Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Mark Gibney and UNC Asheville are hosting their eighth annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival this week. The festival consists of five carefully selected films that are shown each night of the week beginning tonight, Mon. Jan. 27. The films are at 7 p.m. and are free to the public. All films are shown in the basement of the Highsmith Union. All films — except for the Wednesday screening of Rafea: Solar Mama — are being screened in the Grotto. Rafea: Solar Mama is being shown in Alumni Hall.

As has been the case in the past, I was given a chance to see the films being shown — despite the fact that it’s well established that I’m not the world’s biggest documentary fan. And as has also been the case, I found myself much more impressed by the documentaries than I expected to be. Here is a brief rundown of the titles being shown.

Born This Way. Directed by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullman. This is a film about gay rights — or really the lack thereof — in Cameroon. The production notes put it this way: “There are more arrests for homosexuality in Cameroon than in any other country in the world. With intimate access to the lives of four young gay Cameroonians, Born This Way steps outside the genre of activist filmmaking and offers a vivid and poetic portrait of day-to-day life in modern Africa. This is a story of what is possible in the global fight for equality.” This is a deeply moving film that tells its stories with a clear-eyed view that does nothing to diminish the anger. Yet at the same time, it contains many surprisingly hopeful moments. Running time: 84 minutes. Mon., Jan. 27.

Camp 14 — Total Control Zone. Directed by Marc Wiese. A chilling look at a young man who grew up inside a North Korean prison camp. The production notes say it’s “a fascinating portrait of a young man who grew up imprisoned by dehumanizing violence yet still found the will to escape. Born inside a North Korean prison camp as the child of political prisoners, Shin Dong-Huyk was raised in a world where all he knew was punishment, torture and abuse. Filmmaker Marc Wiese crafts his documentary by quietly drawing details from Shin in a series of interviews in which Shin’s silence says as much as his words. Weaving anecdotes from a former camp guard and a member of the secret police with powerful animated scenes capturing key moments in Shin’s life, Wiese pulls audiences into Shin’s world. Shin escapes and becomes a human rights “celebrity,” but as we see, his life outside the camp is often just as challenging as it was inside it.” That’s a better description than anything I could write. The decision to use interviews with the former camp guard and the member of the secret police make the film an even more disturbing experience. Running time: 104 minutes. Tue., Jan. 28.

Rafea: Solar Mama. Directed by Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief. A largely uplifting — or at the very least hopeful — film centering on one Bedouin woman’s attempts to better herself and the other women in her village through an education. From the production notes: “Rafea is a Bedouin woman who lives with her daughters in one of Jordan’s poorest desert villages on the Iraqi border. When she is selected for an intriguing programme called the Barefoot College in India, Rafea doesn’t need to think twice, and travels to join 30 illiterate women from different countries to train to become solar engineers over the course of six months. Rafea immediately understands that she has a unique opportunity to give her children a better future and to provide the whole village with solar power. A tumultuous struggle with her husband threatens to put an end to her dreams, yet Rafea remains determined. Will she be able to empower the other women in the village to join her in the struggle to rewire the traditions of the Bedouin community that stand in their way?” A fascinating portrait of a life and culture most us never see. Running time: 75 minutes. Wed., Jan. 29.

In the Shadow of the Sun. Director by Harry Freeland. An intensely personal look into the lives of people with albinism in Tanzania — probably not a topic most of us even think about — In the Shadow of the Sun is one of the most interesting films in the series. From the production notes: “Filmed over six years, In the Shadow of the Sun tells the story of two men with albinism in Tanzania pursuing their dreams in the face of virulent prejudice. In the midst of an escalation in brutal murders of people with albinism, we meet Josephat Torner. Josephat decides to confront the communities where the killings are taking place saying, ‘I need to change society so it can accept me.’ Along the way, he visits Ukerewe Island. He finds 62 people with albinism living there, including 15-year-old Vedastus. Vedastus, whose mother was told to kill him when he was born, has been bullied out of school and rejected by his community. But Vedastus dreams of returning to get an education. Dedicating his life to campaigning against this sort of discrimination against people with albinism–segregated from society and deprived of education–Josephat becomes a mentor to Vedastus.” This is an activist documentary about people who are almost accidental activists, and it’s told in a manner that fully brings forth the two main players’ astonishing sense of good humor in the face of terrible odds. Running time: 84 minutes. Thu., Jan. 30.

An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story. Directed by Al Reinert. For me, this is the gem of the five films. Rarely have I been so completely rivetted to a documentary as I was with this tale of not just the failure of the criminal justic system, but the outright abuse of it by those in power. Calling it An Unreal Dream seems a very understated title, since what it depicts is a very real nightmare. But don’t let that statement fool you, because the film itself — apart from some crime scene photos — isn’t at all nightmarish. Rather, it takes a very straightforward, calm, methodical approach in telling its tale in the clearest manner possible. Completely immersive and surprisingly moving. From the production notes: “In 1986, Michael Morton’s wife Christine was brutally murdered in front of their only child, and Michael was convicted of the crime. Locked away in Texas prisons for a quarter century, he had years to ponder questions of justice and innocence, truth and fate. Though he was virtually invisible to society, a team of dedicated attorneys spent years fighting for the right to test DNA evidence found at the murder scene. Their discoveries ultimately reveal that the price of a wrongful conviction goes well beyond one man’s loss of freedom.” If you possibly can, you should see this movie. All of the films are worthy, but this one is something rather special. Running time: 92 minutes. Fri., Jan. 31.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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