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20th Annual Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival

Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom to open the festival on International Women’s Day

Still from the film UÝRA: THE RISING FOREST ©

(Toronto, February 8, 2023) - The Annual Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival (HRWFF) in partnership with Hot Docs Cinema will be held from March 8 to 19, 2023; March 8-12 in-person at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and March 13-19 on Hot Docs’ digital platform. Following the tradition of past festivals, all tickets for both in-person and digital screenings are free and accessible to everyone in Canada with internet. 

The 20th anniversary festival program will consist of five films covering a wide variety of human rights topics, including the powerful Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which will open the festival on March 8. This version of the film has just been updated with recent events, so it is a Canadian premiere! The screening will be followed by a special discussion for International Women’s Day with the Canadian journalist Lisa Laflamme, focused on the experiences of women in the Ukraine conflict, and the particular vulnerabilities of women and children in wartime.

“The HRW Canada Film Festival makes an effort to celebrate diversity of content and perspective in both the films we select and the post-screening conversations we host,” explained festival programmers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. “We strive to prioritize space for identities, viewpoints, forms of expertise and experiences either silenced or marginalized in the mainstream film industry, news, and media.”

“Discussions with filmmakers, film participants, human rights activists and journalists take place after every screening to provide our audience with the opportunity to dig deeper into the issues they have just seen on screen,” said Hot Docs director of programming, Shane Smith.

“The wide range of documentaries chosen for this year's special 20th Anniversary program is a testament to the breadth of HRW’s focus, and the excellence of independent film,” added John Biaggi, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The five films selected for the festival program include (listed in order of screening date): 

Canadian Premiere of 2023 version
Directed by: Evgeny Afineevsky

Presented on: Wednesday, March 8 (International Women's Day) | 7:30 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Freedom on Fire is a behind the scenes and beyond the headlines view of the war in Ukraine from the Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire). This is filmmaking from the heart, beautifully capturing the resilience of the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian invasion. A logistical tour de force, with 43 cinematographers (including the filmmaker) filming in over 20 Ukrainian cities, Freedom on Fire captures the stories of children, mothers, soldiers, doctors, artists, volunteers, clergymen, and journalists as viewers witness the transformation of a country fighting for its very survival.

Programming: A post-screening discussion with Evgeny Afineevsky, the filmmaker; Lisa LaFlamme,  a Canadian journalist; Valentina Kuryliw, education director at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium; and HRW's Crisis and Conflict Director Ida Sawyer, moderated by Canadian journalist Lisa LaFlamme, who will unpack how this conflict disproportionately affects women and girls.

“Despite the ongoing brutality, the nation is not on its knees. The movie’s essence is singing, hugging, volunteers bearing gifts, and children drawing pictures for the soldiers who are keeping them safe. That's beauty: People who know how to laugh and love,” said filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.

Accessibility: The discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.

World Premiere

Directed by: Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan
Produced and Distributed: National Film Board of Canada
Presented on: Thursday, March 9 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Canada-based codirectors Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan capture personal stories and deep moments of support in a small community of women from West Africa, who are confronting social norms and embracing the inherent power in pleasure and love for their own bodies. With candor, humour and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies.

Working with codirector Jim Donovan and combining her own journey with personal accounts from some of her friends, codirector Habibata Ouarme explores the lifelong effects of female genital mutilation and the road to individual and collective healing, both in Africa and in Canada. These women begin a journey of personal discovery, with discussions on the importance of female pleasure and the complexity of the female anatomy, while working to shed long-held feelings of shame and loneliness. While finding strength and joy in their own frank and intimate conversations together, Habibata and her friends continue to advocate for wider access to restorative surgery and community conversations in Canada and worldwide.  

“This film brings more than an education on a harmful traditional practice that’s still practiced in parts of West Africa – it captures the stories of solidarity among these irrepressible, strong African women,” said Mausi Segun, Africa division director at Human Rights Watch.

Programming: A post-screening discussion with Regina Tamés, deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. Panelists include Habibata Ouarme, a FGM survivor and filmmaker; Jim Donovan, filmmaker, and Doctor Angela Deane, OBGYN and advocate for those affected by FGM/C.  

Accessibility: The film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Presented on: Friday, March 10 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: The Grab reveals a new world order in which global power will be held by those who control not oil, but food. The new global thriller from the renowned director of Blackfish combines hard-hitting journalism with compelling, character-driven storytelling, taking viewers around the globe from Arizona to Zambia, China to Saudi Arabia, to reveal one of the world’s biggest and least exposed threats.

Quietly and seemingly out of sight, governments, financial investors, and private security forces are dividing up the world’s last remaining food and water resources. Communities are forced to stand by as their aquifers are sucked dry, and land they have owned for generations is grabbed from under their feet. As the scale of the run on natural resources is uncovered by a team of investigative reporters, issues bubble to the surface in real time. Russia’s attack on Ukraine uses food access as a geopolitical tool, and global food prices hit an all-time high. 

Programming: Introductory remarks by Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch, followed by a conversation with filmmakers Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Nick de Pencier, and Jennifer Baichwal.

Accessibility: The discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.

Directed by: Juliana Curi

Presented on: Saturday, March 11 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Uýra, a trans Indigenous artist, travels through the Amazon on a journey of self-discovery using performance art to teach Indigenous youth that they are the guardians of ancestral messages of the Amazon Forest. In a country that kills the highest number of trans, Indigenous, and environmentalist youth worldwide, Uýra leads a rising movement through arts and education while fostering unity and providing inspiration for the LGBT and environmental movements in the heart of the Amazon Forest. Uýra’s performances are a metaphor inspired by the ecological cycle that mirrors social struggles: the destruction of the soil and violence against life, followed by the re-emergence of young plants that germinate quickly and make way for a renewed, stronger ecosystem.

Programming: Post-screening discussion moderated by Rasha Younes, senior LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. Other panelists to be determined. 

Accessibility: The film is captioned; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.

Directed by: Ike Nnaebue

Presented on: Sunday, March 12 | 1:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: As a young man, the celebrated Nigerian director Ike Nnaebue left Nigeria taking the route via Benin, Mali, and Mauritania to Morocco where he was forced to turn back, unable to reach Europe. In his first documentary, No U-Turn, he retraces the life-changing journey he made over 20 years ago.

Along the way, he meets those who are taking the same trip and, through conversations with them, tries to understand what motivates young people today to expose themselves to the dangers of a passage into an uncertain future. Most are aware of the dangers of traveling undocumented by road, yet more and more are joining the ranks of those who take this risk, despite widely circulated images and terrifying testimony found online of people who have been lured into slavery and bondage. Overlaid with a powerful poetic commentary, this self-reflective travelogue hints at the deep longing of an entire generation for a better life. 

“Why is it unrealistic to dream of a comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?” said Ike Nnaebue, director, No U-Turn.

Programming: Panel discussion on Zoom with filmmaker, Ike Nnaebue and Michel Chikwanine, former child soldier and public speaker. Moderated by host of CBC Podcasts’ new weekly world news podcast, Nothing is Foreign, Tamara Khandaker. Keynote speaker to be determined.  

Accessibility: The film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.

Media Accreditation 

For media representatives interested in advance screening links for the films, please complete the following media accreditation form by Friday, February 24, 2023.

About Human Rights Watch

For more than 40 years, Human Rights Watch has defended people at risk of abuse by investigating abuses scrupulously, exposing the facts widely, and relentlessly pressing those in power for change that respects rights. Our researchers examine situations in 100 countries around the world functioning as investigators, journalists, and advocates.

Human Rights Watch host upwards of 15 film festivals and film events around the world each year. HRW researchers vet selected films to verify facts and make sure topics are responsibly represented.

About Human Rights Watch Canada

In 2002, Human Rights Watch Canada was established to advance education on human rights issues, both in Canada and around the world, and to increase support for the work of Human Rights Watch worldwide.

The Canadian office organizes several larger public and smaller private events throughout the year. This includes the annual Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival. Toronto is one of our longest running festivals, now in its 20th season. In 20 years, we have showcased over 200 films at our Toronto Festival, and over 700 as a global initiative. 

Hot Docs

Hot Docs is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing and celebrating the art of documentary and creating production opportunities for documentary filmmakers. Hot Docs was founded in 1993 by the Documentary Organization of Canada (formerly the Canadian Independent Film Caucus), a national association of independent documentary filmmakers. In 1996, Hot Docs became a separately incorporated organization with a mandate to showcase and support the work of Canadian and international documentary filmmakers and to promote excellence in documentary production.

Each year, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, North America's largest doc festival, conference and market, presents over 200 cutting edge films from around the world.

Year round, Hot Docs supports the Canadian and international industry with professional development programs and a multi-million-dollar production fund portfolio, and fosters education through documentaries with its popular free program Docs For Schools.

Hot Docs owns and programs the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, a century-old landmark located in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and the world’s first and largest documentary cinema. During the pandemic, Hot Docs launched the Hot Docs at Home streaming platform to provide audiences across Canada access to first-run documentaries and curated programming and events.

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Interviews are available with Human Rights Watch experts, directors, programmers/co-chairs and festival organizers. Please fill out this form with your interest. For media inquiries, please contact: 

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