was arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up several infrastructure sites as well as a monument of Lenin. Despite shaky evidence, Sentsov was charged with anti-Russian terrorism and sentenced to twenty years behind bars. Many viewed it as a political show-trial by an oppressive government trying to flex its muscles, gaining him support from the international film community.

Directed by Askold Kurov, The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov is partially told through the lens of Sentsov’s cousin, who visits him in prison and fights for his release. Because the film was made before Sentsov was finally released in 2019, it only tells part of the story, but this is still an interesting examination of this case and the inner-workings of Russia’s judicial system. It ends with a forceful speech that Sentsov makes from behind bars in a courtroom. The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with Oleg Sentsov.

The festival ends with director Rubaiyat Hossain’s socially conscious drama Made in Bangladesh (Tuesday, February 4th, 7:30 PM), a TIFF premiere which explores exploitative labour practises at a factory in Dhaka as the women who work there try to unionize. It’s the only one of these films that isn’t a documentary, and also the only one that I haven’t seen as of this writing, but the description fits with the broader human rights themes that the festival is all about.

The 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from January 30th to February 4th.

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