In a program filled with films about all the big issues, the primary focus of not-for-profit festival will always arguably be the most important: hope.
Stephen A. Russell

8 May 2014 - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 8 May 2014 - 3:38 PM

The seventh Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) opens in Melbourne tonight with Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, The Square (Al Midan), with selected highlights heading to Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Alice Springs and Darwin.

Festival director Ella McNeil says The Square documents the people behind the demonstrations that found their epicentre in Tahrir Square. “It raises some interesting questions about how far has Egypt really come, what did it really mean and how much closer are they to a democracy?”

Divided into themes like Body Politics (exploring gender, age and sex) and Creative Spirit (about the healing power of art and music), this year’s line up is a broad affair. Rich Hill, the closing night Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, looks at the rising trend of first world poverty. “It’s beautifully shot and a really interesting story about rural poverty in America, which you can draw some parallels to Australia.”

Another Sundance highlight making its way to HRAFF is Sterlin Harjo’s compelling doco This May Be the Last Time, about the rich tradition of music and song in Native American culture as well as the personal tale of one lost grandfather.

McNeil also recommends Alphée of the Stars (Alphée Des Étoiles), by writer/director Hugo Latulippe. It details the relocation of Latulippe’s family from Quebec to the Swiss Alps to help their daughter, who has a rare development disorder. “It’s an intimate look at their journey so she can go to a regular school, rather than one based on her disability,” McNeil says.

Where Heaven Meets Hell is a startling documentary by US-director Sasha Friedlander that reveals the backbreaking work undertaken by Indonesian sulphur miners. “It’s about this small community that would do anything to get a foot up and send their kids to school and other really basic things we take for granted,” McNeill says.

Bosnia and Herzegovina filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić has directed dramatic feature For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, co-written with and based on the personal holiday experiences of Australian performance artist Kim Vercoe, who accidentally uncovered the dark history behind her hotel. Vercoe also appears in the film.

Breastmilk, by filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari, follows a group of new mums as they tackle the sometimes-explosive minefield that is public breast-feeding. “It might be a bit unexpected, but it’s really a crucial film for everyone to see in order to understand the complexities and social pressures involved in such a nurturing, natural act,” McNeil says.

Sons and Mothers (pictured), by Australian director Christopher Houghton, follows the creative process of Adelaide’s No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability as the troupe create an ode to their mums, while Everyday Rebellion looks at how you can best use your body and voice for peaceful protest in this age of ‘clicktivism’.

“We want to encourage human rights filmmakers and provide a platform for them,” McNeil says. “Some films might be in other festivals, but we contextualise them in the human rights space, so you’ll walk out of the cinema with a different mind frame. It’s also important that we premiere work that might not otherwise be seen in Australia. We’re proud to be giving them a voice.”

Though some films deal with harrowing issues, McNeil stresses that ultimately they’re all about hope. “It’s the perfect way to get people talking and invoke compassion and empathy,” she says. “We create a connection to incredible NGOs and charities working in these areas, so you might walk out a session and they’re there for more info or to sign up and volunteer. That journey’s important to us.”

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival runs in Melbourne (8-22 May), Sydney (27-31 May), Alice Springs (29-31 May), Perth (3-5 June), Canberra (3-5 June), Brisbane (3-5 May), and Darwin (16-17 August). Visit the official website for more information.