Films From the Battlelines: the 2017 Human Rights Film Festival

Still from “Nowhere to Hide.”

Opening tonight in New York, the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a reminder that as a genre, the documentary can offer far more compelling drama than any narrative film for the simple reason that reality itself confronts us in a way that fiction cannot. If the narrative film often enjoys its greatest success as an escape from the cares of quotidian existence, the documentary succeeds by showing real people facing the frightening obstacles capitalist society throws in their path.

While Indiana Jones is the prototype of derring-do escapist fantasy, I much prefer the humble people seen in three of the festival documentaries starting with an Iraqi male nurse who is the subject of “Nowhere to Hide” that opens the festival tonight (screening information is here). I regret that this might not be enough lead time for most New Yorkers but it is worth changing your plans to see courageous filmmaking at its best. After all, it is time better spent than watching Seinfeld reruns or the new Wonder Woman movie.

Five years ago, Norwegian-Kurdish documentary filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed approached male nurse Nori Sharif with a project that sounded almost like making a home movie. He would give Sharif a high-end DSLR camera and tripod to capture scenes of daily life in Jalawla, where he lived and worked in the emergency room of the local hospital. This is a town of about 80,000 people that breaks down into 70% Sunni Arab, 20% Feyli Kurd and 10% Shia Turkmen. The film reveals nothing about Sharif’s ethnicity. He identifies solely as an Iraqi throughout the film and his most frequent observation about the state of his country is that it has gone mad.

Doing a quick search on Sharif, it turns out that he was a Sunni and had the most to fear about staying in Jalawla since he was viewed by suspicion by the Shi’ite militias that began to intervene in such cities during the Sunni version of the Arab Spring in 2013 that protested Shia domination. Like many Syrians who stayed in East Aleppo to the bitter end, it was his ancestral roots to the soil that kept him from fleeing even though this was in the part of Iraq called “the triangle of death”.

Finally, it was fellow Sunnis who forced him, his wife, and four young children to leave Jalawla. They sought refuge in an IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp in the middle of the desert from fighting between ISIS, which had taken control of his city, and rival Shi’ite militias.

Much of the film consists of Sharif treating patients, who were in all cases “collateral damage” in a war that became even more dangerous after the withdrawal of the American military. Casualties in Iraq are largely an abstraction for most Americans but when you see Sharif tending to a man who lost a leg caught in a crossfire between ISIS and Shi’ite militia members, you see the human consequences for the first time. The man, who can no longer work and support his family, thanks god for his good fortune. You wonder why. As he explains, he might have instead been behind the wheel of a car that accidentally killed a child. With millions of Iraqis and Syrians ended up reduced to such misery, you cannot help but wonder how the region can ever be restored to normalcy. Perhaps it was the resource curse that explains what a hell it has become or more logically the determination of imperialism to take advantage of that resource in defiance of the local population’s needs.

When he is not treating patients, Sharif is making small talk with neighbors or the people he runs into in his daily rounds of shopping and social calls. He meets a young shepherd boy who asks him if there is any dance music he can play on his smart phone. Do you know how to dance, he asks the boy who confesses that he cannot. This leads Sharif into cajoling the boy into joining him in an impromptu dance on an Iraqi hilltop in the boondocks, a touching scene that will stay with you longer than any scene in a recent Hollywood blockbuster.

Iraq’s greatest resource is human beings. The 86 minutes you spend with Nori Sharif will leave you feeling that if there is any hope for Iraq, it is that people with a sense of decency and respect for their fellow Iraqis, whatever their religion or ethnicity, are still in the country. Plus, in collaboration with Zaradasht Ahmed, Nori Sharif, an amateur in the best sense of the word, has made one of the best documentary films of 2017.

(In the course of writing this review, I just received email informing me that “Nowhere to Hide” will be opening on Friday, June 23 at the Village East Cinema in New York and on Friday, June 30 at Laemmle Music in L.A. Not to be missed.)

Like Nori Sharif, the young men featured in “City of Ghosts”, which is scheduled for June 13th, are Sunnis trying to convey the reality of the place they call home. And also like Nori Sharif, they are confronting the calamity that calls itself ISIS. The place they love is the city of Raqqa that is now the capital of the Islamic State who they have dogged with their media activism ever since the killers invaded their city with grandiose dreams about turning the clock back to the seventh century.

Sons of middle class families and mostly apolitical, they were inspired to make Youtube videos like most supporters of the struggle against Assad in the early stages of the revolt. Risking death from the regime’s snipers, they recorded protests and did everything they could to connect with the civil-society based movement that now seems decades old.

When ISIS arrived in Raqqa in the summer of 2013, activists assumed they were not that different than other Islamist groups. It did not take long to learn that they were different. They imposed harsh social codes on a generally laid-back city and when the codes were violated, people paid for their violations by being whipped in public at the very least and beheaded at the worst. With the skills they had picked up recording popular protests the year earlier, a core of people launched Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) that used smart phones to record ISIS’s crimes as well as the suffering of people condemned to live in what the death cult represented as a “paradise”. Suffice it to say that the video clips of life under ISIS that we see in the documentary will make you realize how the magnitude of suffering of Syrians dwarfs anything experienced in Europe recently. It is entirely possible that thousands have died in executions in Raqqa by this point and many more will die as the pincers of a “war on terror” invasion closes in. In one scene in the film, Syrian bombs have destroyed most of a city block. A victim cries out, “Only 100 jihadist were here but a 1000 civilians die.”

Toward the end of the film, the leader of RBSS who now lives in a German safe house poses the question of whether the West will come to their aid now that they have experienced firsthand what they have known for nearly four years. Unfortunately, the prospects of a bloodbath loom large as all of the participants in the “war on terror” from Bashar al-Assad to Donald Trump converge on a city that only sought freedom, dignity and justice.

In April 2013, an article in the New Yorker Magazine described the clash between local residents and the Islamists who preceded ISIS. You can get a sense of why it was necessary for ISIS to behave so brutally when confronted by a people who had no use for fascists wearing beards as well as fascists wearing neckties:

A few days earlier, a massive black flag bearing the shahada had been hoisted atop a flagpole in Raqqa city’s main square, in front of the elegant, multi-arched governorate building. “We will become a target for American drone attacks because of the flag—it’s huge,” said Abu Noor, a wiry young man who worked in a pharmacy by day and at night volunteered to guard the post office near his home against looters. “They’ll think we’re extremist Muslims!” (There haven’t been such strikes in Syria yet, though the possibility is much discussed here.)

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

“Lost in Lebanon” can be seen on June 15th and 17th. It is a topic close to my heart, namely the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon that I first became aware of after seeing “Ketermaya”, a documentary shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in March.

While “Ketermaya” is focused on children, “Lost in Lebanon” introduces you to a group of adults who largely fled Syria for the same reason most people have—namely that it was too dangerous to remain in the country. While none of them are obviously part of the privileged Damascene society that serves as Assad’s most committed base, neither are they particularly committed to “the revolution”. They can best be described as peace-loving, educated and urbane—in other words just the kind of people who you would be happy to have as next door neighbors except for the fact that they are stuck in limbo.

In Lebanon, you can be arrested if you are caught working without documents—just like Latino undocumented workers in the USA. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to get accepted into a European country if you are stuck in Lebanon. One of the interviewees is a young woman who speaks English fluently, wears tight jeans, does not wear a hijab, and has ear piercings. She also volunteers with an NGO serving the refugee community. She has been accepted into three different training programs in the West but cannot get a Visa. Her worry and that of the other subjects in the film is that they will be sent back to Syria, which is about as much of a death sentence as it would be for an undocumented teenager from El Salvador fleeing gang violence being deported.

For one of the subjects, the analogy is not that far-fetched. He states that he might be killed by either Assad’s men or the FSA if he is forced back into Syria. All he wants is to live a life of normalcy, something that seems impossible in the entire Middle East and North Africa as the region descends deeper into the inferno. It reminds me of the conversations I used to have with a male nurse in the Syrian military who fled the country after seeing captive rebels being tortured in the hospital where he worked. Like going from the frying pan into the fire, he relocated to Yemen. And from there he went to Brazil with his new bride that he met in Yemen. Given the state of Brazil, who knows what fate has in store for him now?

Another subject is a sculptor with shoulder-length hair who has tattoos on both hands. He tells us that he could never kill another human being. It is just not in his nature. That was the case for most people like him during the Vietnam War, including me. The best hope for Syria, as it is for Iraq, is a return to peace where people can be persuaded politically about the future of their country rather than getting a bullet in the head for having the wrong ideas about that future.

“Black Code” will screen on June 14th and 15th. This is based on a book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, the head of Citizen Lab at the U. of Toronto who is featured in the film, along with members of his staff who play a leading role helping to defend electronic media activists from repression that is based on the same kinds of tools hactivists use.

Notwithstanding all of the furor over Russian interference in our wonderful democratic elections that are ultimately determined by the size of the candidate’s coffers and the state of the economy, the most anti-democratic, computer-based interference takes is directed at people just like us—the CounterPunch readers and activists who might use a cell phone to record a protest on Youtube or post to Facebook about a meeting.

In recent years, private firms have been developing tools that are sold to governments around the world determined to crush resistance even by small groups of dissidents, even when living in exile. For example, in Ethiopia only six percent of the country is on the Internet but the government spends millions of dollars on products that help them sniff out “trouble-makers”. A leading dissident, who lives in exile in London, clicked what appeared to be an innocent jpeg that turned out to be malware that was downloaded to his computer and all of his correspondents inside Ethiopia. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of a number of them.

The film also shows how activists are continuing to use the Internet to build the movement, even if it requires more care in avoiding such malware. The film profiles activists in Bytes for All, a group in Pakistan that is fighting against the most severe restrictions on electronic communications in the entire world. The government has banned Wikipedia and Youtube in the name of preserving Islamic purity, even if it puts a damper on intellectual and even commercial vitality.

As it happens, members of Bytes for All were supposed to speak at last weekend’s Left Forum, a workshop I looked forward to eagerly as someone who has combined activism and technology ever since getting involved with Tecnica 30 years ago. The workshop was described in the program:

As more and more users get online in Asia, the internet has become a critical tool to exercise the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association online, which links to offline movements for democracy and social justice. Yet the space for civil society online is shrinking in Asia, and elsewhere, and individuals are increasingly subject to surveillance, censorship, threats of violence, direct attacks and criminal prosecution. One of the most common technique States are resorting to for preventing assemblies is through network disconnections, either restricted to the geographic space where protests are taking place or in the whole region as such. In India and Pakistan, especially governments rely on provisions to impose ‘curfews’ including through shutdown of communication networks, which limits the ability of protestors to assemble peacefully and beyond that restricts the broader population’s right to freedom of expression and threatens individual safety and security. States also block websites or take down pages that facilitate the association of people online. For example, in August 2015, days ahead of a major rally, the Malaysian regulatory body on communications and multimedia, the MCMC, issued a request for Internet Service Providers in the country to block access to the website of the Malaysian electoral reform group, Bersih 2.0, stating that it was necessary to block information deemed threatening to national security.

I was dismayed to see that the workshop had been cancelled. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone in Donald Trump’s State Department had gotten word about them making an appearance at the Left Forum and urged his counterparts in Pakistan to revoke their visas. As the battle-lines grow sharper in an epoch of deepening social crisis, there will be attacks on our freedoms and a need to find people on our side with the sort of skills Citizen Lab can bring to bear.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.