Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

For the past five years the Human Rights Watch Film Festival has been dedicated to bringing messages of social reform and change to moviegoing audiences. Sparking vital dialogues, occasionally pushing boundaries with purpose, and independently looking for change, the week long festival showcases some of the best in fictional and documentary filmmaking to create a better understanding of some of societies biggest ills and uncorrected and unforgivable atrocities.

The ten day festival kicks off this Tuesday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7:00pm with opening night film Putin’s Kiss (a documentary about a young journalist questioning her allegiance to Soviet leader Vladmir Putin and his controversial and often covered up social policies) and runs through Thursday, March 7th, but here’s our look and thoughts on several of the films we were able to catch prior to the festival.

For a full list of films, showtimes, and ticketing information, please head to the TIFF website. More more information on the work of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and events in other cities, head on over to their website.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone – At only 31-years-old, Shin Dong-hyuk already has lived on two different continents, addressed members of the UN and has a book published about his life. But as Marc Wiese’s documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone introduces us to the world that Shin uncomfortably ghosts through, or the stripped bare apartment where Shin sleeps on a paper thin cot and only eats on the floor, it’s obvious that Shin’s is a world veiled by a haunting, unimaginable trauma. Born in a North Korean prison camp in 1982, Shin is just one of the thousands who struggle to fight against severe starvation, torture and predatory prison guards in order to survive in a “total-control zone” prison camp. Often recalled with great mental strain by Shin, whose stories are dutifully accompanied by Weise’s drab animations, the injustices that are status quo at Camp 14 are in many ways comparable to the heinous conditions of the Nazi Germany death camps. Yet surprisingly, Camp 14’s horrors may be more unsettling only because they continue to unfold, unheeded and widely unknown by the free world. As Shin painfully recalls his earliest memories of being forced to witness a public execution at the tender age four, or being savagely tortured in the camp prison as a teen, Camp 14 pangs like an eardrum rupturing alarm calling us to put a stop to the horrors that exist beyond the veil of secrecy North Korea uses to hide its unfathomable atrocities. (Brandon Bastaldo)


Screens Wednesday, February 27th at 6:30pm with Shin Dong-hyuk in attendance and director Mark Wiese joining via Skype.


No -In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was under international pressure to hold some kind of democratic gesture, formulating in a national plebiscite. A stilted discussion, Pinochet’s cabinet still controlled the public voice, as his regime was most infamous for incarcerating and torturing political prisoners. The most Pinochet’s collective opposition had was an allowed set of 15-minute spots on television to convince Chileans to vote “NO” against Pinochet’s “YES” in the election. They won, and they used a happy rainbow to do it.

Pablo Larraín has been tackling Chile during and surrounding the Pinochet regime for his entire career, but it’s likely that No will go down as his most clever take. Beaming into the heart of the time, without crashing face first into cliché rebellion gestures, No isn’t about brave demonstrations or even monstrous oppression. No is about the completely absurd semiotics of marketing in the late 80s, and how the best way to communicate to vox populi is never the most obvious.

No is a battle of wits, not arms. A chess match between two partnered execs, not-so-secretly working for the other team off hours. The characters are fictional, but their advertisements, the monuments of this film, are very real and brilliantly utilized. One of the most obvious and bold aesthetic choices is the film quality, which resembles the fuzzy advertisements in focus. Grazing hipness, it instead immerses the audience into a marketing realm which could otherwise appear demented. No deserves to be talked about, plenty. (Zack Kotzer)


Screens Friday, March 1st at 6:30pm. Open in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver March 15th.


The Act of Killing -There hasn’t been a documentary as viscerally chilling to watch as Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in quite some time. This isn’t just a film focusing a single murder or a group of people known to have slaughtered upwards of a million people. It’s a bone numbing look at such a group of people who have no capacity for forgiveness and a cavalier, almost rock star like attitude about it all.

A group of former bandits and paramilitaries under the leadership of former chief Anwar Congo that were responsible for the mass murder of immigrants, intellectuals and supporters of former Indonesia President Sukarno reenact their war crimes under the auspices of remaking set pieces from famous Hollywood films.

In addition to never being able to look at some of these films the same way again, the cavalier way that this death squad (which is still inexplicably looked at in some circles as being a band of folk heroes) holds even more sadness and unease. As these killers nonchalantly talk about how their murders relate to “a scene,” it’s hard not to be repulsed and entranced in equal amount.


Fresh off of playing TIFF last year and getting a theatrical release here in 2013, the race for the best documentary of the new year might be over before it barely even started.

Screens Saturday, March 2nd at 6:30pm with directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn joining via Skype