Sadly, more so than most years, the world has offered the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival plenty of material to work with. The festival runs online this year, June 11-20. Reporting from countries including Mexico, Peru, Ireland, and the United States, and from the virtual realm of computer technology, the program of a dozen outstanding documentaries expose injustices, analyze systems of oppression, and offer glimpses of hope for the future.
Here are five to note.
In Mexico, Carmen Aristegui, a popular investigative journalist, fights censorship as she tries to expose government corruption and collusion with drug cartels and other criminal elements. She does so at risk to her life, a point Juliana Fanjul’s “Radio Silence” makes clear from the beginning. It opens with Aristegui offering a eulogy for another crusading reporter who had been murdered for his activities. The documentary streams at 2:30 p.m. on June 13; a live online Q&A with the filmmaker and guests follows at 4 p.m.
After being fired from her job at the government-controlled radio station for revealing compromising information about then President Enrique Peña Nieto, Aristegui sets up her own online news platform. As another presidential election approaches she and her staff receive death threats of increasing credibility. Even the filmmaker mentions being followed and having her locks tampered with. Frightened, some of Aristegui’s fellow reporters quit, and Aristegui must send her son out of the country for his protection, but she will not be silenced.
In Peru, Máxima Acuña, the title subject of Claudia Sparrow’s “Maxima,” speaks out against injustice from a position of helplessness and obscurity. The film streams at 6:25 p.m. on June 16; a live Q&A with the filmmaker and guests follows at 8 p.m. A huge mining company wants to take over her land for a project that will poison the environment of an entire community. But Acuña resists. The company raids her property, kills her animals, uproots her crops, and attack hers family. She doesn’t budge. When she’s taken to court for trespassing, an idealistic lawyer defends her. The community rallies behind Acuña, then people and organizations in other countries offer support as the story spreads around the world. The court rules in her favor. But the corporation has patience and vast resources, and Acuña’s cause seems Sisyphean.
In Ireland, women rise up to challenge the nation’s long history of Catholic Church-imposed anti-abortion regulation, in “The 8th.” Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, and Maeve O’Boyle’s film streams at 5:20 p.m. on June 19; a live online Q&A with Kane and guests follows at 7 p.m. The title refers to the amendment to the Irish constitution banning abortion without exception. It had been voted in by a two-thirds majority in 1983, an attempt to institutionalize an already official policy against changes in the face of the progress of pro-choice movements in other countries.
Now in her 70s, fiery women’s rights advocate Ailbhe Smyth is determined to repeal that amendment when it comes up for a vote in a referendum, in 2018. To do so she must fine-tune the movement’s message to appeal to conservatives in the electorate, emphasizing the plight of women facing an impossible situation. The anti-abortion advocates on the other hand plea for the protection of the unborn. The filmmakers show both sides in what looks like a tight contest until continued revelations about clerical child abuse and mass graves of infants and children found on the grounds of homes for unwed mothers deflates the claims of those supporting the 8th.
In New York on Nov. 20, 2014, an all-too-familiar tragedy unfolded in a housing project. Two police officers were patrolling the building’s unlit stairwell. They heard someone approaching, and one officer discharged his gun, killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed, innocent Black man.
Ursula Liang’s compelling, complex, and provocative “Down a Dark Stairwell” shows how other social factors complicated this seemingly clear-cut case of a racist police homicide. The documentary streams at 6:30 p.m. on June 17; a live online Q&A with the filmmaker and guests follows at 8 p.m.
Peter Liang, the Chinese-American officer, was traumatized and apologetic. He claimed the gun went off accidentally and was convicted of manslaughter, a charge later downgraded to criminally negligent homicide. But the Chinese-American community, pointing to their own experience of racial injustice, mobilized to support him, insisting that he was being made a scapegoat for other cases of unarmed Black men dying at the hands of the police, such as that of Eric Garner, who had been killed earlier that year. In support of Liang, the community mustered one of the largest Asian-American protests. As the case moves into the penalty phase, with a possible appeal pending, it becomes as murky as the stairwell where it all began.
In the algorithmic universe of artificial intelligence and computer technology, developments have proven to be more bane than boon for the cause of human rights.
Shalini Kantayya’s “Coded Bias” follows the investigations of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini, who discovered by chance that facial-recognition software misidentifies women and people of color. The film streams at 6:30 p.m. on June 12; a live online Q&A with the filmmaker and guests follows at 8 p.m. Buolamwini surmises that this dysfunction is because the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and with other experts she explores the ominous ramifications of the problem.
Meanwhile, heedless of the implicit bias built into these systems and other threats to personal freedom, governments have been incorporating the technology into their security and surveillance systems. The future dystopia shown in the clips Kantayya includes from Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) distressingly resembles the world we are living in today.
All films can be rented and viewed any time between June 11-20.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.