Right Now’s HRAFF 2016 film picks

By Multiple authors

With the 2016 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival just a week away, we present a small sample of the program with our reviewers’ top film picks.

Prison Songs | Kelrick Martin

Review by Samantha Jones

Taking to screen from behind the bars at Northern Territories largest jail, Berrimah Prison, inmates share their deeply personal and heartbreaking stories in Australia’s first musical documentary – Prison Songs.

Shot before the prison’s decommissioning in 2014, the prisoner’s stories lead into powerfully emotive musical performances, which take on a variety of styles – rap, gospel, blues – and incorporate choreography, back-up-singers and acting in the format of quasi-music-video style. They sing about the issues they face in prison, but mostly about the issues they experience as an Indigenous Australians – 80% of inmates are Indigenous Australian.

Film maker Kelrick Martin truly captures the essence of the inmates, giving the prisoners, and Indigenous people, the opportunity to share their experience in an original and confronting way and opening the channels for the viewer to empathise with people that are perhaps living a very different life to their own. Ultimately it humanises the statistics on Indigenous incarceration and promotes consideration around the issues Indigenous Australians experience – both of which are desperately needed in the public debate.

Prison Songs screens on 6 May and 9 May in Melbourne, 26 May in Sydney and 8 June in Darwin.

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Call Me Dad | Sophie Wiesner

Review by Samantha Jones

When we talk about domestic violence, we’re often missing a viewpoint that is integral to understanding the reasoning behind it – the person choosing to use violent behaviour.

As uncomfortable as it is to watch, Sophie Wiesner’s documentary Call Me Dad provides this side of the conversation.

The documentary follows several men, all fathers, on their journey through a men’s behavioural change program – Heavy M.E.T.A.L. (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life). The men are challenged on their violent and abusive behaviour, educated on the impacts their behaviour has on their family, and equipped with tools and strategies to lead a different life.

Watching the change in the perpetrators is powerful, but what resonates through the film even more is the cycle of violence and how important it is to stop this being passed onto the next generation. Jacqui Seamark, co-facilitator of the program, sums it up perfectly when she says – ‘If you are abusive, it ripple affects out. If you’re changing, that does too.’

Call Me Dad is an educational, eye-opening documentary that is confronting and challenging to watch but surprisingly evokes empathy and hope that through education and culture change, domestic violence can stop.

Call Me Dad screens on 15 and 16 May in Melbourne.

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The Fear of 13 | David Sington

Review by Heath Chamerski

A dimly lit, cell-like interview room is our home for almost all of the 96 minutes of this riveting documentary, with only the verbose Nick Yarris – the film’s subject and sole person to appear on screen – as company.

With the spotlight, literally and figuratively on Yarris, this documentary is an intense and ultimately redemptive story of a miscarriage of justice and Yarris’ unbreakable fighting spirit.

Yarris is a former death row inmate who was convicted in 1983 of a horrific rape and murder. He was thrown into jail and left to rot while awaiting execution, contracting HIV in prison and pleading with the authorities to carry out his death sentence before the disease claimed his life. Yarris’ story is one that would seemingly not elicit much sympathy, except for the fact that he was completely innocent of the crime he was on death row for.

Yarris, by his own admission, was a no-good criminal, but he was no murderer. He was a drug user and thief in the wrong place at the wrong time, with a plan to pin the murder on an associate as a way of securing bail for his lesser crimes. But that ploy backfired drastically and he ended up being quickly tried and convicted.

Yarris’ eloquent, evocative storytelling skills keep viewers engrossed throughout his harrowing tale. While Yarris is the only face and voice we hear in the film, music is an important part of The Fear of 13, with Yarris’ story punctuated by moments in his life where certain songs marked a turning point.

Yarris is a compelling, mesmerising figure, and his tragic, but ultimately uplifting story is one that, despite the often-grim subject matter, is a tale of the human spirit surviving and thriving in the gravest of circumstances.

The Fear of 13 screens on 13 May in Melbourne.

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The Bad Kids | Keith Fulton & Lou Pepe

Review by Pia White

Black Rock High School in California’s Mojave Desert is a last chance for many at-risk kids hoping to graduate. Directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe focus mainly on three students: Joey, Jennifer and Lee, as they strive to achieve enough credits to get their diploma.

While all the students are dealing with their own unique and difficult circumstances, drugs, neglect and poverty are common among many. Numerous shots of the vast, arid landscape serve as reminders that the kids of this community are isolated in more ways than one.

But The Bad Kids is as much about the dedicated faculty at the school as it is about the titular youths. With a self-paced curriculum and admirable dedication, the teachers seek to help the students find the purpose and drive to change their lives.

Most passionate of all is Principal Vonda Viland. Calling the kids in the morning to get them up for school and counselling them in her office, Viland gives the students a remarkable amount of attention and care; enough for many to start believing that they are in fact good kids after all.

The Bad Kids screens on 19 May in Melbourne, 26 May in Brisbane28 May in Sydney, 31 May in Alice Springs1 June in Perth and 5 June in Canberra.

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La Buena Vida | Jens Schanze

Review by Pia White

La Buena Vida tells the shamefully common story of indigenous people being driven from their land in the name of outside interests – in this case, coal. In northern Columbia, the traditional, sustainable way of life of the indigenous Wayúu community is threatened by the ‘responsible mining’ of the ever-expanding Cerrejón coal mine.

Faced with the forced displacement of his village, Jairo Fuentes of Tamaquito mounts a resistance on behalf of his community. Fuentes determinedly negotiates with Cerrejón representatives, but at no time does the fight against the Glencore and BHP Billiton-backed company feel fair.

While it is easy to recoil from the behaviour of unscrupulous mining companies, by reminding us of the dependence of many developed nations on imported coal, director Jens Schanze highlights our complicity not only in the displacement of the Wayúu community, but also in the injustice of the industry as a whole.

La Buena Vida screens on 17 May in Melbourne.

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Drone | Tonje Hessen Schei

Review by Samaya Borom

Imaging living under the threat of being killed by an unmanned aircraft at any moment. This is the reality of villagers living in Pakistan or Yemen who face extrajudicial killings from the United States, whose use of drones is highly questionable in the continued War on Terror. While the hunt for Al-Qaeda continues, it is the unarmed citizens that face indiscriminate maiming and death.

Tonje Hessen Schei’s Drone is a highly controversial documentary that features interviews with former drone operators, heads of defence, dissidents and concerned citizens who have been involved in one way or another in the drone war occurring across Pakistan. It tells the story of how the United States Government wages a war from the sky; a war that involves young, indoctrinated military men pressing the trigger and blowing up civilians under the guise of protecting US interests. A drone manufacturer in the film remarks that “war is the opportunity to undertake business” and Schei does well to illustrate this point – drone warfare is both a business opportunity as it is a merchant of death.

Drone also discusses the phenomenon of ‘Militainment’ – where the world of military games meets military intent. Scarily, the US military is described as having invested in creating games that are used for recruitment tools. In this sense, the film illustrates how drone warfare becomes a normalised activity where emotion and humanity is stripped from those pressing the trigger and where, because the activity looks like a computer game, the media becomes used to seeing images on television of drone attacks against ‘militants’.

Drone is a must see film for those interested in the future of warfare, as well as human rights activity in a world with increasing electronic and unmanned warfare.

Drone screens on 8 May in Melbourne.

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Dreaming of Denmark | Michael Graversen

Review by Samaya Borom

The media reports that thousands of children arrive on European shores as unaccompanied minors, although little is known or reported about what happens once they arrive. Michael Graversen’s Dreaming of Denmark follows the story of Afghani Wasiullah, who came to Denmark as an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum.

Wasiullah is an 18-year-old with a failed asylum bid who absconds to a new life in Italy, hearing that it is easier to obtain official status there than in Denmark, where he has been staying in a centre for the past three years. The film personalises the plight of young refugees, seeking acceptance in their adopted homelands much the same way that young teenagers want to be accepted by their respective peers. From sleeping rough to trying to fit in in a refugee centre, it sheds light on a seemingly forgotten demographic in the refugee debate. In this sense, Wasiullah is at once fragile as he is strong, he is both representative of the child refugee seeking asylum as a scared minor, as well as the young adult seeking his own way in a new land – one that has at times rejected him as well as embraced him.

Dreaming of Denmark is of interest to those whom has wondered what happens to those children who seek asylum in countries as unaccompanied minors – does their adoptive country embrace or dispel them?

Dreaming of Denmark screens on 7 May in Melbourne.

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Burden of Peace | Joey Boink & Sander Wirken

Review by Sam Ryan

In Burden of Peace, a crew of independent filmmakers follow Claudia Paz y Paz during her three-and-a-half years as Attorney General of Guatamala.

It is a fascinating account of a period in which she took on the ‘impossible’ task of tackling the endemic organised crime, corruption and impunity in Guatamala.

Boink and Wirken’s documentary is engaging and inspiring without grandiose narration, sequences or soundtrack. Like Paz y Paz herself, the film is straightforward and unapologetic.

As they present key events in her tenure, even those with no prior knowledge of the highly respected criminal law expert will find themselves endeared to her pragmatic but dogged pursuit of justice. Paz y Paz played a key role in the successful prosecution of former president Efrain Ríos Montt for ordering the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil people.

She achieves major outcomes, and we see both the appreciation of the people and the contempt of the threatened powerful

Montt is established as a foil for Paz y Paz in the film’s opening with his 1982 quote, “… we need change. That means we need to impose our will on the other.”

Thirty years later, while reflecting on the risks of taking on the role of Attorney General, Paz y Paz states:

“I have to do it because the victims deserve justice. I have to do it because the country deserves justice. I have to do it because it has to be done.”

Burden of Peace screens on 11 May in Melbourne.

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HRAFF 2016 kicks off in Melbourne on 5 May. View the full program on the HRAFF website. What are you looking forward to seeing at HRAFF? Tell us in the comments! 


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.