Brave Tales: Human Rights Watch Film Festival free to Calgarians this year

Like just about everything today, the 18th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going to look a little bit different this year because of the global pandemic. 

“Normally we would have a red carpet, we would have an opening night cocktail reception, so it’s quite a bit different,” admits Jasmine Herlt, managing director of the Toronto-based branch of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF). “(And) this is the first time we’ve gone digital.”

But that isn’t where the changes end. The festival dedicated solely to exposing and telling stories of global human rights violations is providing unprecedented access to screenings and programs free-of-charge all across Canada this year – including Calgary. 

“It’s a challenging time that we’re living in, so we’re hoping that by bringing these films to people’s living rooms that maybe it’ll be a break from their everyday lives and see what’s happening across the globe,” says Herlt. “For us, it’s very much an opportunity to reach the public and to showcase documentaries or feature films that deal with issues that perhaps they’re not so aware of.”

For the first time, all Canadians will have a virtual opportunity to watch five stunning films that outline hot-button stories of everything from environmentalism to LGBTQ rights in such disparate countries as Venezuela to Sweden to Kenya.

“We also couple those films with our researchers who speak about issues,” explains Herlt, who adds those who simply sign up can participate in screenings and Q&A sessions with the respective film’s directors, subjects and Human Rights Watch researchers. 

“We’re trying to make it as special as possible because I think people are kind of Zoomed out and probably filmed out,” adds Herlt. “But these are special documentaries that really tell impactful stories and hopefully I think people will take the time to take a look and watch them.”

The Five Films

A La Calle (Opening Night film) 

Directed by Maxx Caicedo and Nelson G. Navarrete, this acclaimed film followed key opposition figures as well as ordinary Venezuelans for three years as they attempted to reclaim their democracy from Nicolás Maduro, a dictator whose corrupt policies have spiralled the South American country into a political, economic and human rights tailspin.

• I Am Samuel

This story from Peter Murimi, former CNN African journalist of the year-turned-social activist filmmaker, is an intimate portrait of a rural Kenyan man who, after moving to Nairobi, finds love and belonging in the gay community even as he struggles with his family’s acceptance and the restrictive Kenyan laws that criminalize those who identify as LGBTQ.

• Love Child

Danish director Eva Mulvad took over six years to document the story of a couple’s extramarital affair and their flight from Iran where adultery remains a capital crime. Settling in Turkey, the asylum-seeking pair and their son deal with the unceasing frustrations of bureaucratic limbo. As film critic Cath Clarke wrote in The Guardian, “I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that has so movingly put the audience in the shoes of a refugee.”

• Maxima

This stirring film follows Peruvian Indigenous farmer Máxima Acuña as she and her family battle to keep her land out of the hands of the largest gold producer in the world. Directed by Claudia Sparrow, the movie showcases the abuse and tactics employed by greedy corporations to commit human rights violations and environmental destruction for profit. Perhaps more importantly, it puts on display the strength and courage of one individual who won’t relent in the face of such intimidation and violence.

Wake Up on Mars

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Dea Gjinovci’s acclaimed debut feature documentary looks at two teenage sisters who lie in a vegetative state in the Swedish home of their Kosovar family, their condition apparently a mysterious ailment called “resignation syndrome” – an affliction that affects asylum-seeking youth traumatized during the refugee experience.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival streams for free from February 18-22. For more information or to sign up, visit: