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The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is in something of a precarious position, at least theoretically. On the one hand there is its commitment to, well, human rights. The result of this raison d’etre is the programming of so-called “issue documentaries,” a not-quite-defined genre that has become something of a critical punching bag. And while the “human” bit will likely help HRW avoid the sort of righteous cinephile anger that was directed at Blackfish, the festival is still by definition a showcase of advocacy films.

Yet it is by no means doomed to screen formally bland, ethically pure screeds about international crises. Art, and documentary art in particular, is the representation of human truth. With that in mind, HRW has something of a mandate to screen bold, staggeringly resonant films that capture the most essential problems affecting the world today. And so, as the critical community begins to become less interested in nonfiction films produced around policy positions, the 2014 slate of this issue-oriented festival turns toward its essential mission. Featuring a wide array characters captured with time and understanding rather than facts and figures, this year’s program is a beacon of light and strength.

Here are the five films you shouldn’t miss:

Emergency Cinema: Shorts by the Abounaddara Collective

The Syrian Civil War has lasted well over three years. The nation is in shambles, despite the proud face put out to the world by newly “re-elected” dictator President Bashar al-Assad. Yet as is often the case with conflicts like this, Western media are quick to cover the outbreak of violence and then have trouble maintaining interest. As a response, the Abounaddara Collective has been putting out short nonfiction videos since the spring of 2011. A special selection is being presented by Human Rights Watch, including this year’s Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize winner Of God and Dogs. Dubbed “Emergency Cinema,” these films are a much-needed punch in the gut of Western apathy as well as a harrowing meditation on what it takes to take up the gun of a soldier, a revolutionary or both.


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