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Beats of the Antonov follows refugees from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan as they survive displacement and the trauma of civil war. Music, a cornerstone of their traditions and identity, becomes itself a vehicle for survival

Like other growing things around here, film festivals tend to sprout in late March, and multiply through the summer. There are dozens of these micro-fests in Toronto alone, with more each year, which seems strangely old-fashioned at a time when films and television shows are considered so much fodder for on-demand, streaming "content." At festivals, organizers set the time, the place and the viewing rules, and in the process turn "content" into a collective experience, often with a social and political purpose.

One of the most venerable of these specialized events is Human Rights Watch Film Festival, an event which started in New York 25 years ago, and has since gone global, along with its parent organization. There are now HRW festivals in 10 cities, including the Toronto version, which started 12 years ago.

Although the focus on inhumanity may sound like it's a forum for helpless hand-wringing, the reality is quite the opposite. The festival is a sampler of the best contemporary documentaries, with an educational and inspirational bias. The opening film, on March 24, is even a love story: The One that Got Away, a documentary produced by HBO Europe about Thomas Beck and Edith Greiman, who first met in a Nazi internment camp for children in Budapest in their teens and were reunited 70 years later.

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Bearing witness is an important theme. Joshua Oppenheimer, who made one of 2012's more potent films, The Act of Killing, on the Indonesian anti-communist massacres of the 1960s, shifts his focus to the victims' views of those atrocities: In The Look of Silence, a village optometrist confronts his brother's killers while giving them eye examinations.

Journeys of endurance and survival are a common thread. The National Film Board production Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd, by Chilean-Canadian director Patrico Henriquez, follows 22 members of China's persecuted Turkic Muslim minority who sought refuge in Afghanistan. They soon found themselves detained as terrorists and taken to Guantanamo Bay as part of the war on terror.

Another commonality is the importance of culture as a defence against trauma. Sudanese director Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Antonov, the People's Choice Award for best documentary at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, examines the vital role of music in sustaining cultural identity during the bombing of South Sudan.

Personal epiphanies and missions figure prominently. In The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado trace the life of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, whose work covering major disasters – from the mines of Brazil to the massacre in Rwanda – led to a personal crisis and new-found ecoactivist role. Burden of Peace, meanwhile, follows Guatamala's first woman attorney-general and her efforts to bring justice to a country riven by civil war and genocide.

Even humour isn't off limits. The Wanted 18, co-directed by Canadian director Paul Cowan and Palestinian animator Amer Shomali, takes a serio-comic look at how a Palestinian attempt to start a dairy farm led to 18 cows being declared threats to the state of Israel.

Mostly, festivals provide the value-added social component that introduces the names and voices behind the glaze of the daily news scroll. For example, Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story, is not only a stereotype-challenging film about a former Navy Seal and trangender activist, but also a chance for audiences to meet Kirsten Beck herself, and talk to her about her experiences.

While festivals promote strength-in-numbers watching, no one in the film world today can ignore that many people prefer their content delivered by other means. Tuesday's festival opener is also a fundraiser, designed as a tribute to the Toronto HRW festival's chair and co-founder, Helga Stephenson. The aim is to raise $150,000 for a series of multimedia projects to help get the human rights message out – even to on-demand, streaming, stay-at-home viewers.

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