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A Sneak Peek at the 30th Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Accept the Call

The 30th anniversary edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (running June 13-20, and co-presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center) has much more to boast than its smartly slimmed-down lineup of 13 feature-length films (11 docs and two narrative works). In addition to the requisite post-screening panel discussions with filmmakers, subjects and special guests, there’s this year’s added bonus of actual behind-the-lens parity. With half the films directed or co-directed by women, the majority directed by filmmakers of color and, perhaps most importantly, half helmed by filmmakers with actual roots in the places they’re documenting, HRWFF has done something truly remarkable – put its human rights mission into post-colonial film festival action.

And while Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s Sundance-premiering Advocate and Hans Pool’s SXSW-debuting Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World may have nabbed the opening and closing night spots, respectively, three less buzzed-about flicks particularly opened my eyes to the complicated global picture. First up, Eunice Lau’s (IFP-sponsored) Accept the Call, which follows the plight of Yusuf Abdurahman, a black Muslim who 25 years ago fled the civil war raging in his (Trump-designated “s-hole”) country of Somalia to settle in Minnesota, work hard and devote himself wholly to community and family. Indeed, Abdurahman could practically serve as a poster boy answer to the current administration’s hardline ant-immigrant stance – if not for the fact that his beloved son is currently doing time, the result of attempting to join ISIS in a dubious FBI counterterrorism sting.

But what makes Lau’s film far more fascinating than your average tale of a young Muslim male being “tricked” by law enforcement into committing a crime – a narrative Abdurahman’s daughter passionately puts forth about her brother to the applause of rallying crowds – is Abdurahman’s objective, surprisingly nuanced view of his son. Even as he lovingly and unequivocally stands by his kid, Abdurahman remains clear-eyed about the difficult fact that his son was – is? – an ISIS sympathizer. And, much to Abdurahman’s horror, once tried to fly to Syria to fight for the cause.
So rather than unproductively blame the “deep state,” the Somali refugee goes on a journey of learning, seeking answers as to how exactly his “privileged” (to be born in America) son could turn his back on the only country he’s ever known. In the process Abdurahman bravely makes enemies of his neighbors as he publicly confronts fellow Muslims for not facing up to an inconvenient truth. FBI entrapment aside, some of their kids are indeed aligning with terrorists. Which renders the community at large complicit as well.

Collaboration not complicity is at the core of Tuki Jencquel’s Está Todo Bien (It’s All Good), an elegantly composed, mostly cinema vérité look at Venezuela’s ongoing collapse through its decimated healthcare system. Jencquel, a Caracas-born director, deftly alternates scenes from the daily, increasingly precarious, lives of a handful of middle-class urbanites – including two patients, a trauma surgeon, a pharmacist and an activist – with b&w-shot improv sessions that serve as a catharsis (or perhaps collective conscience) for those main characters. In doing so, he manages to give us an intimate inside scoop on what’s really going on beyond the political headlines – while smartly sidestepping the blame game. After all, no need to mention President Maduro when his failed policies hang like the ghost of Hugo Chávez over every frame.

Finally, ghosts also haunt James Jones and Olivier Sarbil’s On the President’s Orders, a nail-biting investigative look at Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs” through both its victims – the battle-scarred families of mostly low-level dealers and addicts rendered collateral damage – as well as, even more shockingly, its remorseless perpetrators. Indeed, the very fact that the filmmakers have been granted unprecedented access to a paramilitary-style police force – including the very officials implicated in the onslaught of extrajudicial killings – likewise speaks volumes about the murderous leader who forever looms large offscreen.

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