It was a heart-warming victory: At last month's Academy Awards, the prize for best short documentary went to The White Helmets, a 41-minute film about the Syria Civil Defence, those volunteer first responders in the rebel-controlled areas of their country.
The film, which can be seen on Netflix, focuses narrowly on the group's heroic rescue operations. It doesn't tell you why the group was formed – because the Syrian government often won't let humanitarian aid into rebel territory – nor how it is funded: mainly by Western governments, including those of Canada and Britain, leading to accusations that it is not a neutral party in Syria's civil war.
When human lives or human rights are at stake, assessing the accuracy and fairness of documentaries about politically divisive situations can be next to impossible for uninformed audiences and busy movie critics – and even pretty difficult for film festival programmers.
"A lot of these issues are very complex, and if you are not on the ground you might not know the political situation, the players, who's a good agent and who isn't. It's very tricky terrain," said John Biaggi, the creative director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
The nine-city festival, which is organized by the New York-based human rights group and includes a Toronto iteration (co-curated by the Toronto International Film Festival) that opens next week, is an unusual event: It offers audiences documentaries that have been vetted by experts in the field – the lawyers and country specialists at Human Rights Watch. The group does not ask that the films be impartial – the festivals often include strong POV documentaries – but they must be free of inaccuracy and overstatement.
Staffers review about 600 films every year to select about 50 – spread between Amsterdam, London, Toronto and six U.S. cities – and to red flag any problems they see.
Although he was not speaking about The White Helmets specifically (and would not name films the festival has rejected), Biaggi says the hardest documentaries to assess are those about Syria. "There are so many factions involved, it's very difficult. … What these groups have done or haven't done, what they say about their rivals."
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival at TIFF includes one Syrian film this year: A Syrian Love Story, by the British documentarian Sean McAllister, who follows a Syrian couple, both of them former political prisoners of the Assad regime, as they flee to the West.
A major concern for Human Rights Watch is the security of a film's subjects. The group always needs assurances that the subjects have seen the film and do not feel they will be endangered by its screening.
McAllister's film can be shown because Amer and Raghda now live in France. Similarly, Pakistani athlete Maria Toorpakai Wazir and her family have approved Girl Unbound, a doc about how Wazir defied the Taliban to become an internationally competitive squash player. That was a relatively easy call: While her father still lives in Pakistan (although not in his tribal village), she now lives in Toronto.
Biaggi added that Human Rights Watch seldom approves films that depict child soldiers because it feels the children cannot give proper consent.
In this year's festival, the most complex film to assess was Complicit, a doc about Chinese activists struggling to help factory workers poisoned by the chemicals used to make cellphones and computers. In that instance, Human Rights Watch had to call on the expertise of three different departments: its China division had to consider whether Complicit was an accurate depiction of Chinese society; the health division had to consider its medical claims; and the business division had to consider whether the film could be accused of libeling Foxconn, the electronics company involved, even though the working conditions in Foxconn's Chinese factories have already received a lot of bad press.
Occasionally, the vetting process is simplified because the film focuses on a well-documented human rights violation. For example, the festival also includes Alanis Obomsawin's We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice, a painstaking account of the Canadian government's refusal to meet provincial standards for social services delivered to First Nations children, a story that is in the news again this month.
And sometimes the assessment is particularly heartening for Human Rights Watch because the group sees a partner organization recognized for its work. This year, the other Canadian film in the Toronto festival is Black Code, by Nicholas de Pencier. A doc about activists exposing digital espionage, it features the work of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, a research centre for the study of political power in cyberspace that is a partner of Human Rights Watch.
Of course, the group's purpose is not merely providing audiences with carefully crafted or thoughtful documentaries. Every year, it produces about 100 reports on human rights violations. It sees film as another way to engage people in the issues, whether that means giving money to a cause or offering expertise.
Expect to be told how you can help change the world if you attend any festival screening.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs March 29 to April 6 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).