The Human Rights Film Festival, 2019

Now in its 30th year, the week-long New York Human Rights Film festival that opens on Thursday, June 13th is the most important venue for leading-edge politically and socially aware films, both narrative and documentary. It is a project of Human Rights Watch that some on the left write off as little different from the US State Department. Having covered the festival on and off ever since it began, I have found no evidence of liberal, mainstream advocacy of the sort that can be found in a NY Times Op-Ed written by Nicholas Kristof. Perhaps the most telling indication of its political independence is giving a voice to pro-Palestinian filmmakers starting in 2009 when three such films were featured—including “Ford Transit” that the Electronic Intifada described as conveying “the feeling of a generation of refugees who live under the thumb of Israeli occupation.” Although I would have looked forward to seeing every film, time only permitted me to see the four below that will give you a flavor of the kind of film being featured.

Advocate (Thursday, June 13, 7 pm, Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater)

In keeping with its continuing focus on Palestinian issues, this documentary profiles Lea Tsemel, a 73-year old Israel attorney who might be compared to William Kunstler in her willingness to take on cases of outcasts that are prejudged in the media just like The Central Park Five, now the subjects of an important HBO feature film by Ava DuVernay. For Kunstler, the frequently achieved goal was clearing the defendant of all charges. For Tsemel, the goal is more modest. It is to get a reduced sentence, which is probably the best possible outcome for a case that the major focus of the film.

A 13-year old boy had joined his cousin in a knife attack on West Bank settlers in 2016 that left two of them wounded. Although the youth did not stab anybody himself, he was still facing a lengthy term. Tsemel took a gamble in refusing to accept the prosecution’s plea deal that would have led to a six-year sentence. As a 13-year old who did not harm anybody, he should have received a sentence appropriate to his age. She did not bank on the Israelis delaying the trial until he turned fourteen, however, making him eligible for stiffer sentencing guidelines. Found guilty of murder, he received a 12-year sentence. By contrast, an Israeli soldier who was accused of killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron was charged with manslaughter and received a much lighter sentence.

Besides seeing her Sisyphean efforts on behalf of the Palestinians, we learn about her political evolution which has something in common with my own. She and her husband Michel Warschawski were student radicals in the 1960s who joined Matzpen, the Israeli section of the Trotskyist international. He is interviewed through the film about the toll that being uncompromising revolutionaries took on them and their two children. Her son recounts the time a man walked up to her on the street, pulled out a pistol and warned about what might happen to her if she kept on defending Palestinians. Wikipedia mentions that in 1987, Warschawski was arrested for “providing services for illegal (Palestinian) organizations” and sentenced to twenty months in prison for typesetting a booklet that the judges ruled had come from members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which described torture and interrogation techniques allegedly used by the Israelis security apparatus and advice on how to withstand them.

Despite the grim realities of Lea Tsemel having to fight uphill battles, the film is still inspiring for depicting the heroic resistance of Israeli Jews who remain committed to the Palestinian cause.

After the film, there will be a Q&A with filmmakers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, Lea Tsemel, and human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar. This is an event well-matched to the opening night of the festival.

Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World (Thursday June 20, 7 pm, IFC Center)

This film had a special appeal for me since I have had communications on and off with its subject Eliot Higgins since the war in Syria broke out. Eliot started out with a blog called Brown Moses that consistently applied the methods that would gain much greater recognition as it evolved into Bellingcat. Using social media, YouTube, Google Maps, GPS and other open source outlets, he was able to refute Assad’s propaganda machine on critical occasions, including the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta on August 21, 2013 that left as many as 1,729 Syrians dead.

As his support network developed, he was able to establish the role of Russia in the missile attack that brought down a civilian airliner over Ukraine as well as its role in sending two agents to England for the attempted hit on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. This ongoing citizen journalism has driven the Kremlin up a wall as well as its propagandists, paid and unpaid. They keep referring to him as having started out as an unemployed couch potato with no special training. They got that right, even though everything else they write about him is a filthy lie.

Everything Must Fall (Monday, June 17, 8:30 pm, Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center; Tuesday, June 18, 8:45 pm, IFC Center)

While I try to keep up with South African politics having visited the ANC camp in exile back in 1990, I had no idea that in 2016 there was a deep struggle by university students across the country to make tuition free. In keeping with the ANC’s growing corporatist agenda, student fees were making it impossible for Black and colored students to continue with their education.

The protests mounted by the students were deeply influenced by the social movements in the USA, including Black Lives Matter. It wasn’t just a question of economic survival. For the students, it was also a campaign to decolonize the university, which despite being administered by someone of Indian descent who was a student radical in his youth, showed little interest in promoting African identity and solidarity. As a symptom of this deficiency, the University of Cape Town had a statue that commemorated Cecil Rhodes until student protestors put sufficient pressure on the administration to have it removed.

The film includes footage of the ANC’s Minister of Education Blade Nzimande insisting on the need for students to accept a six percent fee hike. To describe him as an insensitive bureaucrat with little interest in the original goals of the ANC would be an understatement. However, the film did not mention that in addition to this post, from which he was eventually removed, he has been the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party since 1998. Disgusting.

On the President’s Orders (Saturday, June 15, 8:30 pm, Film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)

This is set in Caloocan, a slum in Manila that is one of the main targets of President Duterte’s war on drugs. In the very beginning of the film, we see two men on a motorcycle drive next to a man standing next to his minicab. One pulls out a gun and shoots him twice, once in the jaw and again in the chest.

Later on, we discover that he is the father of a son who is one of the main subjects of the film, a Caloocan denizen who would be the next target of the police death squad that killed his father. His father, who was on a watch list for being either a seller or user of drugs, had stopped using drugs right after Duterte became president. That was not enough to keep him alive and as a breadwinner for his family.

However, most of the interviews are conducted with the cops who, like Brazil’s, operate as vigilantes. Hung on their own petard, they openly admit to there being an open season on Caloocan’s poor but describe it as necessary to put an end to drugs.

We hear Duterte at the beginning of the film during a state visit to Israel, where he is the guest of another gangster. In an address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he says, “Critics compare me to Hitler’s cousin…Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He added, pointing to himself, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have …”


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