Much can change in the space of 30 years, and few organisations will have seen the highs and lows of the fight for social justice quite like Human Rights Watch have.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) celebrates its third decade of showcasing films that present human rights violations in its purest form, facilitating a space for courageous individuals to ‘empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.’ HRW has defended people at risk by investigating abuses scrupulously, exposing facts, and relentlessly pressing those in power for change that respects rights; its celebrated film festival is an extension of this work, and this year powerful films are screening in over 20 cities across the world.
The programme is rich in compelling stories from around the world, but SNACK’s personal picks, Unapologetic and I am Samuel, epitomise the messages of passion and perseverance at the heart of HRWFF.
US director Ashley O’Shay’s blistering documentary is a profound and necessary story ripe for a country, and indeed a global, reckoning with racial injustice. O’Shay’s work focuses on illuminating marginalized voices and Unapologetic is her first venture into the feature world. Her invigorating documentary illuminates the love underpinning the anger and frustration that comes with being Black, queer women in the US, and elevates those who are most often leading the way while being denied the spotlight.
After two Black Chicago natives, Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, are killed at the hands of the police, the Movement for Black Lives demands justice and organises to challenge an administration – specifically a police board led by Lori Lightfoot and a complicit city administration – complicit in violence against its residents.
Unapologetic introduces the audience to Janaé Bonsu and Bella Bahhs, two young, passionate activist leaders whose upbringing and experiences have shaped their view of what liberation could and should look like. Their united vision is to achieve and sustain an expansive view of public safety that does not depend on the police, instead relying on communities to work together, especially promoting the leadership of women and femmes.
Each woman has carved their own journey in activism, though their goals are ultimately similar, and their dream of sustaining an abolitionist programme of safety without police intervention is essential at a time when racially motivated violence persists. A glimpse into the jarring inequalities and tragedies of Chicago’s justice system is illuminating for a non-US audience.
Each group we meet dedicates such time and energy holding officials accountable for acts of violence and murders of Black citizens; there are countless names presented in the film’s closing credits, amplifying the scale of the city’s (as well as the country at large) systemic racism. Bella, a powerful and inspiring public speaker, leads the chant, ‘Protect and serve, we are the police! We’re taking back our community!’
What is most glaring is the energy such work takes, and the toll this takes on those who make groups like Black Youth Project 100 as successful as they are. Janaé and Bella are relentless in their respective missions, but the toll their efforts take on their lives – balancing social lives, education, their spirituality – is staggering. While inspiring, seeing each woman juggle their lives around the incessant fight for equality is ultimately a harsh reminder of the sacrifice required to propel progress.
Janaé balances the ivory tower of academia, toiling at her PhD proposal and navigating through dense academic discourse, while her zeal to organise within the Movement wanes as challenges and controversy strike the organisation, forcing her to reflect on the physical and mental toll of leadership. We see that activism, especially on a grassroots level, is not optional, rather a necessary vocation, but it all comes at a price.
Kush, one of the activists we meet, contends, ‘If Black, queer, feminist people are not free, nobody else is going to be free.’ This statement is a clear reminder of collective responsibility, that in our community no one deserves to be left behind, and we all have a role to play in making life safe and fruitful for everyone. Unapologetic is bold, alarming and uplifting.
I am Samuel
“I can’t really be myself. It’s like they’re seeing just half of who I am.”
So many of us has felt this sentiment described by Alex, the partner of the film’s eponymous subject, but not all of us have experienced this feeling in the ways Samuel and Alex have, navigating their love in such a hostile environment. Samuel, a gay man, balances duty to his family with his love for Alex in Kenya, where their love is criminalised. I am Samuel is Peter Murimi’s feature directorial debut, filmed verité style for five years in his home country of Kenya.
Samuel has grown up on a farm in the Kenyan countryside, where tradition is valued above all else. He moves to Nairobi in search of a new life, where he finds a community of fellow queer men where he meets and falls in love with Alex. Their love thrives even though Kenyan laws criminalize anyone who identifies as LGBTQ, and together they face threats of violence and rejection. Samuel’s father, a preacher at the local church, doesn’t understand why his son is not yet married and Samuel must navigate the very real risk that being truthful to who he is may cost him his family’s acceptance.
The country has notorious legislation against the protection of LGBTQ citizens, and this year has seen homophobic and gender-based violence increase as a result of COVID-19. According to the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), they have been receiving and responding to up to ten attacks per month on the LGBTQ community during the pandemic, and while the Kenyan government raised an alarm on increased cases of gender-based-violence in the earlier stages of lockdown, they offered no targeted support for LGBTQ people.
It is so powerful to see individual stories like Samuel’s onscreen, yet one must remember there are countless queer Kenyans living in fear and physical harm. In the film’s opening scenes, we see a friend of Samuel’s being stripped and beaten mercilessly because he is gay. Brutal and difficult to watch, this scene serves as a harsh reminder of the violence LGBTQ Kenyans face.
However, Murimi skilfully balances the hard-hitting elements of the film with light and joy. Some of my favourite moments occur when we see Samuel and Alex with their tight circle of friends, fellow queer men living life as authentically as they can within a system of oppression. But they exude joy when they’re all together; their house parties are raucous, full of bitchy chat and dancing.
It reminds me of the importance of chosen family, and there is a poignancy to seeing the men together when we haven’t been able to see our own this year. And when we see first-hand the danger in which these men find themselves – one of Samuel’s friends is brutally beaten and shows his injuries – seeing them together, thriving in the only space they have for themselves, is quite emotional.
What is notable, however, is how detached Samuel can be from the group at times. He often gravitates towards doing the cooking or washing the dishes while Alex is in the thick of the festivities, perhaps reluctant to engage completely.
The film is heart-breaking at many moments but it is also moving, with a sense of optimism; love triumphs, in whatever way it can, against adversity. Seeing Samuel and Alex exchange vows at their tiny engagement party would bring a tear to even the most cynical among us. I am Samuel is a bold, emotionally resonant documentary, a presentation of contrasting identities and values, courage and, ultimately, love.
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