The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival 2019: Right Now’s 5 must-see films

By David Branigan, Gabrielle Everall, Caitlin Cassidy, Stephanie Griffin and Ruth McHugh-Dillon
Still Recording
Image courtesy of HRAFF

Embarking on it’s 12th annual festival, HRAFF presents a stunning array of films that tackle diverse and complicated issues surrounding social justice and human rights. While the entire program is well worth viewing, Right Now has compiled a list of must-see documentaries.


 

Australia Says Yes

Directed by Kirk Marcolina

Review by David Branigan

 

Australia Says Yes gathers the recollections of several foot soldiers in the local fight for marriage equality into a 50-minute primer that adopts the tropes of clock-ticking TV current affairs and the beats of a thriller; it’s clearly gay agenda is as harrowing and ultimately hopeful as the non-compulsory and non-binding postal survey process and reveal that it documents.

Peter de Waal, a gay elder who’s politicised his desire for over five decades and protested through decriminalisation and the first wave of HIV/AIDS and Dr Kerryn Phelps, public health advocate cum politician (& arguably the first public figure to foreground equal relationship rights via a very public outing of her same sex commitment ceremony) are positioned as the heart and head of the much larger and longer struggle for marriage and broader LGBTIQ rights.

Their voices merge on the pivot from the secrecy of the closet to loudly demanding legal and social recognitions but they also seem well versed in staying on topic and in enduring the slights of the slow march to reform, equality and pride.

Ironically, it’s the sitting state member for Sydney and co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality Alex Greenwich who veers off script and speaks to the frustration and real hurts of the plebiscite, the eventual postal survey mechanisms and the targeted no campaign that followed, and underlines their impact on the real stakeholders. He notes that “It was basically ten years of fucking advocacy in an envelope… whatever the question was, I read it as ‘Are gay and lesbian people equal human beings, yes or no?’… What ultimate political bastardry had occurred, and that we had to do this!”

Despite tirelessly working a Yes Equality t-shirt throughout the campaign, the momentary crack in Greenwich’s voice and sense of purpose speaks truth to power and says volumes about the disconnect between party politics and the very idea of community as well as serving as a timely reminder of the postal survey’s other great cost and legacy in trauma. This bracing honesty and real hurt give Australia Says Yes a documental health resonance and heft as a vital corrective and living history. Plebisigh, and yes indeed.

 

Australia Says Yes will screen at 6pm on the 15th of May in Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

 

A Thousand Girls Like Me

Directed by Sahra Mani

Review by Gabrielle Everall

 

A Thousand Girls Like Me is a film in the first person of Khatera from Kabul, Afghanistan who was repetitively raped by her father into adulthood. When she was old enough to realise what her father was doing to her was wrong, she resisted but was beaten by him. She became pregnant to her father four times and bore two children to him.

A Thousand Girls Like Me is the most important film I have ever come across. It breaks the patriarchally enshrined taboo of incest in conservative society in Afghanistan and everywhere. It makes #metoo acknowledge that women in other countries are also fighting sexual abuse in its myriad forms and trying to convict their abusers of rape in the legal system. How brilliant that Khatera fought relentlessly against censorship, the legal system, the media and ‘cultural and family pressures’ to successfully convict her father of rape.

A Thousand Girls Like Me is specific to Afghanistan. The director is the Afghan woman Sahra Mani who wants to and is making change for women in Afghanistan. Mani says: “I live in a society where women do not have a basic right to get education or a basic right to get a job or even get married by their choice. Being a feminist is the only option for women who are fighting for their basic rights”.

A Thousand Girls Like Me brought me to tears in a good way. It is a very moving, effective and well produced film. It is quite slow paced, but this gave me time to think about how Khatera felt as she rides to victory. For example, the complexity of her relationship with her children who are both daughter and son and sister and brother. At times Khatera wishes a bomb would land on them. A Thousand Girls Like Me gives voice to the censorship of the suffering of incest survivors by the media, the judicial system and the family. It fights against the way incest survivors are judged for not resisting and not telling the authorities or anyone sooner. But most importantly, it succeeds.

 

A Thousand Girls Like Me will screen at 4:15 on the 18th of May in Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

 

Still Recording

Directed by Saeed Al Batal & Ghiath Ayoub

Review by Caitlin Cassidy

 

Still Recording was shot between 2011 and 2015, across Damascus and Eastern Ghouta in Syria. The 2-hour film is cut from over 450 hours of raw video footage, following the story of Saeed and Milad, two friends and artists who decide to take part in the Syrian revolution.

Still Recording begins in a classroom as a teacher urges his film students “the image is the last line of defence against time…Know why you’re holding a camera.” The statement underpins the film, as a testament to the filmmakers resolve to bear witness. From here, the viewer is subjected to violence, chaos, gore and death, as revolutionary fervour quickly turns sour.

The unsteady camera pans “the martyrs of Douma,” dead bodies lined up in rows as a man continues to shout “there’s no God but God.” We are jolted through bombed cities, as men yell and shoot through endless rubble, hiding together in doorways.

Yet other scenes in the film are so innocuous you almost forget where you are. In these shots we witness moments of joy, friends sit rolling cigarettes, listening to music, dancing, swimming, kissing one another, making art in the face of despair. How do you imagine a war zone?

Yet always we are jolted back to reality. In a powerful moment in the film, the camera man sits with a sniper, poised with his rifle. “It’s like playing a video game” he tells the sniper, “you don’t feel it’s a living soul.”

“But it’s heartbreaking to kill someone,” the sniper replies. “I always remember he has a soul…I remember that he’s a human being…and my heart aches.” He continues, “of course, that doesn’t stop me. I’m still going to shoot.”

Still Recording is a film by Speed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub. Shot by six videographers, many of whom lost their lives in the process, and smuggled out on hard drives, Still Recording makes for profoundly powerful, urgent viewing.

 

Still Recording will screen at 8pm on the 10th of May in Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

 

Being Impossible

Directed by Patricia Ortega

Review by Stephanie Griffin

 

Being Impossible tells the painful story of Ariel, a young woman who was fed a false narrative about her identity from birth. Her path towards self-realisation is bloody and traumatic with the director, Patricia Ortega, guiding the audience alongside Ariel through the worst of it. The film documents Ariel’s struggle to reconcile her experiences of sex, love and gender with the experiences that she was supposed to have – as a woman – and the shared grief of her, her family, the medical profession, and society, for the “normal life” she was promised. Ortega provokes the audience to consider the very raw, and painful realities for how intersex individuals discover their status; and the harm caused to intersex people through layers of stigma and ignorance.

Stylistically, the film has a melancholic atmosphere achieved through a combination of muted, cool tones and slow, steady pacing. The rhythm of the film is constant, metaphorically juxtaposed against the unravelling of Ariel’s life. Ariel’s narrative arc in this film follows two different lines. On one trajectory she is coming to terms with the secret of her intersexuality, and on the other, she is exploring her own forbidden sexuality through an affair with a woman. Weaving these two arcs together is a clever metaphor for the way in which journeys of gender and sexuality are often distinct yet misunderstood and falsely equated in the broader society.

“You were born intersexual.”

The truth eventually comes out of Ariel’s intersex status, her surgeries as a child, the reason that she feels like she is being ripped open during sex and the reason she bleeds. Instead of framing the discussion around the truth, Ariel considers the lie.

In this context, the film becomes not only about the experience of intersex people but of all people. We are all told stories about how our gender, sexual organs and sexuality confine and define our futures. As a woman, Ariel was expected to marry, have a family, and have a man. The intersex story provides an opportunity for all people to reconsider the binary lens through which societies often view gender and sexuality.

Overall, Being Impossible is an important addition to the body of cinema that challenges traditional notions of gender in contemporary society. The audience is quickly drawn into an experience of gender that they, perhaps, have never fully contemplated.

 

Being Impossible will screen at 8:40pm on the 18th of May in Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

#FemalePleasure

Directed by Barbara Miller

Review by Ruth McHugh-Dillon

 

Barbara Miller’s documentary #FemalePleasure is also sensitive to female pain – because across the world, the two so often seem inseparable. But why? “Why is it so frightening that a woman has sexual feelings? That she’s a sexual being?” asks one of the film’s protagonists early on, British-Somali activist Leyla Hussein.

The film tracks five charismatic women who refuse to accept female suffering as inevitable or natural. There is Vithika Yadav, an Indian entrepreneur whose digital platform Love Matters dishes frank, sexy advice on healthy relationships and intimacy (“women want to have orgasms… more than one”). Deborah Feldman, who escaped Brooklyn’s ultra-conservative Hasidic Jewish community and, in a landmark case, maintained custody of her child. Rokudenashiko, a Japanese artist who went to court for 3D-printing a mold of her vagina to – yes! – make a canoe. Doris Wagner, a German nun who was raped with impunity by a Catholic priest. And Hussein, who campaigns to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which she herself suffered as a child.

Around issues like FGM the film could have easily confirmed Western prejudices about cultural and religious attitudes – and this was my initial hesitation watching. But Miller is at pains to show both the universal injustice women face and the specifics of their resistance. The women carry this documentary: their voices, their experiences, their projects. And they continually emphasise that female oppression is a global issue with a common root: misogyny, not culture, race, or religion.

Given what many have been through, at times it’s hard to watch. But delightful moments – like a grinning Rokudenashiko launching her vagina-canoe into the river to raucous applause – provide levity. The lasting impression is one of women’s fearlessness, fortitude, and creativity in the face of patriarchy, what Hussein calls “a global religion”. With sex and power under scrutiny like never before, #FemalePleasure (complete with hashtag) broadens our view of female resistance with wit and feeling.

 

#FemalePleasure will screen at 8:15pm on the 17th of May in Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

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