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A version of this review is also at Film Festival Traveler

It’s A Sensitive Man’s World at the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

By Nora Lee Mandel

The 27th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival balanced artistic merit with Human Rights Watch’s NGO goals of spotlighting terrible injustices around the world. Some films even gave the audience hope! In New York City June 10-19, this important film festival has expanded over the years, co-presenting uptown with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at the IFC Center, accompanied by related exhibitions and post-screening discussions on the issues with the filmmakers, HRW staff, and other experts. Versions of the festival also travel: this year to Amsterdam and San Diego in January; its 20th anniversary in London in March; Toronto in April; Los Angeles and Miami in May; Chicago and Sydney in June; and selections are shown in over a dozen other cities throughout the year. Many of these involving films continue to make the festival rounds elsewhere, and some will be released in theaters or on viewing platforms.

In this year’s New York City edition of the festival, most of the promotional attention has gone to the record 10 out of the 18 films directed/co-directed by women, particularly on feminist sites and publications. So here’s a round-up of the excellent films directed by men, with almost all showing insight on issues affecting a diverse spectrum of males. Four documentaries made in the USA delve into hot topics: two on the experiences of growing up transgender; one on veterans working through Post Traumatic Stress; and one on training policemen. Two documentaries show fresh perspectives on Muslim lives in the Middle East, including one that sensitivity follows imprisoned girls. Two films poignantly use fiction, based on true stories, to personalize plights that usually numb us with big numbers.

Two international documentaries were co-directed by men and are included in my coverage of the women-directed films at FF2 Media: When Two Worlds Collide and The Uncondemned.

Growing Up Coy
Almost Sunrise
Do Not Resist
Starless Dreams
The Crossing
The High Sun (Zvizdan)
Chapter & Verse


Growing Up Coy

At what age does a child start feeling their body doesn’t match their gender role? How young do they tell their parents? Eric Juhola’s world premiere debut feature is a fascinating portrait of how quintessential All-American parents, ex-Marine Jeremy Mathis and his wife Kathryn, support their trans-gender male-born six-year-old, first within the family, then against the maelstrom of public opinion when Coy goes to elementary school and they request Coy’s use of the girls’ bathroom. Though this is the hot issue of 2016, Juhola met them in 2012 with his attorney friend Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) as they prepared to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division against the school system.

Kathryn is a children’s photographer, so she has lots of pictures of their large blonde brood: older sister eight-year-old Dakota, younger autistic sister three-year-old Auri, and the six-year-old triplets: Lily with cerebral palsy, now sole boy Max, and Coy. The photos of Coby reveal an unhappy little boy until by 18-months-old his parents relent to his demands to wear the sisters’ frills, be surrounded like them by the color pink, sing alone with them to Justin Bieber, and wish for their anatomy. So they consult a psychologist specializing in nonconforming gender identity and send Coy off to kindergarten in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, an area known for evangelical mega-churches (as seen in Jesus Camp in 2006) and for proselytizing at the nearby Air Force Academy. Anti-government and anti-Planned Parenthood billboards dot the beautiful landscape in the foothills of the Rockies. The lawyer warns that their legal strategy has to include a media plan for educating the public.

The film is strongest at showing the personal stress from what follows, in intimate verité style. Unlike reality TV stars who long to be famous, for this family living in the media storm is a nightmare. After their announcement in Denver, local, national, even international press lay siege to their house and the phone never stops ringing. TV news clips emphasize they were depicted in salacious promotion and headlines. The father is a media relations major at Colorado State, so maybe that helps them get adept at handling press conferences and balancing the media’s need for access to their child with Coy’s fatigue at rationalizing his choices, let alone as the other kids start acting out their resentments. Amidst all this, the parents struggle to continue home schooling their kids until the school will accept them on their terms. Their ten-year marriage tensely frays in plain sight of the camera.

With all the participants jumping on this test case, what is not explored are their rigidly cultural definitions of gender expectations. Ironically, about the same week I saw Ian Edelman’s breezy Puerto Ricans In Paris that includes a French boy with long blonde hair and quirky fashion sense with no presumption by his sophisticated mother that his style preferences indicate a gender question. Since the Mathis’s groundbreaking victory in 2013, a model for other states and the recent directive of the Federal Departments of Education and Justice establishing trans students access to bathrooms of their choosing, one hopes the family has moved to a more fluidly accepting place where personal choices don’t have to be defined by a binary litigious system.


What a socially conscious break from all those self-aggrandizing documentaries about couture fashion designers! Like couturiers, Bindle & Keep make bespoke clothing for one customer at a time, but here the focus is on the needs of their clients. Jason Benjamin’s debut documentary, previewed at HRW Festival before its premiere on HBO, followed up on a New York Times article “The Masculine Mystique” about a duo specializing in making suits for trans-people who have never felt comfortable in their bodies or clothes, and have never been able to find a formal suit in the shape of the gender they prefer.

As Bindle & Keep (the name comes from Irish folklore: “bindle” symbolizes the traveler/seeker; “keep” is for home/destination) set up a new showroom in a former industrial area in Brooklyn, the clothiers describe the genesis. Daniel Friedman was a (straight) one-man tailor shop when Rae Tutera, who blogged as “The Handsome Butch”, commissioned a suit, then asked him “to apprentice me and I introduced him to a world of people he didn’t know existed. He taught me to make clothes for those people.” Friedman proudly beams: “Now I fit hundreds of people with different gender identities.” Specifically, for suits they can’t find off the rack, whether for their professional work or for special occasions.

Each client submits a request explaining their problem and goal, and each fitting is an unfolding story. A sample instruction from a trans-man: “Make my body as masculine as possible. I don’t want anyone to be able to pick me out from guys and see curves.” (Some clients have had surgery, others not.) The collaboration is not just over measurements, fabric, lining, and cut, but about listening with empathy: “Let’s talk about why you’re nervous.” Coming from around the country where they can’t find this service, their upcoming events range from a wedding, to a 40th birthday party, to a bar mitzvah, with this suit a present from a lovingly supportive lesbian grandmother. Two face the specific problem of working as lawyers where conservative attire is a requirement-- a young trans-man sporting a big Afro trying to get his first legal job and a trans-woman litigating against trans-gender discrimination in court. Outside the office, some buyers supply videos with the context of their lives at home, from childhood photos and family interviews, to showing off their new suit on their big day.

Unlike Kinky Boots, fit is about more than just making a bigger size. Nor is it like Marlene Dietrich or Madonna transgressively donning sexily fitted tuxedos. So I wanted to hear more from the tailors on the technical specifics of the different adjustments, especially when the first fitting is a cross-communication challenge where the clients try to express what changes they want (“Too flared?” “The pants feel tight.”) and the tailors are hands-on with solutions. For clients who have sadly repeated: “I never felt good in clothing”, the pay-off is not the product (displayed in a rousing closing fashion show for a cheering audience). The uplifting triumph is the looks and first big smiles on their faces when they finally see their reflection in the mirror match how they feel inside, and how they’ve always wanted to look. Rae sums up the theme: “Dress braver than you feel!”

My additional commentary on the Jewish female participants in the documentary.

Almost Sunrise

Civil War veterans with symptoms of depression, disruptive behavior, and flashbacks had “soldier’s heart”. Past meets present as Father Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and long-time veterans’ counselor of those suffering from what is now called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), frequently frames the condition for this documentary as “moral injury” of guilt or shame for what they saw or did during war that is inappropriate in peaceful civilian life. His solutions of meditation and “nature therapy” could have helped the men in Blue and Gray, or could seem either too old-fashioned or too New Agey to be undertaken by two husky, bearded veterans of the ongoing Iraq War. (In contrast to the vet-to-vet talking therapy profiled in last year’s Of Men And War.) But by following them in intimate and captivating verité style on their 2,700-mile crowd-funded/social-media supported pilgrimage on foot across America the Beautiful, director Michael Collins lets us “see” how they clear their heads and souls.

Collins provides essential context with their families by catching the two former infantrymen just before they leave Wisconsin to set out for the Pacific Ocean: Anthony Anderson, with his wife Holly and toddler daughter Madeline, and Tom Voss, with his girlfriend Katinka Hooyer, who is also doing postdoctoral research on holistic treatments of PTSD. While both vets have been volunteering as mentors and peer-to-peer counselors for those just returning from military service, the awful statistic “Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day” haunts their own unresolved adjustment struggles. Voss’s recurring memories are seen as photographs by his friend Emmet Cullen, who trained with him.

Not yet another “inspiring” personal achievement trek, the two men actively post their progress on social media and arrange to meet up with other veterans along the route, as well as the occasional local press. They are sometimes hosted in the houses of relatives or strangers, sometimes saluted with flags and BBQ picnics or as honored guests at church services and Native American ceremonies, and sometimes they sleep under the spacious starry skies. (The two-person film crew improvised techniques to keep a discreet distance when they met up.) Through four seasons and locales out of “This Land Is Your Land”, sometimes to the guitar of Nels Cline, beautifully shot by cinematographer Clarissa De Los Reyes and second unit DP Gideon DeVilliers, they walk a clearly mapped route like the pioneers, from Middle America to the West Coast, sharing experiences, breathing exercises, and meditation coping strategies. In one moving stop, they accompany an elderly mother at her son’s funeral after his suicide.

While some human rights documentary filmmakers grumble about the ancillary programs funding sponsors require these days, this New York premiere and other screenings around the country participate in the project’s two-year “Impact Campaign” with local and national soldier suicide prevention partners, and with the Veterans Administration. Collins and his producing partner Craig Atkinson learned the value of external activities with their previous, investigative documentary Give Up Tomorrow (2011) that sought to free a prisoner. Almost Sunrise will premiere on PBS’s POV on January 2, 2017.

Do Not Resist

Scenes from Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 opens and are repeatedly revisited, the confrontation between chanting protestors and policemen looking like an occupying army with raised shields, face masks, and tear gas. Sadly, they could also be footage from Baton Rouge this summer. After world premiering and winning Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Craig Atkinson’s pointedly relevant directorial debut looks at the macho equipment, tactical, and training issues that have aggravated law enforcement’s relationship with civilians.

While other recent festival fave documentaries have dealt with pieces of the problem– Barber & Christopherson’s Peace Officer (2015) on the growth of SWAT teams; Nick Berardini’s Killing Them Safely (aka Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle) (2015) on the unregulated use of Tasers; and Steve James’s The Interrupters (2011) on nonviolent alternatives for de-escalation – this thorough and alarming investigation covers two years across 11 states. Useful facts, in annoying capital letters, scroll by on screen to buttress the footage and interviews with academics and police authorities. (Atkinson says he’s the son of a cop, and does give them plenty of screen time for their point of view.)

The police look like an army because they are getting de-accessioned equipment from the Department of Defense. As one young black woman demonstrator comments disgustedly: “They’ve got to stop giving these boys these toys because they don’t know how to handle it.” Local police departments, small and large, rural and urban, are shopping for free ordnance picked off the DOD websites like shopping from a catalog, items that each originally cost taxpayers millions. Though these are highly technical machines, they come with no instructions, let alone training. In Concord, NH, councilpeople who try to speak up against these acquisitions are bullied by fear facts.

There are extensive clips from a quizzical Senate committee questioning Departments of Homeland Security and Defense on this program, and President Obama did sign an executive order in January 2015 banning local police from acquiring the most egregious military equipment, put tighter controls in place and set up a task force that released in May detailed recommendations for further restrictions. But as current as the documentary feels, the recent spate of police shootings brought sheriffs and their unions to the White House already asking for more, and NYC announced plans to spend $7.5 million to buy new ballistic vests and helmets for police officers.

Into the training gap are private contractors, like Dave Grossman, who the film bills as “America’s #1 trainer of all U.S. local law enforcement for almost 20 years”. To keep his customers coming back for seminars, he preaches a dangerous world out there, that sounds like we still live on the Western frontier, or at least on the set of The Walking Dead. His alarmist books are used at FBI and police training academies, and the aggressive exercises he runs at a headquarters in Orlando, FL, leaves the participants exulting and exhilarated (and up for great sex, they say). They start thinking of themselves as “warrior cops”. This mentality gets scarier, even without any assumption of racism, in eager collusion with the private “persistent surveillance systems” that are already approaching the TV/movie science fiction of Person of Interest and Minority Report, with unregulated use of drones and information collection, though this section feels added-on. Assuring them all, as Grossman says, “Good news – you have job security!” For documentary filmmakers, too, in gathering this disturbing evidence? The film’s theatrical release will begin in New York on September 30, then expand across the country.


Two absorbing films from the Middle East keenly explore concepts of freedom, with male directors showing special sensitivity to girls and women.

Starless Dreams

Iranian independent filmmaker and film professor Mehrdad Oskouei was working on a duo of documentaries about a male juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Tehran when he saw two shackled and handcuffed young girls, looking like his own daughter, taken behind high walls to a separate wing of the institution. Seven years of persistent requests to film inside finally led to a 20 day window for he and his small male crew to document the girls inside their rehabilitation center.

In the U.S., Oskouei is known more for his researched documentary Nose, Iranian Style (2005), shown on the Sundance Channel, but a workshop with American documentarian Frederick Wiseman in Amsterdam inspired his change in style to intensively look at and interview a few people in a limited space. Here, we meet a dozen teenagers in a large ward with bunk beds, barred windows, and a cement courtyard.

Enrobed in black head scarves and chadors, their stories are gradually revealed in moving interviews and exchanges between the girls. Charged with such offenses as robbery, drug abuse, and patricide, they are really victims of poverty. Most of the girls endured beatings and traumatic sexual experiences with a male relative – and beatings for alleging they were “bothered with”. A drug addicted father forced a daughter into prostitution to support his habit; another girl stole food to feed her family. For many, their violent rebellion against their male abusers, sometimes to protect a younger sister, or running away, got them imprisoned. With one girl weeping herself to sleep and another insisting her name is “Nobody”, his gentle (disembodied) voice in sympathetic interviews become something like therapy sessions for these neglected children with few calls and fewer visitors.

But his observant camera also watches as the girls revel in the joy of female solidarity, shared laughter, and affection, or when they get treats like art and puppetry classes where they can express themselves, share dreams, and celebrate holidays. You don’t just cry at their pasts. When the abusing families pick girls up when they are released outside what now seem like protective gates, you cry for their futures.

Oskouei edited and distributed only to academic and cinéphile audiences to protect the girls’ even more troubling secrets. From winning awards at the Berlin International and other film festivals, Cinema Guild will be releasing this wrenching documentary as part of Oskouei’s trilogy with the boys at the juvenile detention center in It’s Always Late for Freedom (2006) and The Last Days of Winter (2011).

The Crossing

In this U.S. premiere, the Syrian refugees desperately streaming away from civil war and to hope in Europe are seen unusually up close and personal.

Amidst political strife and chauvinism in Egypt, director George Kurian learned his music teacher/oud player Nabil Hilaneh was planning to leave with a group of other discouraged (middle-class, educated) Syrian exiles to be smuggled across the Mediterranean. His friend Rami, a computer specialist, agreed to take a camera, and with a few basic lessons, to film their odyssey, along with Angela, a TV reporter and journalist repeating her husband Najib’s journey a month earlier; Afaf, a pharmacist; her son Mustafa, and Alia, a wife and mother of two. Their gung ho spirit of adventure in following the smugglers’ directions to a beach in Alexandria, are quickly dampened when Afaf and Mustafa are taken in a police raid of the area.

Rami’s footage captures how more of their careful preparations are swept over the boat, as water and food supplies don’t make it through the longer-than-expected eight days (and nights) to get to Italy. Kurian was instrumental in sending out a SOS to ships to look for the group, and an oil tanker seen stopping for the woebegone little boat.

In the second half, Kurian interviews them from landing in Italy, in person and via cell and Skype, as they are first housed in temporary shelters. But then the group is separated into refugee hostels in five different countries and wait for permanent housing. (Surprise- the mother and son do make it out of Egypt, too.) The easiest trip seems to be for Angela as the train takes her to meet up with her husband in Belgium; then their struggle is how to continue their journalism careers. For all the unity of the European Union, the cultural differences are sharply drawn as Rami and Alia are sent to the Netherlands, Nabil to Germany, and Afaf and Mustafa to Sweden. As skilled and educated as they are, each now has to learn a new language, and has to navigate each country’s varying employment and training rules, let alone the complicated requirements a refugee has to meet to retain housing in this colder climate. Periods of stasis and depression are relieved as the group and the director stay in contact. While Rami learns that the disruption of the civil war has out-dated his IT skills, Nabil is gratified that his musical talents are finally appreciated more than his dishwashing skills at a restaurant. (Oud master Rahim AlHaj has told of virtually the same experience, as a 1991 political refugee from Iraq coming to the U.S. in 2000, when he last year received a NEA National Heritage Fellowship, this country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.)

Refugee issues were also the subject of other programs in the festival. The documentary was preceded by two five-minute shorts, Malak and Mustapha, that followed the overwhelming experiences of two young children fleeing Syria with their families to scramble to Greece. “Desperate Journey: Europe’s Refugee Crisis” featured a discussion with HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert and photographer Zalmaï, who accompanied HRW teams researching the crisis in several countries. Himself a refugee from Afghanistan to Switzerland, Zalmaï’s photographs were exhibited in the Roy and Frieda Furman Gallery at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.


Though the Human Rights Watch Festival is known more for searing documentaries, I always appreciate when fiction features are included to bring to life real situations not easily filmed in real life.

The High Sun (Zvizdan)

The Human Rights Festival not only covers contemporary crises, but looks at the continuing reverberations from earlier violations of human rights. Over the past nine years I’ve been covering the festival, I’ve appreciated that it revisits the Balkan wars of the early 1990’s between Serbs and Croatians that horribly split former neighbors with disintegration into ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and genocide.

Writer/director Dalibor Matanić creatively takes the humanistic long view of these impacts on neighboring rural villages with different lovers at three mirror points at hot summers in consecutive decades (with changing representative music). Though some ethnic and political subtleties are doubtless lost on an American viewer, the same attractively appealing actors (Tihana Lazović and Goran Marković) are couples in unrelated roles, but the same family pressures, inevitable accusations, and recriminations:
In 1991, imminent war violently and tragically breaks apart the sensually languorous relationship between Serbian Jelena (Lazović) and Croatian Ivan (Marković). With echoes from past ethnic conflicts, her confused grandmother thinks the Nazis and their local allies have returned.
In 2001, emotional wounds are still as broken as the house of officious Serbian Natasha (Lazović) as she peremptorily adds to the to-do list of hunky Croatian handyman Ante (Marković), but these two could keep flirting through a longer film.
In 2011, enough time has passed for the town to host a hip collegiate rave, but the initial reluctance of city-returnee Luka (Marković) is still too matched by the simmering resentment of his Serbian ex Marija (Lazović) to make a belated separate peace with their son. His rom com-ish persistence is almost convincing, even if it’s out of guilt. Anywhere in the world, in a lesson from every film in the festival, accepting guilt is an essential first step in reconciliation.

Winner of the Jury Prize at Certain Regard of the Cannes Festival where it was the first Croatian film to compete since Yugoslavia broke, among other international festival awards, and Croatia’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, this lovely looking film was shot by director of photography Marko Brdar (also outstanding for the very urban Slovenian The Beat of Love (Utrip Ljubezni) with a continuity of dappled sunshine, leafy horizons, and misty mountains to emphasize that the bitterness on the dirt road between segregated communities is only transitory. In trying to challenge his own family’s negativity that gave into inter-ethnic hatred, this is the first film in Matanić’s planned trilogy is the most optimistic for the possibility of love conquering all.

Chapter & Verse

How unusual to have a fiction selection that was filmed just 70 blocks north of Lincoln Center in gentrifying Harlem. Passionately felt and enriched by authenticity in setting, characters, situations, conflicts, and solutions, director/co-writer Jamal Joseph and co-writer/star Daniel Beaty drew on their own, family, and friends’ experiences in frankly looking at the crisis of incarceration and recidivism in the African-American community. Though having much in common with Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s new documentary The Return, this is strong, involving entertainment that also attests to Joseph’s solid credits in commercial TV and movies, bolstered by dynamic acting from both familiar names and newcomers.

Beaty, in his first major movie role, effectively embodies Lance Ingram as he’s released from years in prison and is determined to stay away from his former life in a gang by finding employment and an apartment. Even with his prison-learned skills in computer repair, achievement of those two basic goals is almost insurmountable, and could be seen to defeat most men. But as Lance (that it’s short for Lancelot is a bit much) entrepreneurially and stoically navigates the shoals of temptation and discouragement, he’s helped by colorful characters: a demanding supervisor of meal deliveries Yolanda (Selenis Leyva, of Orange is the New Black); a cranky senior citizen client Miss Maddy (the incandescent Loretta Devine); and an old friend now managing a barber shop JoJo (the always classy Omari Hardwick, currently of Power). The multi-talented Joseph also wrote the music and several songs heard on the soundtrack.

With Joseph, who is a former Black Panther and is a film professor at Columbia University, quoted in interviews that one in three children raised in Harlem will spend time in prison, the story also muscularly emphasizes the negative impact on sons raised without fathers to keep them off the streets, as Lance takes on a paternal role for a boy attracted to the dead-end gang life. (Young Khadim Diop makes an impressive debut as Maddy’s grandson.) With rising tension, this is eyes clear that dialogue and nonviolence may not always be the most determinative choice.

While still making the festival circuit, this should be a definite contender for theatrical or other platform distribution: an intelligent, politically astute film dealing realistically with an important issue, supported by a fine African-American cast portraying non-stereotyped individuals, and an attention-keeping story line. Kudos to the HRW Festival for including an unusual selection among this year’s roster of excellent nonfiction and fiction films. [And kudos to Paladin for February 2017 theatrical release]

July 27, 2016

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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