After telling a friend that I was going to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival , he responded, "You mean the human plights watch film festival. Sounds like a blast, really."
His retort reflects a widely held stereotype about this event, held annually in New York and London, and about human rights documentaries in general. Too often, such films elicit a sort of compassion fatigue, chronicling inconvenient truth after inconvenient truth, leaving the viewer feeling slightly more enlightened yet too detached and powerless to meaningfully respond.
But many of the documentaries shown at the festival's New York screenings  (June 14-28) still managed to expose human rights abuses while sustaining a compelling narrative.
The best example is Hot House  by Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan. This riveting documentary investigates the emergence of Palestinian leadership from within Israeli prisons. The film follows several key inmates, men and women, from Hamas and Fatah, who manage to maintain an influence on the outside world, even as they serve multiple life sentences for their crimes. Dotan's unimposing camera follows the prisoners through the rituals of daily life--morning prayers, television programs, cell banter--with a candid lens as devoid of pity as it is of accusation. Dotan's portrayal of the inmates isn't necessarily sympathetic, but it's detailed enough for individual characteristics to emerge from political branding. And perhaps this is why Hot House succeeds as a human rights documentary: A basic human right, after all, is to be regarded not only as a member of a political faction but as a complete human being.
The film opens with dozens of brief, full-frontal interviews with the inmates at the Ber Sheba prison. Each man recites his name, age, reason for imprisonment and the length of his term, staring at the camera with a blunt and unapologetic professionalism. "I assisted with the transportation of a suicide bomber," "I was convicted for the murder of two enemies," "For my support of the jihad." From the tone of their statements, it's immediately clear that these men are not repenting for their sins, or are the slightest bit remorseful for what they've done.
Israeli prisons are a notorious breeding ground for Palestinian leaders, a rite of passage for Palestinian politicians and a place in which many of the inmates featured in Dotan's film cemented their belief in the Palestinian cause.
Filmed in 2005, the documentary follows the inmates' conflicting thoughts about the upcoming election of the Palestinian legislature in January 2006. One of the inmates takes the viewer through the roster of candidates, telling the camera each candidate's name, political party, and whether or not he spent time in prison. In this inmate's account, two-thirds of the candidates had spent time in prison.
The film shows that incarcerated Palestinians have a cultural tradition of self-education. The inmates are fervent readers--news-junkies--and are constantly engaging in political debate with one another. Prison is jokingly referred to as "university" for many of the inmates, who have taken their imprisonment as an opportunity to learn Hebrew, Middle Eastern history and philosophy, among other subjects. For many of the inmates, prison represents a post-graduate education of sorts--many already hold degrees from Israeli and other international universities. (One of the inmates interviewed is an Emory University alumnus). Younger inmates speak positively of their opportunities to converse and debate with their seniors.
The women's prison has a similar culture of self-education--although with far fewer resources than we see in the men's prison. Several of the female inmates comment that prison has been a unique opportunity to share experiences and ideas with women from different regions of Palestine. Some mention that the solitude of prison life has given them the time to verse themselves in all aspects of the Palestinian conflict.
But the prisoners don't exactly embrace their solitude. They attempt to insert themselves in the politics of the outside world, though the technicalities are not communicated to the filmmaker, for obvious reasons. Inmates dispatch suicide bombers (though often not successfully), hold their own elections for the Palestinian legislature, and ensure that visitors communicate the inmates' stance to the Palestinian public.
Hot House also addresses the inevitable sadness of prison life. We watch the inmates pine for children and families, fervently petitioning the Israeli wardens for longer visiting hours. We watch as an inmate's mother pleads with the warden to talk to her son for just a little longer. When the warden refuses, she howls at the camera, "Why are you filming us?"
And though the filmmaker does not respond, his camera follows the inmate's mother as two women assist her out of the building. It is one of many emotional moments that this film captures so well. And while the filmmaker might not answer her question directly, the scene itself shows precisely why this documentary was filmed.