Human Rights Watch 2015

Docs about struggle, survival and hope hit their marks

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH 2015 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West), from Tuesday (March 24) to April 2. Rating: NNNN

The arrival of spring means a new wave of film festivals, and the Human Rights Watch fest is always a little challenging. It can be tricky to make bleak sociopolitical and cultural documentaries engaging, trickier still to make them artful.

But it’s a good year. The festival’s opening feature, The One That Got Away (Tuesday, March 24, 8 pm), is an unapologetic upper. It’s about Thomas Beck, who as a teenager in 1944 escaped a Hungarian concentration camp, leaving behind the girl he loved. Seven decades later, filmmakers Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock catch up with Beck in Melbourne, and he has a hell of a story.

Not every picture is as upbeat this year. HRW is bringing back The Look Of Silence (Wednesday, March 25, 6:30 pm), Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his brilliant 2012 documentary The Act Of Killing. Optometrist Adi travels around Indonesia discussing the 1965 military coup that enabled the slaughter of one million suspected Communists with patients who either deny their involvement or rationalize it into nothingness. It was one of the best things I saw at TIFF last year, and it’s utterly devastating.

In Uyghurs: Prisoners Of The Absurd (March 26, 6:30 pm), Patricio Henríquez looks at the East Turkestan Muslims who fled persecution in China by escaping to Afghanistan in the months before 9/11 – and wound up being sold as “high-value terrorists” to the U.S. military.

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Salt Of The Earth (March 28, 7 pm) profiles the acclaimed photographer and accidental eco-awareness crusader Sebastião Salgado (co-director Ribeiro Salgado is his son).

The festival closes with another upbeat biography: Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story (April 2, 6:30 pm) explores the life of the former Navy SEAL who came out as a transgender woman in 2013.

It’s a powerful story that raises issues of American gender identity on a number of levels – institutional, political, personal – but directors Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog are more interested in seeing Beck as a person than a symbol. She’ll be in attendance for an introduction and post-screening Q&A. You won’t want to miss that. | @normwilner


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