The Oscars unveiled its shortlist of 15 documentary features this week. We were thrilled that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival featured three of those films this year. They share a strong cinematic and storytelling vision, a remarkable level of access to their subjects, and tackle important rights issues, from police violence against African Americans in the United States, to drug cartels in Mexico, to the repercussions of genocide in Indonesia.
“3½ Minutes Ten Bullets” is an emotionally charged film about the shooting death of teenager Jordan Davis in Florida. In 2012, four unarmed African American teenagers stopped at a gas station, a middle-aged white man parked beside them, and an altercation began over the volume of rap music playing in the teens’ car. In a matter of moments, Michael Dunn fired 10 bullets into the teenagers’ car, killing 17-year-old Davis instantly. As the Film Festival was considering this film in the spring of 2015, new incidents of police brutality perpetrated against African Americans gripped the nation’s attention. The importance of this topic, combined with the thoughtful production of the film and how it gave so much space and dignity to the grieving parents of Jordan Davis, made it our choice to open the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
“Cartel Land” takes viewers to places few would venture while weaving a complex and often astounding story from multiple angles. It is a harrowing look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy, the murderous Mexican drug cartels. When I sat down to watch the film in the quiet of my living room, I actually found myself talking out loud to filmmaker Matt Heineman – “What are you doing there?!” – as images of Heineman sitting by a fire, somewhere in the Mexican desert, interviewing armed members of one of the major cartels while they mixed a batch of methamphetamines, flickered across my screen. It is one of the most dangerous scenes I have seen in recent documentaries.
Finally, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” featured in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, with its deeply personal approach, stands as a documentary everyone should see. Having shown Oppenheimer’s film – the multi-award winning and Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing” – it was hard to imagine how his second film in this trilogy on the repercussions of the 1965 Indonesian genocide could be as powerful as the first. But sitting with the audience at its World Premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival, it was clear that he had succeeded. The film follows an Indonesian optometrist named Adi who confronts the men who killed his brother five decades earlier and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. I can’t think of another human rights film that engages in so close and intimate a manner the perpetrators of a genocide – where the viewer is sitting in a room with these men and can feel both their menace and impunity for the enormous crimes they have committed.
It’s a shame that all three films can’t win the golden statue; they all deserve to.