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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2021: What to watch from the Barbican’s online line-up

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Even amid the pandemic, which seems to have flattened almost every aspect of daily life, the spirit of protest has remained.

Over the past year, we’ve seen passionate demonstrations for everything from women’s rights to racial equality, with new chapters in the struggle for freedom and justice being opened all around the world.

It’s a battle that’s very much ongoing, but as the 10 incredible films featuring in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival show, there are plenty of people among us intent on keeping up the fight.

While all the films featured as part of the Barbican’s online line-up are worth a watch, we’ve picked out five highlights to kick off with. They’re shocking, emboldening, enlightening and alarming; proof that excellent filmmaking is a crucial part of activism in all its forms.

In May 2018, Ireland voted in a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and, in the process, ended a decades-long campaign for access to safe and legal abortions in the country. The story of that triumph for women’s rights, the bold passion of grassroots activists, and the fiercely contested debate surrounding the issue — one that exposed deep divides across religious and political lines — is explored here.

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of groups representing the interests of black communities in America, has forged one of the defining political and social narratives over the past decade, and this documentary shines a light on two of the women who have been spearheading it. Director Ashley O’Shay follows the life and work of two powerful activists, Janaé and Bella, who lead the resistance against unjust forces of power in Chicago after the killing of two black people at the hands of police.

If a society is to avoid repeating the grim mistakes of its past, then it must educate future generations on exactly what those mistakes were. That’s the message at the heart of this hour-long documentary, which follows four schoolchildren from Germany’s Gen Z as they learn about Nazism and the Holocaust, and presents a disturbing parallel with the modern-day rise of far-right groups in the country.

Partly a shocking exposé, and partly an absorbing courtroom drama, this documentary sheds light on the dark history of non-consensual sterilisations performed on women prisoners inside California’s correctional facilities. It’s a deeply alarming portrayal of what effectively amounts to eugenics in the 21st century, and shows how the fight for justice is far from won.

The dangers of social media disinformation, populist politics and attacks on the free press are crystallised in the story of Maria Ressa. An extraordinary journalist who drew the ire of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte for criticising his brutal policies, she has since been hit with 10 arrest warrants and could face up to 100 years in prison. Ressa’s story is a chilling one, and the film is a must-watch for anyone who cares about democracy, in the Philippines and beyond.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs online from March 18-26. A series of live, free ScreenTalks on Zoom will accompany the films. Head to barbican.org.uk for more information

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