Yes, people, I know. The concept of universal human rights is a time-bound, culture-bound idol, hammered out by the European bourgeoisie in a forge of hypocrisy. I will not bend the knee. But as a student of Marx, I also know that nothing useful ever comes into our world unless somebody invents it. Each day, in a purely secular spirit, I remember to thank the European bourgeoisie and Eleanor Roosevelt for having developed the idea behind the idol: the proposition that there ought to be enforceable limits to authority’s sway over every person, no matter where.
The annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival exists to enlighten and enrage audiences about one or two dozen current violations of those limits and to encourage hope by showing instances of resistance. The abuses fall into broad categories: injustices to women, the LGBTQ community, migrants, indigenous people, journalists, environmentalists, and (of special urgency this year, as ever) Black lives. The medium for exposing and countering the abuses, though, is particularistic to a fault. A camera records nothing but contingent details of the here and now—and so, unavoidably, the festival inverts the logic of its theme. “Human rights” posits an omnipresent, equally shared status whose dignity extends downward to the individual. The selections in the festival present granular cases, from which you’re expected to extrapolate upward to a generalized outrage.
In this sense, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival tests the limits of both authority and documentary filmmaking. Of these tests, only the first are explicit. Subject matter reigns supreme—and given its force, a viewer who instead chooses to foreground style may justifiably be considered a fool. For this reason, the organizers of this year’s festival did well to make Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast the opening night feature, because of what it reports about the widespread, programmatic sterilization of Black and brown women in California’s prison system. I, on the other hand, would arguably be wrong were I to mention the kitschy functionalism of Cohn’s filmmaking. Enough to say that she tells the story, and it’s an important one.
But then, if you don’t want to think about the nature and limits of documentary, what’s the point of organizing a film festival rather than, say, a festival of newspaper clippings? At its best, the Human Rights Watch event offers pictures that shake up your ideas about how right and wrong play out both in the world and on the screen.
Forced into the digital realm by the pandemic but still allied with Film at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, the festival’s New York edition ran this year from June 11 through June 20. (Earlier screenings of the 2020 slate were held in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Toronto.) Here are notes on a few outstanding selections from the 11 features, which generally remain accessible on streaming platforms.
Down a Dark Stairwell, directed by Ursula Liang, spoke to the festival’s moment as no other film could, with its account of the aftermath of the fatal police shooting in 2014 of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old Black man, in the Brooklyn public housing building where he lived. The film even provided as happy an ending as such a story can have: The officer who shot Gurley became the first New York City cop in more than a decade to be convicted of a police killing. Although the indictment and verdict were shockingly exceptional, no one should deny the importance to Gurley’s community of merely hearing the word “guilty.” In a devastating coda to the film, recorded at a gathering on the second anniversary of Gurley’s death, Liang shows how various people shared in the mourning by coming forward, in heartbreaking succession, to testify about the police killings of their friends and family members.
As many other good documentarians have, Liang stuck with her story for years, gaining the trust and cooperation of her subjects. Where she truly distinguished herself, though, was in breaking from the heroes-and-villains framework that is standard in Marvel Universe movies and human rights documentaries. Gurley’s mother, valiant activist aunt, domestic partner, daughter, and neighbors, as well as the friend who loved him so much that he broke down weeping on the street—they’re all present in the film. But so, too, are the people who called for the case against the cop to be dropped, insisting (in the words of their placards) that this was a matter of “One tragedy, two victims.” The parallel protesters—they were careful not to turn into counterdemonstrators—were Chinese Americans, who asked why the only New York City police officer being called to account for the deaths of Black citizens happened to be a rookie, working an overtime shift, named Peter Liang.
I don’t assume it was a foregone conclusion that Ursula Liang (no relation) would also be able to win the confidence of these Chinese American protesters. In the event, though, she got access to not one but two groups: middle-aged leaders of established Chinatown institutions and a separate set of young leftists who joined in the demonstrations by African Americans. Amid the clashing banners and slogans, it was possible to agree that African Americans and Chinese Americans have both suffered from white supremacy and shouldn’t behave as enemies—but that was easier said than done. In the crowd scenes around police headquarters in Manhattan and at Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza, you see the curbside assertion that Peter Liang was a scapegoat and the rebuttal that scapegoats don’t fire guns; the earnest plea that Chinese Americans have suffered, too, and understand the grievances of Black people, and the rejoinder that mainstream Chinatown had never stepped up to show it. (But then, say some of the witnesses in the film, until around this time the Chinese American community had seldom shown up on the street even for itself.) To the degree that Down a Dark Stairwell offers heroes, you might find them among the people who resist simplification—the Black activist who refuses to chant a slogan against “model minorities,” the Chinese American organizer who forcefully reminds his peers after Peter Liang receives a light sentence that a man is dead and “We’re not celebrating anything.”
And villains? The description hardly fits Peter Liang, with his deficit of swagger and his shock at having killed. And though there was wrongdoing in the circumstances that made the killing possible—the fact that Gurley was taking the stairs because the elevator never worked, the fact that Peter Liang couldn’t see in the stairwell because nobody changed the light bulbs—you’d have to impute these faults to indifference and incompetence, not malice. Ursula Liang finds no villains in this story, only people who are vilified, like the Chinese American leftists who were slammed by their own community.
Unfortunately, the American landscape is thickly dotted with genuine villains, too many of whom are in uniform. We sorely need exposés of their crimes, and we’ve been getting them from smartphones and dashboard cameras. But I think we can also use a documentary as unusually clear-sighted as Down a Dark Stairwell—one that reminds us, in the words of a young Black man shown toward the end, that the powerful want us at war with one another.
Moral and physical courage, endurance, intelligence, a capacity for self-sacrifice, and good judgment about when to deploy them—if these are the attributes of heroism, then David France’s Welcome to Chechnya is a documentary packed with heroes. You see them much of the time in sequences that were shot and edited like episodes of an action thriller, not for the sake of formal extravagance but because the characters were engaged in undercover operations with people’s lives at stake. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie as exciting and suspenseful, though as an honest work of documentary, it’s also humbling and dauntingly unresolved. Its heroes fall prey to exhaustion and sometimes abandon the field. The cause, at the end, has been advanced but perhaps won’t be won.
The theme of Welcome to Chechnya—LGBTQ activism in the face of mortal peril—is not new to David France, but the threat this film addresses demanded that he work in an entirely new way. In How to Survive a Plague (2012) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), France chronicled chapters of queer history in the United States, relying to a large extent on astonishing montages of archival material. This time he had to create the archive himself, at personal risk, as he pursued a story he learned from a 2017 New Yorker article by Masha Gessen: the campaign by the Chechen government, with Moscow’s compliance, to purge queer people from this corner of Russia by means of round-ups, torture, and murder. It’s no use appealing to the authorities for protection and justice; the authorities are the killers. The only way to save lives is to spirit people out of the country, using the support of an international network of LGBTQ organizations and skills that the local activists had to develop from scratch: operating safe houses, conducting covert transport missions, negotiating behind the scenes for visas and asylum.
Studio-shot interviews with two of the principal rescuers—David Isteev of the Russian LGBT Network and Olga Baranova of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives—alternate with direct-cinema scenes in the safe houses, where life can sometimes be mundane and at other times touching or harrowing. And then there are the clandestine images of transports in progress, shot on the fly by Askold Kurov with a tourist-grade video camera (battered to make it look harmlessly authentic) and a cellphone. Two of these operations frame the narrative of Welcome to Chechnya: the exfiltration of a 21-year-old woman with the pseudonym Anya, whose uncle learned she is lesbian and threatened to expose her if she didn’t have sex with him, and a 30-year-old man called Grisha, who was freed from prison and torture because he isn’t Chechen (he’d been arrested while in Grozny for work) but who, along with his lover and family, is being pursued by Chechen agents to make sure he doesn’t talk.
France does more to protect his subjects’ identities than give them false names. Through an extraordinary use of digital imaging, he also gives them different faces. A title at the start alerts you to this device. Then, because the technology is so persuasive, you forget about it—until a turning point, late in the film, when France without warning unmasks a character who has made the almost impossibly brave decision to file an official complaint. Political act and filmmaking method unite in a single moment to create the most stunning coming out I’ve ever witnessed.
It’s as transporting as any scene you would watch in a summer blockbuster, if any were being screened. But the point is it’s not likely to happen again. One person managed to step forward. The rest remain in hiding.
The facial recognition technology and machine learning that made possible the wondrous digital masks in Welcome to Chechnya come in for leery sidelong glances in Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias, a fine example of the globe-trotting, relay-team style of issue-based documentaries.
Leading a squad of expert commentators and carrying the baton in the final lap is Joy Buolamwini, a doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Lab. A thoroughly engaging movie character—young, bright, and breezy—she has put together a nerdy cool-girl style, featuring earrings that spell “Wakanda” and her own superhero identity as founder of the Algorithm Justice League. The attitude is unpretentious, the purpose deeply serious.
While working at MIT on a digital alias project, Buolamwini stumbled on a troubling fault in her program’s data set. The software had been fed examples of mostly white faces. It would not recognize her features as a face unless she put on a white mask. From this seemingly small glitch, she deduced a very large problem: Social prejudices are being built into algorithms of every kind, from the ones that target you with online ads, give you a credit score, or decide whether you’re an effective classroom teacher to the video surveillance programs used to tag you as having the face of a terrorist. A relatively small population of mostly white, male techies builds the data sets for all these algorithms. The result, as one of Buolamwini’s interlocutors says, is that “racism is being mechanized.”
With that as the premise, Coded Bias takes off to Brooklyn, London, Cape Town, Houston, and Washington, following other insurgent tech experts to their conferences, book-signing events, and street actions and spending maybe a little too much time watching their wheelie suitcases glide through airports. The argument occasionally wanders as much as the itinerary, to the point of running counter to Buolamwini’s mission. If you’re worried that police surveillance is a threat, why labor to correct the software and help it recognize you?
But in the end, as if with a ding, Coded Bias scores a match between problem and analysis. We are allowing the Silicon Valley class to feed garbage into machine learning systems, and guess what? Garbage is coming out.