San Francisco's Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a small documentary showcase featuring six films from the flagship festivals in New York and London. But as limited as the selection may be, the content is expansive, traveling the globe and covering issues as varied as women's rights, poverty, marriage equality and a failed judicial system.
There is plenty of what you might expect -- staggering poverty and political injustices caught on film -- but for as many moments of sobering reality, there are just as many of human triumph and inspiration.
With Rafea: Solar Mama, filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief take us into the Jordanian desert to a Bedouin village rife with poverty and unemployment. There, Rafea raises her children on her own, though she has little money to raise them with. By a stroke of luck, she's chosen for an international program at the Barefoot College in India, which trains illiterate women from around the world to become solar engineers.
Rafea's tasked with a huge burden: If she succeeds, she'll become Jordan's first female solar engineer. She hopes to change the status of women in her village and to become a breadwinner for her family. But her problems are not limited to poverty and illiteracy: Rafea's husband believes she shouldn't be allowed outside of the home, let alone the country, and her family reprimands her for not staying by her children's side.
Characters like Rafea looking to make change their own lives the lives of their communities are the standard in this activist-centered film fest. In the Shadow of the Sun introduces another individual: Josephat Torner, a Tanzanian man living with albinism. Josephat lives in a country where albinos are farmed for their body parts and called "white devils," an epithet cast by those who believe the myth that albino body parts bring wealth and good luck. For many in Tanzania, Josephat and others like him are less than human.
Embarking on a countrywide tour, Josephat finds children cloistered into albino-only schools with security guards and high outer walls to keep out predators. He speaks with those prevented from going to school because of the violent bullying. Filmmaker Harry Freeland films these encounters beautifully, showing a beguiling landscape where ugliness lingers in the background.
The film festival doesn't only shed light on human rights violations in third world countries; many of these issues hit home as well. Al Reinert's An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story exposes the failings of the U.S. judicial system. After his wife's murder, Michael Morton was sent to prison and lost his only son. Twenty-five years later, Morton gained his freedom after a simple DNA test and the release of evidence that had been previously surpressed proved his innocence. Another film, The New Black, covers the marriage equality movement in Maryland, intimately examining the black community's internal struggle with LGBT rights.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014 opens Thursday, April 10 and runs through Sunday, April 27, 2014 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets and information visit ybca.org.