A still from Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary The Apology. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival
A still from Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary The Apology. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Films can make a difference – that’s the idea behind the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which runs until June 18 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

“The festival is a division of Human Rights Watch,” says Andrea Holley, the festival’s strategic director, referring to the international organization, which investigates human rights abuses and presses governments for change.

“The point of the festival is to provide an education and outreach arm, which complements what Human Rights Watch does. We are a research and advocacy association known for our reporting.

Protesters featured in the documentary The Apology. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

“The film festival provides personal individual narratives to complement that work. We aim to firstly inform people, and secondly to get them to act.”

This year’s festival, the 28th edition, features 21 films that deal with subjects such as the refugee crisis, policing in the US, press freedoms, citizen journalists in Syria, and political activism.

Two films focus on Asia: Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, which follows three former comfort women – one from Japan, one from China, and one from the Philippines – as they try to achieve justice from the Japanese government.

Complicit, by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, documents the fight of activist Yi Yeting, a former Foxconn worker in China. Yi is fighting for safe working conditions for those who work in China’s mobile phone factories.

The Apology features three grandmothers who haven’t given up the fight for a just settlement from the Japanese government for the rapes and enforced sexual slavery they endured during the Second World War.

The film highlights the women’s tenacity and courage as much as their cause, says Holley: “The Apology is significant because it shows survivors who become activists because of their own experiences – and they are simply not going to give up. That is just not going to happen.

“The issues that Human Rights Watch deals with sometimes take years and years to see any acknowledgement, and become successful campaigns, and that’s reflected in this film.”

Heather White, co-director of the documentary Complicit. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The women’s activism brings wider issues about mass rape as a weapon into focus, says Holley. “It shows you how this sort of sexual violence is a practice. It’s systemic, it’s not a one-off event,” she says.

“As important as these individual grandmothers are, we find similar stories in many other places. There is so much evidence to support the women’s stories, but their stories are still refuted and denied. In a wider sense, women who suffer sexual violence are often denied and silenced.”

Complicit, says Holley, puts the mass of health issues raised by manufacturing in China in an understandable form. “By the end of the film, you see how it affects people personally,” she notes.

The film is more than a document – it gives viewers specific goals to agitate for by explaining the danger of certain chemicals, she says: “It gives you an idea about what to advocate for – for example, it talks a lot about the dangers of the chemical Benzine. The film shows what it’s like in the factories, but by breaking down the technology and science, it also gives the viewers information that they can use to get involved.”

Ye Haiyan is an activist known as Hooligan Sparrow who is at the heart of a documentary about her efforts to seek justice for six schoolgirls who were allegedly sexually abused by their principal in China. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Holley says that the festival makes its selection from about 500 entries. Films are chosen by programmers, but are also vetted by specialized human rights researchers to make sure they are accurate.

“We don’t reject films because of their opinions, but we do reject films if they are not factually correct,” she says. Viewers leave the theaters better informed, and some are motivated to take it further and get involved with an issue. “We believe film can change things.”

A scene from Complicit. Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival