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The Annual Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival (HRWFF) in partnership with Hot Docs Cinema will be held from March 8 to 19, 2023; March 8-12 in-person at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and March 13-19 on Hot Docs digital platform. Following the tradition of past festivals, all tickets for both in-person and digital screenings are free and accessible to everyone in Canada with internet.


The 20th anniversary festival program will consist of five films covering a wide variety of human rights topics, including the powerful Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which will open the festival on March 8. This version of the film has just been updated with recent events, so it is a Canadian premiere! The screening will be followed by a special discussion for International Women’s Day with the Canadian journalist Lisa Laflamme, focused on the experiences of women in the Ukraine conflict, and the particular vulnerabilities of women and children in wartime.

The five films selected for the festival program include (listed in order of screening date):

FREEDOM ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM Canadian Premiere of 2023 version

Directed by: Evgeny Afineevsky

Presented on: Wednesday, March 8 (International Women's Day) | 7:30 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Freedom on Fire is a behind the scenes and beyond the headlines view of the war in Ukraine from the Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire). This is filmmaking from the heart, beautifully capturing the resilience of the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian invasion. A logistical tour de force, with 43 cinematographers (including the filmmaker) filming in over 20 Ukrainian cities, Freedom on Fire captures the stories of children, mothers, soldiers, doctors, artists, volunteers, clergymen, and journalists as viewers witness the transformation of a country fighting for its very survival.


Programming: A post-screening discussion with Evgeny Afineevsky, the filmmaker; Lisa LaFlamme, a Canadian journalist; Valentina Kuryliw, education director at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium; and HRW’s Crisis and Conflict Director Ida Sawyer, moderated by Canadian journalist Lisa LaFlamme, who will unpack how this conflict disproportionately affects women and girls.


“Despite the ongoing brutality, the nation is not on its knees. The movie’s essence is singing, hugging, volunteers bearing gifts, and children drawing pictures for the soldiers who are keeping them safe. That's beauty: People who know how to laugh and love,” said filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.


Accessibility: The discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.



Directed by: Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan
Presented on: Thursday, March 9 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Canada-based codirectors Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan capture personal stories and deep moments of support in a small community of women from West Africa, who are confronting social norms and embracing the inherent power in pleasure and love for their own bodies. With candor, humour and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies.


Working with codirector Jim Donovan and combining her own journey with personal accounts from some of her friends, codirector Habibata Ouarme explores the lifelong effects of female genital mutilation and the road to individual and collective healing, both in Africa and in Canada. These women begin a journey of personal discovery, with discussions on the importance of female pleasure and the complexity of the female anatomy, while working to shed long-held feelings of shame and loneliness. While finding strength and joy in their own frank and intimate conversations together, Habibata and her friends continue to advocate for wider access to restorative surgery and community conversations in Canada and worldwide.


“This film brings more than an education on a harmful traditional practice that’s still practiced in parts of West Africa – it captures the stories of solidarity among these irrepressible, strong African women,” said Mausi Segun, Africa division director at Human Rights Watch.


Programming: A post-screening discussion with Regina Tamés, deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. Panelists include Habibata Ouarme, a FGM survivor and filmmaker; Jim Donovan, filmmaker, and Doctor Angela Deane, OBGYN and advocate for those affected by FGM/C.


Accessibility: The film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.


Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Presented on: Friday, March 10 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: The Grab reveals a new world order in which global power will be held by those who control not oil, but food. The new global thriller from the renowned director of Blackfish combines hard-hitting journalism with compelling, character-driven storytelling, taking viewers around the globe from Arizona to Zambia, China to Saudi Arabia, to reveal one of the world’s biggest and least exposed threats.


Quietly and seemingly out of sight, governments, financial investors, and private security forces are dividing up the world’s last remaining food and water resources. Communities are forced to stand by as their aquifers are sucked dry, and land they have owned for generations is grabbed from under their feet. As the scale of the run on natural resources is uncovered by a team of investigative reporters, issues bubble to the surface in real time. Russia’s attack on Ukraine uses food access as a geopolitical tool, and global food prices hit an all-time high.


Programming: Introductory remarks by Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch, followed by a conversation with filmmakers Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Nick de Pencier, and Jennifer Baichwal.


Directed by: Juliana Curi

Presented on: Saturday, March 11 | 7:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: Uýra, a trans Indigenous artist, travels through the Amazon on a journey of self-discovery using performance art to teach Indigenous youth that they are the guardians of ancestral messages of the Amazon Forest. In a country that kills the highest number of trans, Indigenous, and environmentalist youth worldwide, Uýra leads a rising movement through arts and education while fostering unity and providing inspiration for the LGBT and environmental movements in the heart of the Amazon Forest. Uýra’s performances are a metaphor inspired by the ecological cycle that mirrors social struggles: the destruction of the soil and violence against life, followed by the re-emergence of young plants that germinate quickly and make way for a renewed, stronger ecosystem.


Programming: Post-screening discussion with University of Toronto Professor Andrea Allan, Spoken Word Artist Sarah Lewis, Sketch Creative Director Julian Diego, and moderated by Rasha Younes, senior LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. Sarah Lewis will also be opening the evening with a spoken word.


Accessibility: The film is captioned; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.


Directed by: Ike Nnaebue

Presented on: Sunday, March 12 | 1:00 p.m. screening

Synopsis: As a young man, the celebrated Nigerian director Ike Nnaebue left Nigeria taking the route via Benin, Mali, and Mauritania to Morocco where he was forced to turn back, unable to reach Europe. In his first documentary, No U-Turn, he retraces the life-changing journey he made over 20 years ago.


Along the way, he meets those who are taking the same trip and, through conversations with them, tries to understand what motivates young people today to expose themselves to the dangers of a passage into an uncertain future. Most are aware of the dangers of traveling undocumented by road, yet more and more are joining the ranks of those who take this risk, despite widely circulated images and terrifying testimony found online of people who have been lured into slavery and bondage. Overlaid with a powerful poetic commentary, this self-reflective travelogue hints at the deep longing of an entire generation for a better life.


“Why is it unrealistic to dream of a comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?” said Ike Nnaebue, director, No U-Turn.


Programming: Panel discussion on Zoom with filmmaker, Ike Nnaebue and Michel Chikwanine, former child soldier and public speaker. Moderated by host of CBC Podcasts’ new weekly world news podcast, Nothing is Foreign, Tamara Khandaker. Keynote speaker to be determined.


Accessibility: The film is captioned and audio-described; the discussion panel following the film will be interpreted live in sign language.



Directed by Evgeny Agineevsky

Directed by Academy Award nominated Evgeny Agineevsky, this doc plunges the audience right into Ukraine during the Ukraine/Russian war without actually having to be there.  Director Agineevsky shows the perils the Ukrainians in different towns flee, suffer and survive the shelling and the inhumanities going on.  Putin is clearly the evil one oblivious of how much harm he is doing.  The film is at its most effective when the Ukrainians talk about their plight or have their say when interviewed.  One of them describes effectively what war is: “When a boy comes up to a soldier who has all the weapons and tell him that he hates you, that is war!”   Director Agineevsky’s fondness of using children to make a point is shown in other parts of the doc.  At one point, children’s drawing serve as gifts to the soldiers.  Children are shown doing their part in food distribution, and they have a say about soldiers as well.  The Russians and Putin are clearly the enemy, even in the eyes of the children.  The ending was recently changed to add in more recent updates from the war in Ukraine. This is the first time the new film will be screened publicly.  Needless to say, this doc is riveting and one can only hope all this will soon come to an end. Narrated by Helen Mirren,.






Directed by Juliana Curry

Uýra, a binary trans-indigenous artist, who calls himself Emerson, travels through the Amazon forest on a journey of self-discovery using performance art and ancestral messages to teach indigenous youth and confront structural racism and transphobia in Brazil.  He claims statutory racism against indigenous people and blacks though no incidents are shown in the doc.  One has to takes his word as true,  This is a simply shot doc which uses its current theme to tell its important message without rewording to any theatrics.   The beauty of the Amazon forest is clearly full view as well as the dark and awful contrast of the pollution of plastics and other trash that has destroyed many an Amazon river.  The one shot (and the most disturbing of all) of the pile of plastic garbage piled up in one rivers enough to make one cringe at the neglect human beings have in caring for the planet,  The doc stresses the importance of harmony with human beings, which is the basic message the film puts through.  The film runs only and hour and a quarter with a message delivered short and sweet.  One complaint is that there is too much using from Uyra and what he says is supposed tone taken as the Gospel truth.

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