To a film fan, festivals are a lot like being offered a box of chocolates under pressure. Will you get lucky with a well-shot, beautifully-edited caramel cup? Or will you be stuck with a long and stodgy, tasteless toffee? Fortunately, the Human Rights Watch international film festival is one of the few that can always be trusted to provide a box full of tasty titbits. Since 1996 it has given a popular platform to the cream of documentaries, many of which manage both to be engaging and to highlight vitally important global issues.
This year’s festival of 25 films opened in London in March with Persepolis, an animated film based on the hugely successful graphic novel of the same name by Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. It tells the moving, autobiographical tale of young Marjane’s life in Iran after the fall of the Shah and at the start of the rise in fundamentalism. In black and white, shadowy, and with no attempt to fool the audience into believing they are watching real life, it still manages to be more gripping than any big-budget Hollywood cartoon. Satrapi candidly describes Iran’s deterioration under successive regimes, each promising freedom but delivering only pain, prison and death to the people she loved.
It is the kind of subject that can get depressing, but she relieves the tension by weaving in comic anecdotes of being a teenager in post-revolution Iran, trying to enjoy punk music and parties while escaping nosy passers-by. Creative animation, Persepolis also proves, has a special power in being able to offer an insight into someone’s dreams, thoughts and memories in a way that actuality struggles with. The look on Marjane’s face as a girl, when she spies her dead neighbour’s hand in a pile of rubble after a bombing, looks hauntingly like Munch’s Scream retreating into shadows.
One of the other juicy offerings at this year’s festival was Manufactured Landscapes by Canadian filmmaker, Jennifer Baichwal. This follows the work of celebrated photographer Edward Burtynsky as he snaps mind-blowingly grand industrial scenes, from factory floors that stretch out into the horizon to hollowed-out metal canyons left behind by extractive mining companies. Burtynsky provides only a thin web of narrative, but the scale and natural noise of the industrial vistas that he silently photographs fill the calm completely.
iIt makes perfect, logical sense that billions of people consuming the resources of our giant planet would leave behind rivers of waste and football fields of cogs and wheels, but seeing them in their simple vastness is nevertheless awe inspiring. It feels like looking at a field of crops – except none of it is natural.
This is strange fruit with strange colours, all entirely the product of man. Most disconcerting are the hundreds of Chinese factory workers who open the film, like identical worker ants, buzzing away at their tiny allocated tasks on a gigantic assembly line. Nature and person, person and machine all melt into one.
As well as delivering unique films such as this, one of the other claims of the Human Rights Watch film festival is to ‘celebrate the power of the human spirit and intellect to prevail’. Iron Ladies of Liberia is a documentary that fulfils this promise completely. In a continent written off by some as a basket case, Liberia has become a symbol of progress, largely thanks to its inspirational new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Liberian journalist Siatta Scott Johnson and Daniel Junge followed Sirleaf closely during her first year in power, along with her other appointed ‘iron ladies’, including the national chief of police and finance minister.
The result is an honest account of their struggle to repair a country in social and economic ruin, which suffers under a
cancer of corruption infecting even the highest echelons of government. Sirleaf tackles this challenge with the force of a rock star, turning those around her into quivering wrecks by using the pure strength of her no-nonsense personality.
From Chinese diplomats to George Bush, everyone seems to be a fan. Filmmaker Siatta Scott Johnson is clearly among them, railing against the sexism and arrogance of Sirleaf’s opponents. Whether this means that we only get to see the president in her most positive light is unclear. But the film is nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the real Liberia, from someone who has a vested interest in its future.
The Human Rights Watch international film festival took place in London from 21-30 March. Persepolis and Manufactured Landscapes are currently showing around the UK and available on DVD. Iron Ladies of
Liberia is due for release this summer. www.hrw.org/iff
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill