What to see at the 2019 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

College basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is among the guests attending the 16th annual event, which takes place at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Welcome to NOW’s weekly spotlight on Toronto’s indie festivals and screenings. It’s your chance to learn a little more about that cinematic event you’ve been meaning to check out, pitched by passionate programmers in their own words.


Human Rights Watch holds its 16th annual edition April 3 to 10 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West).


Laura Good, a veteran TIFF multi-tasker. “In my role at TIFF I manage the programming and operations of TIFF Film Circuit,” she says, “and program for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the year-round Short Cuts series. I also programmed for the Seattle International Film Festival and sit on as many juries and panels as I can.”


“The mission of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is to bear witness to human rights violations, empower courageous individuals on both sides of the lens and galvanize audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can – and does – make a difference,” Good says. “The festival is a great opportunity to broaden your perspective, tap into larger conversations and see some really incredible films.”


“Very passionate, thought provoking, welcoming and open,” Good says. “Film is an incredible medium for amplifying stories about social justice because of how immersive and impactful it is – especially when seen in a cinema, surrounded by members of your community.”

The festival also makes a point of placing each film in a larger context with extended introductions, filmmaker Q&As or conversations with experts on the subject. “We’re really excited to have director Shannon Service in attendance for a Q&A following the presentation of her film Ghost Fleet (April 6, 7 pm),” Good says. “The film follows Thai human rights activist, Patima Tungpuchayakul, who has led a campaign to help victims of a modern form of slavery that takes place in the global fishing industry where workers from across Southeast Asia are held captive at sea.” (Read NOW’s TIFF review.)


“What’s really developed the past few years is the level of engagement we’re seeing from the community,” Good says. “In these divided times, people are paying attention to social justice issues and want to join the conversation, now more than ever.

“The films in this year’s lineup reflect the major issues we’re facing as a society,” she continues. “For instance, the Sundance 2018 selection The Cleaners (April 7, 4 pm), directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, is about the way that major social media platforms have the ability to exert massive influence over social and political issues. It follows online content moderators or ‘cleaners’ who are hired to vet a seemingly endless amount of content at great personal cost.” (Read NOW’s review.)


“All of the films in the lineup have something timely, powerful and important to say but if I had to chose one as essential viewing it would be Tribeca 2018 selection Roll Red Roll (April 10, 6:30 pm),” Good says. “It’s an unflinching look at a sexual assault that took place in a small football town in Ohio and the pervasiveness of rape culture. The story is told in the form of a true crime documentary, following the journalist who pieced together evidence of the assault by scouring the social media of those who were involved, and ultimately helped to bring the perpetrators to justice. It’s one of the most explosive, eye-opening and vital films of the year. It will be introduced by Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.” (Read NOW’s Hot Docs review.)

“I’m really excited about the fact that we have the Canadian premiere of Doc NYC favourite, Life Without Basketball (April 9, 6:30 pm), which follows Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir as she breaks records and barriers on her way to become the first Division I athlete to play basketball while wearing hijab,” Good says. “We will have Abdul-Qaadir and director Jon Mercer in attendance for a Q&A with audiences following the screening, which will be moderated by Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. It’s sure to be an insightful discussion.”


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