It’s my favourite time of year! I love the Human Rights Watch Film Festival – a chance to learn about the impressive human rights activists working in corners of the globe I might never have the opportunity to visit, all through the wonderful medium of film. Going to the movies on my own has long been one of my favourite pastimes, and the film festival has become a highly anticipated annual moment for me to take stock of my own activities, think about how I’d like to better contribute to civil society, and draw inspiration from those whose stories are presented on screen.
This year I watched two brilliant and perfectly contrasting films: The Good Postman by Tonislav Hristov, and Complicit by Heather White and Lynn Zhang. The first film was a gorgeous, moving, cinematic look at a small village on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. As refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq passed through the village in search of safety, the dwindling population of 35 residents expressed divergent views on how best to deal with them. While the film was ostensibly a commentary on the refugee crisis, it also provided a fascinating look at a European country which was equal parts breathtakingly beautiful and depressingly impoverished – the contrast between what we often think of when we think of the EU and rural Bulgaria as seen in this film was striking. The true hero was the titular postman, whose own personal tragedy was a poignant counterpoint to the suffering of the refugees for whom he demonstrated so much compassion.
The second film dealt with an issue close to my heart as a business and human rights specialist – occupational diseases contracted by migrant electronics workers in China. The storytelling benefitted from the filmmakers’ access to hidden networks of activists, families, and workers, and although the film didn’t flow quite as seamlessly as the first, this didn’t diminish its impact. Complicit centers around the story of Yi Yeting, a worker-turned-activist who was diagnosed with leukemia as a result of working with poisonous solvents. We watch him undergo painful chemotherapy treatments in between advising families on how to obtain the documents necessary to secure compensation and convening advocacy groups to push for a Chinese ban on benzene, a principal cause of leukemia in young migrant workers. Most of these workers were assembling parts for electronics produced by big brands including Apple, Samsung, and Nokia, and thus one key objective of the film was to raise consumer awareness by telling the stories of the individuals who suffered as a result of the production process. A large chunk of the funds used to make the film were raised through crowdfunding, and the filmmakers see this project as an advocacy tool as much as a work of art.
The stylistic contrast between the films is largely the result of the filmmakers’ diverse backgrounds, which I was able to learn about during Q&A after the screenings. Mr Hristov is an accomplished documentary maker who has done the rounds at various international film festivals. He described his style and strategy in some detail: he spent six months living in the village in which the film is set, getting to know his “characters” and gaining their trust. Only after building these relationships did he turn his camera on, and the result was that the subjects were open, honest, and almost completely ignorant of the camera, such that I found myself at several points questioning whether the film was actually a work of fiction. Interestingly, he didn’t know how the plot was going to develop, and the notion of focusing on the postman didn’t arise until later in the production. By contrast, Ms White (Ms Zhang could not attend the premiere due to visa problems) is not a filmmaker but has worked in corporate social responsibility in China for 20 years, and the film was born out of research she was doing for a book. They originally produced a short “trailer” which gained so much traction on YouTube that they felt compelled to make the feature film. The funds raised through screenings are being sent back to China to assist the families of the workers portrayed in the film.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival continues until Thursday March 17 at the Barbican and at Picturehouse Central in London. If you missed it, take a look at their website and screen the films when they become available on your viewing platform of choice. If you’ve seen either of the films above, I’d love to hear your comments below!