“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” the 1985 pop hit, would be an appropriately militant theme song for the new edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. This year’s focus is on women’s rights around the globe, and more than half the 18 features in the festival, which opens Friday and is being presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, are directed by women, alone or with co-directors.
Both the opening- and closing-night selections are portraits of fiercely determined female activists “standin’ on their own two feet/and ringin’ on their own bells” (to quote the lyrics), risking their safety to advance women’s rights in repressive political climates.
Nanfu Wang’s opening film, is a portrait of Ye Haiyan, whose nickname lends the film its title, “Hooligan Sparrow.” She once threatened to work free at a Chinese brothel to draw attention to the oppression of thousands of women employed by the country’s sex industry. Too juicy for the Chinese news media to ignore, the story gave her a notoriety that made her an enemy of the state.
Shot on the fly, “Hooligan Sparrow” follows Ye Haiyan and fellow protesters as they seek justice after the suspected rape of six elementary school girls in Hainan province by their school principal and a government official, and a cover-up by the powers that be. This ragged, inflammatory documentary is a classic example of guerrilla filmmaking. Ye Haiyan and her companions are continually harassed and threatened by the authorities, and their equipment is destroyed, but they persist.
Just as determined and unstoppable an advocate for female empowerment and self-expression is Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan refugee and aspiring rapper in Tehran, the protagonist of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary “Sonita.” Ms. Alizadeh, who has no passport or papers, was not permitted to perform in Iran either. Her idol is Rihanna, and she fantasizes that she is the daughter of Rihanna and Michael Jackson.
Sonita is living with her sister and her niece when she meets Ms. Maghami. When her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in eight years, tries to persuade her daughter to be sold into marriage to fund a dowry for her older brother, Ms. Maghami intervenes and helps buy the girl’s freedom. Ms. Alizadeh made a video, “Brides for Sale,” which led a nonprofit organization to bring her to the United States, where she is studying at Wasatch Academy in Utah on a full scholarship. “Sonita” won the grand jury prize for world cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The Human Rights Watch festival’s most powerful film, Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Starless Dreams,” wrings a poignant twist on the “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves” concept. In this heartbreaking work, the director interviews girls housed in a Tehran rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents. They all live in a dormitory where they develop close ties, and their friendships and the mutual support they give one another are deeply touching.
That this is a sisterhood formed by circumstance doesn’t make it any less a sorority. Their openness makes their first-person horror stories of familial captivity, abuse and punishment, often at the hands of male relatives, all the more hair-raising.
What amazes is their collective joie de vivre in the face of horrific experience. As they talk about beatings from parents, about addicted fathers who force them to sell drugs, and about running away from home and surviving on the streets, these fresh-faced young women don’t mince words. Although keenly aware of their social disgrace, they possess an astonishing inner resilience and prefer to see themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control rather than wrongdoers. The movie was made on condition that they not be followed after leaving the center. Your heart aches for those who are returned to hellish conditions from which the center provided a temporary refuge. Those not taken back by their families face a frightening unknown.
Among the remaining selections, “Jackson” examines reproductive rights at Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic. In “Ovarian Psycos,” a Latina bicycle gang fights for its place on the streets of East Los Angeles. The two Mexican women in Tatiana Huezo’s “Tempestad” tell personal horror stories of unjust incarceration, corruption and unaccountability of those in power. “The Uncondemned” examines activists’ campaign to have rape recognized in Rwanda as a war crime.
Two other films are worth noting. “Do Not Resist,” winner of best documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, examines the militarization of American police departments and the police oppression of African-Americans. George Curian’s film “The Crossing” is a firsthand account of a Syrian refugee group’s perilous journey to Europe by sea and by land.
We are in the crowded boat with the refugees during their weeklong voyage, which ends when an Italian oil tanker rescues them. Once in Europe, they disperse to Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where they embark on new lives while navigating a maze of regulations and refugee hostels. These refugees, who speak broken English, are middle-class Syrians who are devastated to leave their homeland.
I came away from the movie with the realization that in their hopes, fears, and dreams, they are essentially just like us. There but for the grace of God. Our fates are just the luck of the draw.
A Critic’s Notebook article on Thursday about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in Manhattan, which includes the documentary “Sonita,” misidentified the school where the subject of the film is studying. It is Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah — not Utah Valley University. The article also misidentified the site of the university. The main campus is in Orem, Utah, not “Wasatch.” (While the university also has a Wasatch Campus, it is in Heber City, Utah; there is a Wasatch County in the state but no town of that name.)