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Review: Closing films at Human Rights Watch Fest about improving life (Includes first-hand account)

Film is a powerful medium that can induce, inspire, instruct and inform. Consequently, it is an ideal means to reach a wide-ranging audience about important issues. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival embraces motion pictures’ intellectual capacity to recount extraordinary stories of struggle, survival and hope from around the world. Showcasing cinema at the forefront of the movement, the event aims to draw attention to international human rights violations through fearless films from countries including Canada, Indonesia, Sudan, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Palestine, Guatemala, the United States and Hungary.

“Cinema is a strikingly powerful medium that touches audiences around the world,” said Helga Stephenson, Chair of the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “These empowering stories of survival, resilience and hope inspire and inform the compassion required for individuals on both sides of the lens to make a difference in the fight for human rights. This festival delivers a vital and compelling demand for social change.”

The final three days of the festival tells a trio of stories about challenging the status quo in the name of improved standards of living, personally and within a community. Burden of Peace chronicles one woman’s quest for justice in a sea of corruption. The Wanted 18 tells the bizarre story of rebel cows. And Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story is one person’s courageous journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

A scene from  Burden of Peace

A scene from ‘Burden of Peace’
Framewerk Productions

Burden of Peace follows Guatemala’s first female attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, highlighting key victories of her administration. Paz y Paz makes great strides in a short period of time and against notable opposition, including a significant increase in solved murder cases and the first successful conviction in a local court on charges of genocide. Squeezing nearly four years into a 75-minute documentary, the goal of the film is not to get to know Paz y Paz personally but rather her mission and cause. It’s troubling to see so many people act like “human rights” is bad word, linking it to Marxism and communism. The movie is composed of interviews with Paz y Paz as well as her most vocal opposition, intertwined with fly-on-the-wall footage shot during various strategy meetings. Though brief, it’s very thorough and does not feel at all incomplete.

A scene from  The Wanted 18

A scene from ‘The Wanted 18’
TIFF Film Reference Library

Using a combination of stop motion animation, interviews, re-creations and archival footage, The Wanted 18 relates the true story of the Israeli army’s hunt for 18 cows whose independent milk production on a Palestinian collective farm was declared “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel.” In addition to the human account of events in Beit Sahur via numerous interviews, the tale is also told from the perspective of the cattle at the centre of the controversy. The beginning of the documentary is quite light-hearted as the inexperienced group of men whose real occupations include doctor, pharmacist, teacher and student, try to become dairy farmers. As the movie continues, their simple venture becomes a symbol of opposition and independence. There are a lot of speakers so it can be difficult to keep track of all their roles, but their voices combine to create a cohesive whole and fascinating narrative.

A scene from  Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story

A scene from ‘Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story’
Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The festival closes with Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story, which tells the story of decorated former US Navy SEAL Chris Beck who is now living her life truthfully as a transgender woman. Beck’s military career spanned 20 years before her transition, consisting of 13 deployments that included seven combat tours. As one of her former team members and long-time friends points out, “Chris” hasn’t changed except for her clothes and now she’s happier. This notion is supported by Beck’s continued involvement in weapons training exercises and secret projects. But that’s just one of the many hats she’s worn since her transition. Beck travels the country giving inspirational speeches, she laid down the foundation for a rehabilitation centre for military veterans and is continuing to deal with obstacles on her personal journey. In fact she is keeping so busy, one almost wonders if Beck is using her demanding schedule to avoid certain realities in the same way that she used multiple deployments to hide from her life. The filmmakers have unprecedented access to Beck’s life, capturing her highs and lows including heartbreaking interactions with her children, speaking with her friends and family, and showing considerable video from her career in uniform. The film doesn’t have a specific structure, but it still flows very well.

“The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a crucial series in our programming,” said TIFF Programmer Magali Simard. “We strongly feel that film is a key generator of public dialogue, and the films in this festival are of the utmost relevance — artistically and topically.” The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from March 24 to April 2 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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