Right Now’s Top 9 HRAFF 2017 Film Picks

By Rob Gilchrist, AR, Samaya Borom, Anika Baset, Sam Ryan and Rachael Imam

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) celebrates its 10th birthday this year with an inspiring and insightful line up of stories that matter. Here we list our top film picks from the 2017 program.

HRAFF tours nationally from May to June 2017.

The Opposition | Hollie Fifer

Review by Athena Rogers

The Opposition, a documentary by Australian filmmaker Hollie Fifer, traces one community’s struggle over a headland in Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby – Paga Hill. Paga Hill has been occupied informally by a community of 3,000 for over 40 years. But to make way for a proposed business development, the community faces forced eviction.

The hero of the film is Joe Moses, a representative of the Paga Hill community. Moses collaborates with Australian activists and lawyers to challenge the legality of the home demolitions and leasing agreement held by the Australian-linked Paga Hill Development Company.

Initially, Moses is seen collaborating with Dame Carol Kidu, the then-national opposition leader and highly respected women’s rights activist, attempting to block bulldozers from tearing down homes. But Dame Carol’s decision to accept a consultancy position with the developers to negotiate resettlement arrangements for Paga Hill community marks the turning point of the documentary. The documentary portrays this as an act of betrayal and a “devastating blow to [community] morale”. Dame Carol, however, resists this interpretation.

The film recently attracted media attention when Dame Carol took legal action against Fifer to prevent the film’s release, claiming she did not consent to being filmed for commercial release. Her case was unsuccessful. Following its production she has distanced herself from the film, claiming that it oversimplifies a complex issue.

The Opposition intends to give voice to activists such as Moses and hopes to draw attention to possible human rights violations committed by the state and developers. But the controversy surrounding the documentary has raised further issues. The tension between those who see opposition as the only way to protect the rights of the community, and those, such as Dame Carol, who describe their involvement with developers as an alternate means of doing human rights work, raises deeper questions about the politics of human rights activism and the complexities of achieving sustainable and just urban development.

The Opposition opens the festival on Thursday 4 May at 6:30pm at ACMI (Melbourne), and an encore screening is on Sunday 7 May at 5pm at ACMI (Melbourne). The Opposition also screens on Monday 29 May at 6:30pm at Palace Electric (Canberra), and on Thursday 1 June at 6:30pm at Palace Barracks (Brisbane).

Radio Kobani | Reber Dosky

Review by Rob Gilchrist

Between September 2014 and March 2015, Kobanî in Syria was the site of a long and brutal occupation by the so-called Islamic State. During this time, the Syrian city saw incredible cruelty, forcing thousands to flee or remain and suffer. Among those who left was Dilovan Kîko, a young Kurdish journalist. Like many others, Dilovan nervously waited for the fall of IS so she could return and resume her life.

When this day came, she returned to find her shattered city in need of hope, and to assist she began Radio Kobanî. This radio station gave the newly liberated city a voice, a place to discuss the war and to begin the long process of rebuilding. This station and the young lady behind it are the focus of Radio Kobanî, a 2016 film by Reber Dosky.

Dosky highlights the terror of the fighting, the glacial pace of reconstruction and the immense difficulties faced by locals every day. The footage is haunting, even sickening, showing headless bodies being pulled from the rubble and other harrowing scenes. Despite these horrors, hope is emerging from the ashes. As people return throughout the film, and fighters resume their previous lives, Dilovan documents how her emotions change and her belief in humanity returns.

Radio Kobanî is a moving film that serves as a timely reminder of how brutal this war has been, and why so many choose to leave. As refugees continue to be demonised, we must remember their plight and the awful experiences they endure. As Dilovan notes, “nobody leaves his city, his family, and his memories behind for no reason”. Perhaps this message is one that is too often forgotten, and seeing this film may help remind us.

Radio Kobani screens on Monday 8 May at 8pm at ACMI (Melbourne).     

Constance on the Edge | Belinda Mason

Review by Samaya Borom

In 2005 Constance and her family, refugees from war torn South Sudan’s Agoro, settled in Wagga Wagga, regional NSW, on a humanitarian visa.

Belinda Mason’s Constance on the Edge follows Constance and her family as they settle into life in Wagga. Confronting racism, depression, drug addiction, fear of the police, and initial language and cultural barriers – it was not always an easy fit. Constance and her family members each forge their own path trying to fit into the tight-knit regional community. Charles, her son, has had a particularly bad time – attempting suicide more than ten times and getting into trouble with the police – while Constance’s daughter, Vicky, studiously works towards her dream of assisting children. She has her sights on studying nursing or paediatrics at Charles Sturt University.

Mason expertly weaves the family’s refugee experience into the story, providing the viewer with an insight into how traumatic experiences can shape an individual – for better or worse. While Constance and her family escaped war, their experiences left an indelible imprint. Constance describes it as if she lives in “a world of sweet dreams and horror, a world of living and walking with the dead”.

Constance on the Edge is a moving story that is captured and shared with honesty and openness.

Constance on the Edge screens on Friday 5 May at ACMI (Melbourne), on Tuesday 23 May at 6:30pm at Dendy Cinemas Newtown (Sydney), and on Friday 2 June at 6pm at The University of Tasmania (Hobart).

The Settlers | Shimon Dotan

Review by Anika Baset

The Settlers is an insightful documentary that provides an intimate look at the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The film is highly topical, given the 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution which deemed the settlements a flagrant violation of international law. By putting a human face on an international issue, Israeli film director Shimon Dotan reveals the deep-seated and millennia old belief systems that have led to one of the most complex geopolitical situations of our time.

The key theme explored in The Settlers is the tension between the concept of Israel as a modern state and the concept of “Eretz Israel”, the Land of Israel as a religious right of the Jewish people. For both historical and modern settlers, the two are irrevocably entwined.

The religious belief in Jewish rights to lands of Judea and Samaria led the first settlers to the West Bank, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. 50 years later, the same fervently held ideals have resulted in 400,000 settlers in 225 settlements spread across the Occupied Territories. The devastating impact of the settlements is disproportionately felt by millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation and have their own generational ties to the land. “Where are [the settlers] leading the state of Israel?” asks the narrator. “Is it to divine redemption, as they claim? Or is it to an apartheid state?”

While many human rights documentaries explore an issue from the perspective of the most vulnerable, The Settlers turns this well-developed formula on its head. Instead, the film offers an insight into the unshakeable beliefs of the perpetrators. The result is a fascinating, well-balanced documentary, which provides some much-needed clarity to an increasingly murky situation.

The Settlers screens on Wednesday 10 May at 7:45pm at ACMI (Melbourne).   

Nowhere to Hide | Zaradasht Ahmed

Review by Sam Ryan

Nowhere to Hide takes viewers into the heart of the conflict within Iraq since the withdrawal of US troops. Over five years, the story is told through the eyes of Nori Sharif – a doctor, husband and father in Diyala province – who also does much of the filming.

Through his work at a local hospital, Nori becomes the audience’s proxy witness to the carnage and soon finds himself documenting his own struggles as he flees ISIS with his family no less than 13 times in search of safety.

“I don’t understand this war”, concedes Nori, an intelligent, insightful man. “It is difficult to diagnose this war. It is an undiagnosed war. You only see the symptoms: the killing, displacements, the blood baths. But you don’t understand the disease.”

Yet when he asks his daughters if they are afraid, they reply, smiling, that they are not. They have gotten used to it.

Nowhere to Hide is a brutal, no frills film. It conveys the shocking nature of daily life for many in one of the world’s most dangerous regions – as much through the murdered and maimed, as through the disposition of a young girl who thinks nothing of casually picking up bullets on the roadside.

Nowhere to Hide screens on Saturday 13 May at 8:30pm at ACMI (Melbourne).

Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi

Review by Sam Ryan

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is set on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where 400,000 migrants have arrived in the last 20 years, and a great many have died trying.

The documentary follows two asylum seekers, a local boy Samuele and a doctor who treats the migrants on their arrival.

With no narration or soundtrack, and, at times, little dialogue, Rosi leaves a lot of space for contemplation, and makes no explicit commentary. Nor does he attempt to create any narrative around any of the many migrants passing through. We don’t get to know anything much about their past or journey. It just is what it is. This is a mood that pervades the film.

Fire at Sea screens with an original live score by Evelyn Morris (Pikelet) on Thursday 11 May at 8pm at ACMI (Melbourne). HRAFF has collaborated with Hear My Eyes to present this unique and immersive experience.

War Book | Tom Harper

Review by Rob Gilchrist

War Book, written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper, is a timely film about government preparedness for nuclear war; a decidedly daunting possibility. Set in 2014, with international tensions rising and potential strife alluded to throughout, this fictional British government moves to update Cold War nuclear preparedness plans.

To achieve this, various civil servants are gathered for a three-day role play exercise, based on a Pakistani nuclear attack on India. The result feels a lot like Twelve Angry Men with a nuclear flair. Tempers fray, personal problems arise and external concerns take precedence, making decisions rushed with debate stifled.

This film raises significant and serious questions that hopefully never need answering. If nuclear catastrophe were to occur, how would our leaders react? Would borders close in the face of the massive flow of refugees? Would alliances be maintained, and if necessary, would military muscle be flexed and further bombs be dropped? And crucially, is our country prepared for strife such as this? Or, would our society crumble in the face of unimaginable fear and danger?

Ultimately, with the world interconnected, travel increasingly easy and alliances stretching across the globe, we don’t appear prepared to handle an event amounting to a nuclear Arch Duke Ferdinand. Should a nuclear strike occur in the night, the reaction of powers like the United Kingdom will largely set the tone for global responses and for this reason, this is an important and interesting film.

War Book screens on Saturday 13 May at 6:45pm at ACMI (Melbourne).     

Sonita | Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Review by Rachael Imam

When we think of rap and hip hop artists, teenage, female and middle-eastern are not generally the traits that come to mind. But that’s exactly who Sonita Alizadeh is. As a young Afghani immigrant who has fled her home country for Iran, she dreams of being a hip hop star, sharing the experiences and challenges of her life with the world through her lyrics. Unconventional and unapologetic, Sonita is determined to carve out her own musical future, despite the legal and cultural obstacles that seem set on keeping her from it.

Sonita documents a period of the young teenager’s life as she attempts to get her music heard. We are given an insight into the people and environments that have helped to inspire her words – the local centre that supports her, her friends who are suffering around her, and her family who are set on marrying her off.

There are scenes that feel so intimate, so tense and emotionally raw that they almost appear staged, as though the presence of the camera itself should prevent such honest moments from taking place. The line between the film and the story becomes blurred even further, with filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami conversing directly with Sonita at times, even having the camera turned on her as she and her crew become integral to Sonita’s story.

Sonita is a deliberate, thoughtful film about a young woman with a lot to say. It demonstrates the level of strength that is required to resist a future that others believe has already been written for you, and humbly celebrates the power of hip hop to transport us into other people’s worlds and experiences. By the time the film is over, you can’t help but be charmed by Sonita, her immense talent, and her sheer determination to find something better for herself.

Sonita screens on Tuesday 16 May at 6pm at ACMI (Melbourne).

Do Not Resist | Craig Atkinson

Review by Samaya Borom

The opening scenes of Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist are confronting in their similarity to scenes of war. Heavy military grade transportation – Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles – roll down streets. Police wearing what appears to be military-issued gear fire tear gas into a crowd of protesters where children are present. Cars are set alight and the sound of shots ring out over and above the sound of screams and sirens.

Welcome to Ferguson, Missouri, United States of America. The site where protesters gathered peacefully calling for justice in regards to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was later exonerated by the Grand Jury for any wrongdoing.

Surprised with the excessive police response? Don’t be.

Do Not Resist by Craig Atkinson focuses on the increasing militarisation of the police force in the United States and the very real possibility that they are being turned into an occupying army. Atkinson notes that since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has provided police departments with over $34 billion in grants to purchase military-grade equipment. This has been supplemented by $5 billion in free military equipment from the Department of Defense resulting in a police force that looks, and acts, like it is at war; deviating dramatically from the idea of protecting and serving their own communities.

The film features interviews with an assortment of law enforcement characters, however most concerning is the rhetoric from Dave Grossman, a US Military and Law Enforcement trainer, whose central argument revolves around the idea that the police are at war – spurring on the purchasing of military-grade weaponry in order to protect themselves.

Do Not Resist is compelling to watch and one wonders just how far the militarisation can go given it’s already seemingly well embedded within the police force and supported by endless pockets.

Do Not Resist screens on Wednesday 17 May at ACMI (Melbourne).


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.