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Arts & Culture

Human Rights Watch Festival Brings Relevance

James Baldwin, featured in "I am Not Your Negro."
Getty Images
James Baldwin, featured in "I am Not Your Negro."

Good Selection of Documentaries This Weekend

From the line-up, this year’s Human Right’s Watch Film Festival seems more than a little prescient, given the events of the last six months. The films address refugees, girls in Afghanistan and what it is like to be black in the United States.

What Tomorrow Brings

The festival, screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park through this weekend, opened Thursday with a lovely and poignant look at an Afghani girl’s school in a village outside of Kabul. While girls have gained much more freedom, including the ability to go to school, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, problems in perception about what a girl can and cannot do and issues with tradition still exist. In “What Tomorrow Brings,” filmmaker and journalist Beth Murphy goes inside the first school for girls in a small Afghan village. From there, Murphy traces the difficulties and triumphs of the school’s founder, Razia Jan, herself an Afghani, and lays out the difficulties young Afghan girls face — from forced marriages to Taliban attacks to village disapproval.

Murphy’s light hand and the candidness with which her subjects discuss their lives makes this film both an eye-opener and a source of hope as the girls and villagers begin to see greater possibilities for their daughters.

The Crossing

The children in George Kurian’s “The Crossing,” are not so lucky. Their futures have been impacted by the conflicts in Syria. Their parents, as well as others from their region, are desperate to get away from the bombings, the killings and the unspeakable instability. Kurian, a photojournalist and documentary-maker who frequently covers war-torn regions, tracks a small group of Syrian refugees as they make what could be their last journey from Alexandria in Egypt toward various places of refuge in Europe. Who is in the boat might surprise you — a journalist, a psychologist, one of the premiere musicians in the Middle East, their children and others.

Kurian pulls no punches — the voyage is harrowing, the desperation palpable, but so, too, is the hope for something better. What makes this film stand out is the first-hand documentation by one of the refugees, Rami, who shoots the crossing himself.

“The Crossing” screens Friday, with Kurian on Skype for a discussion after.

They Call Us Monsters

Many people tend to think of human rights issues as something residing outside the United States, more specifically outside the First World. However, as the bulk of the screenings in this year’s presentation suggest, there are plenty of issues, many long-standing, that qualify as human rights concerns as well.

One such issue is children and incarceration in the United States. As more and more children commit increasingly violent crimes, the question is, what to do with them? Antonio, Jarad and Juan are incarcerated in a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Los Angles, seen by both the system and possibly by themselves, as the monsters referred to in the title, “They Call Us Monsters,” Ben Lear’s documentary on juvenile offenders.

Dead and broken bodies lie in these boys’ wake — but should they be tried as adults? Could they possibly be rehabilitated? Lear (son of Norman Lear,) seems to think it might be possible. To Lear’s credit, he makes sure we see the consequences of the boys’ actions, including a young woman confined to a wheelchair after a gang-involved shooting. The boys are charming, gradually becoming more self-aware through the art therapy they engage in, but is that enough? Lear lets you decide.

“They Call Us Monsters" screens Friday, with producer Gabriel Cowan in attendance for the discussion after the film.

Almost Sunrise

Like gang activity, war usually involves killing other people, sometimes lots of them. Regardless of the reason, the act itself can be soul-killing for some veterans. The documentary, “Almost Sunrise,” follows two Iraq War vets, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who undertake a 2,700-mile trek to walk off the trauma of their combat experience. Along the way, the film introduces the idea of “moral injury,” the idea that intense guilt and shame can result from following orders to do things that go against one’s moral compass and values. Voss and Anderson start their journey clearly in trauma and seem to come out the other side in better shape, thanks to various encounters with traditional healers and others. It’s a powerful concept, and one that will resonate in places like San Diego with a large population of veterans.

“Almost Sunrise” screens at 3 p.m., Saturday, with Marty Syjuco, the film‘s producer, and Emmet Cullen, who is in the film, on hand for a post-screening discussion.

I am Not Your Negro

Also screening Saturday is a stunning film on the black experience in the U.S. Taken from James’ Baldwin’s unfinished novel, “ I am Not Your Negro” and other writings, the film takes a candid look at living while back in the U.S.

Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s elegant prose, giving it a smoky underbelly that punches it up a notch. It’s a beautifully laid out film about a most unbeautiful and most timely subject — how and why does race and discrimination matter in the U.S.? Directed by the Haitian director, Raoul Peck (“Lumumba”). This is one of the most important documentaries of 2016 — go early; the screening is sure to be packed. There will be a discussion after the film.

Most Governments Lie

The final film in the festival starts off with a premise that is not new- “Most Governments Lie.” What might be less expected are the subjects of the film, a sort of who’s who of hard-hitting alternative journalism. The usual suspects are there, Carl Bernstein, Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, along with Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald. However, perhaps lesser known voices are also getting some face-time, such as Ana Kasparian (“The Young Turks,”) Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone,) and Cenk Uygur (“The Young Turks.”) Fred Peabody, whose work has shown up on “20/20” and other news magazines, evokes the ghost, and often the figure, of I.F. Stone, the American investigative journalist whose work at the New York Post and The Nation covered uncomfortable details about the Tonkin Gulf and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

“Every Government Lies” is a fascinating look into how mostly independent journalism is keeping the spirit of the Fourth Estate alive and investigating. Interesting enough, the film has found itself so outstripped by its subject in less than two weeks as to suggest an update will be needed soon. A discussion with director Peabody will follow the screening.

All films screen at the MOPA, with most screenings at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $6 to $10. For information, log onto for more information.