Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival: Five documentaries you can watch for free

"A lot of them are very buzzy films. They're out there in the world and they're not always easy to find and see," festival programmer Nicholas de Pencier says

Photo from documentary
Photo from documentary "Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom" (Donbas Frontline/Andriy Dubchak)

Canadians can watch five compelling, moving and harrowing documentaries with free in-person and virtual screenings for the Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival (March 8-12 in-person at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and March 13-19 on Hot Docs digital platform).

The 20th anniversary of the festival, under the guidance of famed Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier as festival programmers (Into The Weeds, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch), is organized in conjunction to Human Rights Watch's work to protect the human rights of people around the world. Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in 90 countries.

In terms of deciding which films will be part of the festival, each documentary is vetted by Human Rights Watch to ensure that it is journalistically sound. Additionally, the topic must align with research that Human Rights Watch is conducting globally.

“Human Rights Watch is deeply respected around the world for the investigative work they do," Baichwal told Yahoo Canada. "They're kind of considered the gold standard, and journalists use their research and governments and activists, so what they do as an organization is absolutely crucial."

"The films are a different point of entry into the world of Human Rights Watch, to start these conversations about the support.”

'It comes down to a trusted source for curation'

It's that level of curation that the festival's programmers identify as an important component of the experience, being able to showcase films from trusted, vetted sources.

“The internet paradigm has really revolutionized film distribution and not always in the favour of filmmakers, or frankly viewers,” de Pencier said. “The marketplace is so noisy. The importance of a festival like this, … it comes down to a trusted source for curation, so people hopefully know that they're getting the benefit of a lot of winnowing down of possible films, and that these are all going to be really strong.”

“There's some kind of psychological pathology that seems to think, 'Oh, if it's free, maybe it's not worth watching.' ... We're lucky enough to have the philanthropic sponsorship to offer these for free and eliminate that barrier to entry. … A lot of them are very buzzy films. They're out there in the world and they're not always easy to find and see.”

The accessibility aspect of the Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival, making the festival free, is particularly unique for this experience, which also includes a panel discussion after each screening.

“The fact that people all over the country can see these films and then in every case there's either a recorded or live contextualizing discussion with filmmakers, and activists and the the Human Rights Watch analysts that work on these files, you get more depth in terms of understanding the issues,” Baichwal said.

“You can share the experience of people that you don't know, who are living in a completely different place than you, and you can understand it through film in a way that I think is more difficult than just reading a newspaper or watching a news clip. The depth and the extended investigation that film allows really gives us a grounding in these issues that I don't really think comes from anywhere else.”

The five films part of the Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival

Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom: Toronto screening March 8 at 7:30 p.m.

Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is an unprecedented look at Ukraine following the Russian invasion, far beyond the headlines we read in Canada. The documentary from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire) is filmed in over 20 Ukrainian cities, capturing first-hand stories of journalists, doctors, children, parents and volunteers fighting for survival in Ukraine. In Toronto there will be a post-screening discussion, moderated by Lisa LaFlamme, with Afineevsky, education director at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, Valentina Kuryliw, and Human Rights Watch crisis and conflict director Ida Sawyer.

“The Ukraine conflict is just such a white hot topic and because it's in the news every day, there shouldn't be a kind of a stylization or any heavy handedness on the part of the filmmaker,” de Pencier said about the film. "The storytelling is very direct in a film like that.”

Freedom on Fire is a very well produced film,” Baichwal added. “People shared footage and the filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky has re-edited the ending because the war is still going on.”

Koromousso, Big Sister: Toronto screening March 9 at 7:00 p.m.

Canada-based co-directors Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan introduce us to a group of African-Canadian women who are challenging taboos of women's sexuality, addressing the lifelong effects of female genital mutilation (FGM). Koromousso, Big Sister also educates on the need for wider access to restorative surgery. A post-screening discussion will occur, moderated by deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, Regina Tamés, featuring panelists include filmmakers Ouarme and Donovan, and OBGYN and advocate for those affected by FGM, Dr. Angela Deane.

“Imagine how difficult it is to make a film about female genital mutilation and to do it in a way that is warm, funny, uplifting,” Baichwal said. “That's what that film is.”

“I think that is really incredible in terms of challenging a cultural stereotype surrounding female sexuality and taboos. ... Seeing these women taking their bodies back is incredible.”

(Courtesy of TIFF)
(Courtesy of TIFF)

The Grab: Toronto screening March 10 at 7:00 p.m.

Famed filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish), along with investigative journalist Nathan Halverson, reveal governments, private investors and mercenaries who are quietly are working to seize food and water resources across the world. The Toronto screening of The Grab will include a conversation with Cowperthwaite, Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal.

The Grab really draws attention to an issue of resource grabs and people, countries buying up land in other countries for resources, sometimes under the radar, and that's a very investigative film,” Baichwal said.

Uýra: The Rising Forest: Toronto screening March 11 at 7:00 p.m.

A trans Indigenous artist travels through the Amazon and through performance art, teaches Indigenous youth that they are "the guardians of ancestral messages of the Amazon Forest." In a country that kills trans, Indigenous and environmentalist youth, Uýra's performances are a metaphor where the ecological cycle mirrors social struggles. A post-screening discussion will be moderated by Rasha Younes, senior LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Uýra: The Rising Forest, it's almost like a performance piece,” Baichwal said. “It's like being at a dance performance, but it's very, very beautiful.”

No U-Turn from filmmaker Ike Nnaebue
No U-Turn from filmmaker Ike Nnaebue

No U-Turn: Toronto screening March 12 at 1:00 p.m.

Filmmaker Ike Nnaebue left Nigeria and through Benin, Mali, and Mauritania, arrived in Morocco where he was forced to turn back. In Nnaebue's first documentary he retraces that journey he made over 20 years ago. There will be a Zoom panel discussion with Nnaebue, and former child soldier and public speaker Michel Chikwanine, moderated by host of the CBC podcast Nothing is Foreign, Tamara Khandaker.

No U-Turn is a personal meditation on refugees from someone who was a refugee themselves, and went back,” Baichwal said. “There's this heartbreaking line where he talks about, why do we all feel, who are on the continent of Africa, that we have to leave it in order to have fulfilling lives, when this continent is so rich in resources and culture.”

“You hear the dreams of these people, all they want to do is reach Europe as though ... all their troubles are going to go away. It's just this kind of heartbreaking, but also beautiful character study of people who are looking for something better.”