There is a group of women in Rwanda who changed the world when they agreed to testify at the first international war-crimes trial following the 1994 genocide in their country. Their eyewitness accounts of the bloodbath and, in particular, their decision to testify about their own rapes secured a conviction in 1998 against small-town mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, marking not only the world's first-ever conviction for a crime called genocide but also the first time a court had recognized sexual violence as a genocidal act.
The women, named only by letters, testified from behind a curtain, but in the documentary The Uncondemned they identify themselves on camera. Although the film, created by American documentarians Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel, is mainly a taut legal drama about the young, inexperienced U.S. prosecutors trying desperately to build the United Nations's case against Akayesu, it is the courage of three women that shines forth.
Of course, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, an international touring event hosted every year in Toronto by TIFF, is an earnest affair but it is also an inspirational one. A vast range of human experience emerges from this year's entries, films whose protagonists are anything but victims.
Take, for example, the remarkable story of Sun Mu – or rather, the Korean artist who goes by that pseudonym to protect his identity. He defected from North Korea as a young man, swimming across a river to China before eventually making his way to South Korea. Although he had already emerged as an artistic prodigy creating posters for the North Korean military, he touchingly reveals that his motivation in escaping was simply that he was tired of always being hungry.
In the South, he has established himself as a contemporary visual artist cheekily repurposing the socialist-realism style with which he once made propaganda to critique the regime in the North. The documentary I Am Sun Mu, which opens the festival March 30, is mainly about his courageous decision – some might call it foolhardy – to accept an invitation to mount a show of his work at a gallery in Beijing, where the government is both sympathetic to North Korea and perfectly capable of brutal censorship.
Adam Sjoberg's documentary is another thriller of sorts as Sun Mu works toward the big opening at which he cannot risk appearing, and you begin to wonder if the steadfast gallery operator who has planned this show is right in thinking the Chinese authorities will look the other way. Sun Mu is a philosophical sort, filled with laconic wisdom, including this old proverb: "If you kill a rooster, the dawn will come nonetheless."
Gennadiy Mokhnenko is a much more difficult hero. He is the subject of Almost Holy, a documentary about his controversial work as a pastor-cum-social-worker in the crumbling Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He began his career with Pilgrim, a shelter for street children, many of them drug addicts, whom he sweeps up in nighttime raids without permission or consent. Then he turned to adults, closing down drug dealers with street protests or rescuing battered women from their aggressors.
He is working in a society where social services are non-existent or not up to the task – the condition of some of the children he rescues is heartbreaking – and he justifies his unorthodox methods by pointing to this social vacuum, but he is also a macho dude who is clearly on a big ego trip.
The film, which closes the festival April 7, is a provocative choice for an event about human rights because documentarian Steve Hoover wisely refrains from judging Mokhnenko, leaving it up to the viewer to decide who is abusing whom here.
With a rough-and-tumble documentary style, these films cover stories that are still unfolding. This very week, the former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was found guilty at the International Criminal Court of using sexual violence as a tool of war, a first for that UN body. Almost Holy ends with the Russian assault on Mariupol, which turns Mokhnenko into a nationalist crusader, and the strategic city is still on the front lines of that conflict.
On the other hand, perhaps the most stylistically impressive film in this year's lineup would be better described as an essay or poem than as a documentary: The Pearl Button is a beautiful rumination on the role of water in the geography and politics of Chile, comparing the colonial genocide of the indigenous people of Patagonia to the fate of the disappeared whose bodies were thrown into the sea from helicopters during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. With gorgeous aerial and ground images of the ocean and the islands, filmmaker Patricio Guzman makes the point that the tribes of Patagonia were water people, canoeists and fishers, and hints that European Chile's failure to become a maritime nation, despite boasting one of the longest coastlines in the world, is at the root of its political violence. The results are both visually and intellectually haunting.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs March 30 to April 7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).