Human Rights Watch Film Festival

A long-established event, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival recently marked its 30th anniversary. The HRWFF screens films in over 20 countries and in three decades has showcased 720 films, bearing witness to human rights violations in direct storytelling and exposé form. Now it’s the turn of the London-based strand (running concurrently with Berlin). Usually, of course, the films would be playing at the Barbican, the home of the HRWFF, but this year the festival is streaming online.

A key strand in the festival in 2021 is ‘A Focus on Racial Justice’, showcasing two urgent films that shine a spotlight on black women activists who are working to dismantle systemic racism in the United States.  Both will feature live Q&As with the filmmakers and other special guests after the films have screened.

The first of these documentaries is Belly of the Beast, by director Erika Cohn (The Judge). The focus is Kelli Dillon, a survivor of both domestic and state violence. When she was 24 years old, a doctor at the California facility where she was imprisoned sterilised her without consent. This was no one-off. Dillon and Cynthia Chandler, a founder of the prison abolition organisation Justice Now, become engaged in a battle with the Department of Corrections as they campaign for an anti-sterilisation bill to be passed and for justice for all the women that were sterilised without their consent. The film also features a new track from Mary J. Blige, ‘See What You’ve Done’, written especially for the movie.

The second film in the strand is Ashley O’Shay’s documentary Unapologetic, another hugely timely piece. Set during the height of the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago, it introduces us to Janaé and Bella, two fierce activist leaders seeking justice for the deaths of two Black Chicagoans at the hands of the police.

Others in the festival to watch out for include A La Calle (To The Street), a documentary by Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo, a first-hand account of the extraordinary efforts of Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. Another thought-provoking effort, Peter Murimi’s I Am Samuel follows a gay Kenyan man, caught between duty to his family with his love for his partner, Alex, in a country where their love is criminalised.

Impressively, the festival is offering a limited number of free tickets, to ensure that the cost of a ticket is not a barrier to those who genuinely wish to participate. Should that be the case, e-mail filmticket@hrw.org. Tickets are issued on a first come, first served basis.


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival streams online until March 26. For more details, please click here.

James Mottram