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Looking at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival

A scene from "In the Same Breath."Human Rights Watch Film Festival

If the past is any indication, there will likely never be a shortage of iniquities and hardships to be covered in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (May 19-27). This year’s topics include the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Wuhan, and China’s politicization of the virus; and the toxic appeal of ISIS and what happened to teenage girls it lured from middle-class homes to join the jihad in Syria.

In the Same Breath” (May 19-24), directed by Chinese-born Nanfu Wang, opens with the spectacular image of New Year’s Eve 2019 in Wuhan. The facades of futuristic buildings are afire with brilliant, flashing lights and hundreds of thousands gather in the streets to celebrate. But hours later news reports relay with rote-like uniformity a report about “eight people [who] were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.”


So began China’s struggle with what would turn out to be a pandemic killing millions worldwide. In some ways that eerily prefigured the United States’ response to the virus, the Chinese government covered up the outbreak, downplayed its seriousness, suppressed the truth, and inadequately responded as hospitals were overwhelmed and thousands died.

Gathering information from online postings by victims and soliciting covert filming by her collaborators in China, Wang puts together an essayistic and emotional film that focuses on the grief of survivors and the trauma of caregivers. She analyzes the deceitful manipulations of the government, its iron-fisted control of the people, and the altruistic sacrifices of the community. Then she turns her lens on our own country and the inept messaging and misinformation of our government and the violent demonstrations of those citizens bemoaning mask mandates as an assault on their liberty. “I have lived under authoritarianism and I have lived in a society that calls itself free,” she says. “In both systems ordinary people become victims of their leaders’ pursuit of power.”


A scene from "The Return: Life After ISIS."Human Rights Watch Film Festival

After allied forces eliminated the last bastions of the Islamic State in 2019 they were left with thousands of prisoners to deal with — not just fighters but their families also. Many of the wives were teenage girls who left their homes in Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, and other countries after being seduced by slick ISIS online propaganda promising them new meaning in their lives and a chance to help Islam and mankind. They arrived to find a nightmare of atrocities, suppression, and forced marriage; and when the caliphate was crushed they tried to repent and return to their homelands. But they were reviled by the media and public, disowned by their countries, and stranded with their children in refugee camps.

In her powerful and affecting “The Return: Life After ISIS” (May 19-20), Alba Sotorra Clua embeds herself with some of these women and listens to their wrenching and horrific stories. Shamima Begum, from Britain, and Hoda Muthana, from the United States, in particular, had been execrated for their seeming lack of remorse (as Begum explains they feared that ISIS women in the camp who were still fanatic believers might kill them if they expressed regret). Begum’s story is especially tragic — she lost two of her three children in the conflict and the third, an infant, died of disease in the camp.

Though Sotorra Clua is Kurdish and lost family and friends to ISIS, she feels empathy for these women. So, too, does fellow Kurd Sevinaz Evdikea, who also lost loved ones to ISIS but still oversees the camp and leads the women in therapeutic sessions and writing workshops (“Dear me four years ago” one exercise begins). She visits her village and asks her father how he feels about her working with former members of ISIS. “People in your camp killed our people,” he says. “But it is our duty to help the fallen.”


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Peter Keough can be reached at