The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, that cinematic arm of the New York-based research and advocacy program, has always boasted selections that are worth watching purely for aesthetic reasons. It’s impossible to do so, though. Each of these films examines the limits of human behavior with a radical compassion that confronts the failings of the world that we all share nowadays, regardless of whether we care to admit it.
It is a truism of modern life that the more accessible everything is, the more isolated we each become. Technology affords us the ability to visit with each other, order our supplies and entertainment, and do our work without ever venturing outside our homes. We are more globalized than ever before in the history of humankind; we can view lands, people, and events that are 6,000 miles away as if they’re in our backyard. Yet there’s no replacing firsthand experience. I learned that during Hurricane Sandy. While we New Yorkers were stripped of heat, running water, and electricity, friends as close by as Boston and Pennsylvania prattled on to us about cute puppies and bad hair days. To them, our hardship was not real. I didn’t blame them. Although we enjoyed the illusion of intimacy afforded by social media and smartphone technology (at least when we New Yorkers managed to charge our phones), it was nonetheless difficult for outsiders to grasp our dire straits, even when they were only a couple hundred miles away.
This is why social justice cinema is more important than it’s ever been. Our increasingly globalized economy inextricably links our interests, yet human beings are not automatically inclined to empathize with people who are geographically or circumstantially distant from them. Movies come to our rescue, for one of their chief purposes is to depict and ease the human condition – not to mention to explain ourselves to each other. Whether we’re watching alone on our personal devices or shoulder-to-shoulder in a darkened theater, cinema has always served as our most transporting medium. That’s why so many people who never cry in their own lives weep copiously at the movies. Films coax us into experiencing revelations from a remove that lessens the sting we’d normally feel, and into sympathizing with protagonists no matter how foreign they’d otherwise seem to us; often we’re viewing their world right over their shoulders (somewhat literally). We tell ourselves, “Oh, it’s just a movie,” but none of us believe that anymore. They’re always pushing propaganda of some sort, whether it’s romantic love or fast cars or the United States of America. That’s why I roll my eyes when a director declares herself “apolitical.” Movies don’t just reflect the world; they also change it.
Whether it’s narrative fiction or a documentary, a well-crafted “message movie” has the power to rouse us to action. Witness how, in 2012, “The Invisible War” alerted audiences to the plague of sexual assaults in the United States armed forces, which Congress was subsequently forced to address. Or “Super Size Me” (2004), which compelled Americans to examine what they were putting in their bodies when they consumed fast food. (It hardly seems a coincidence that McDonald’s is now experiencing trouble.) “Citizen Koch” (2013) introduced the general public to the anti-labor agenda of the billionaire brothers who launched the supposedly populist tea party. The Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma” (2014) doubled as a brilliant primer in political strategy that resonated deeply with today’s protesters.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which screens in twenty cities around the world each year (this month it’s hosted by New York City’s Lincoln Center), is a particularly valuable resource. The 2015 program includes “The Trials of Spring,” which examines the role of women in post-2011 Egypt; “Of Men and War,” about the PTSD many American soldiers are experiencing after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan; and legendary documentarian Stanley Nelson’s “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which provides a thrillingly comprehensive look into a vital and woefully misunderstood chapter in American history. Even if this festival doesn’t come to your city, chances are good you’ll be able to stream its entries in the months to come. And you should. By bearing witness to the human rights violations and triumphs explored in these films, we participate in a forum that can empower us all.
This was originally published in Word and Film.