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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2020

Organized by the Human Rights Watch, the annual film festival is one of the most important international issue-oriented film festivals providing up to date, mostly empirically based, documentation on current human rights issues throughout the world. The Human Rights Watch was organized in 1978 with European and Central Asia Divisions which are complemented now by Africa, Central Asia, Middle East, North Africa, and United States sections. The topics covered, with research and regular reports, range from arms control, human rights, crises and conflict resolutions, environmental problems, legal issues, LGBTQ rights, children’s issues, and refugee rights to name but a few. HRW is represented in 31 world cities but also maintains numerous local field offices and has a comprehensive global presence as a result. Funded by individuals and foundations from all over the world, HRW is an independent non-profit organization not accepting any support from governmental sources. Its comprehensive World Report 2020 runs close to 700 pages and covers human rights conditions and issues in 95 countries including detailed reports about Brazil, the European Union, India, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, The United States, and China, a country also covered in a key note essay introducing the report. For each individual country or region, significant human rights abuses, impact of local human rights activists, and the actions of international organizations are identified. In addition to the report, throughout the year HRW publishes case studies and detailed accounts for most relevant countries on a regular basis. The investigations are carried out by 450 HRW staff members and free lancers from numerous specializations partnering with related organizations across the globe. Apart from quantitative and qualitative research methods HRW also employs data mining and satellite imagery to track the destruction of human habitats and the environment. Among the specialized reports are studies of Syria’s Civil War, the Rohingya, Refugees in Europe, the South Sudan Conflict, Mass Killings in the Philippines, and US Immigration.

The systematic distribution of its research reports, close contact with local governmental organizations and international agencies, provision of data to the media, numerous panel presentations as well as expert testimonies in legal proceedings are the impact avenues for HRW. Another essential way for influencing opinion makers and media specialists has been the establishment of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 1989 and this year its new digital version. Documentaries from the HRWFF are now screened in 20 cities globally showcasing 720 films thus far from past programs. In cooperation with film makers and distributors, key audiences for each screening program are identified and support is provided by HRW to promote the films for theatrical, digital and community events. The number of cities where HRW films are shown grows each year. About 500 documentaries are reviewed annually by program experts for inclusion in the festival, of which about 40 are pre-selected in New York for use in New York or global programs though final selection for the screening is done locally. One important factor in the selection process is the impact potential of the film and its relevance for the human rights issue addressed. There is no open submission for the film festival. Instead films are identified at other festivals, foundations, and by professionals finding relevant films or work in progress.

Much like many other festivals, the HRWFF was forced to adapt to the coronavirus crisis by embracing a new digital format for, which 11 productions out of 600 were chosen compared to 15 in last year’s program. Online discussions were held for each film, an approach also used for the London screening of nine films about two weeks before New York. This shift generated a great deal of work for the HRWFF staff as the platform for streaming the films and on-line panel discussions had to be established. This involved extensive contact with viewers because  6,100 tickets had been sold for the 2020 digital edition, a large viewership increase. Given budgetary concerns, no additional staff could be hired. Whereas past theatrical editions had large opening night fund raisers, the digital fest did not raise as much. The NY HRWFF digital edition paid filmmakers for their films and shared revenues with their Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center partners. John Biaggi, the longtime director of the HRWFF, indicated that only three of the invited film makers declined to have their US digital premiere with HRWFF not being certain about how to open their films. He also expressed a desire to return to the Lincoln and the IFC Centers in 2021 as, “there is nothing quite a like a live screening in a theater setting and the discussion that follows” whilst also considering a hybrid festival model for next year with on-line streaming, theatrical screenings, and panels.

As in past editions, the Human Rights Watch Film festival offered an outstanding program of topical documentaries in 2020, demonstrating the challenges we face in our societies, the deprivations  subjugated minority groups, the power of institutions and corporations preventing their emancipation and the absolute need for intervention by individuals and groups reasserting basic human rights.

BELLY OF THE BEAST by Erika Cohn, USA 2020 tracks and verifies how thousands of women were sterilized in the California women’s prison system for forty years, even after a 1979 law was passed that outlawed involuntary sterilization in California correctional facilities. These outrageous procedures were carried out on thousands of women by the prisons professional medical staff while the prison system was under federal supervision. Prisoners were not advised of what happened to them nor was there a single case of prior consent. Erika Cohn and her associate Cynthia Chandler from the Justice Now group, a legal advocacy association, focus on the story of Kelli Dillon who had been sterilized and her legal battle to gain justice. After a decade of systematic and exhaustive research, Kelli Dillon was vindicated in court and now fights for compensation for tens of thousands of women who lost their ability to have children. What transpired in the proceedings is that a culture of secrecy surrounded the illegal procedures, that virtually all the young sterilized women came from minority groups and that nurses and doctors involved were on the state’s payroll. Many shared the eugenic view of saving money for the state because fewer children would be born into impoverished and delinquent minority groups. No members of the medical staff carrying out the sterilization or officials approving their pay have ever been tried.

MAXIMA, a Peruvian documentary directed in 2019 by Claudia Sparrow, depicts the struggle of a few lawyers in Peru for a poor family that owns a rightfully acquired piece of land in the middle of an area into which the world largest gold mine wants to expand. The Yanacocha mine had been spending $5 billion to buy land for the expansion but the small family refuses to sell their plot. Because there are few if any environmental or human rights protection laws in Peru, Newman, the US Peruvian parent company engaged in a years long relentless campaign to destroy the poor family’s harvest and property, as well as taking them to court. The harassment was carried out with support from local military and police, and some court ruling against the family were upheld by corrupt judges. There was no response to appeals to the world bank which had a minority interest in the gold mine operation. The environmental damage caused by the gold extraction and cyanide cannot be rectified and the lawyer representing the Maxima Family had to relocate, fearing for the safety of their children. Now the case is pending in an American court in Delaware which may follow the notion that corporations are set up to maximize profits rather than to respect human rights.

RADIO SILENCE is a Mexican Swiss Co-production directed by Juliana Fanjul analyzing the problems of running a radio program as an independent news anchor with perspectives which are frequently contrary to statements made by the government party or the dominant media, frequently directed by Televisa. Carmen Aristegunei enjoys the largest radio audience in Mexico City as her voice is more trusted than that official news. Her work is often impeded by the police, forces backing the cartels, burglaries of her office, and a legal decision to closing her broadcast down. Against the background of the disappearance of tens of thousands of people, the unsolved slashing of 42 students, and the corruption of police and military by the cartels, investigative reporting has become dangerous because journalists who are too outspoken are killed and there is no protection from the authorities. Thus, Carmen’s reporting, before being shut down, about the fake dissertation of the former president Pena, and after resuming her broadcast about the constant increase in consumer prices, the impoverishment of larger segments of the population, and the progressive privatization of water makes Carmen a potential murder vctim. Some of her co-workers would stop working if their children were threatened. She is not sure if the new president A.M. Obrador can make a difference as the cartels and official agencies are too intertwined but insists to continue speaking out with a positive outlook because “Optimism is a Moral obligation”.


A MIT Media Law Collaborator Joy Buolamwini discovered that facial recognition technologies systematically provide false readings of dark-skinned people and women, generating a systemic bias in software which has become more prominent in our daily life. Buolamwini's research was instrumental for an impressive documentary, CODED BIAS, by Shalini Kantayya which was co-produced in 2020 by the USA, UK, China and South Africa. It poses the fundamental questions of how artificial intelligence invades our everyday life, how governmental agencies will be using it for control, and how the misreading by coders or algorithms of the images of race, color and gender freezes or stores people's images into the data banks of computers and in turn result in misidentifications and wrongful pursuits. Misleading facial recognition is the downside of an innovative technology to which there is now not yet effective governmental control or regulation despite this technology's rapid advance in the USA's corporate and police sectors. It has become most prevalent in China where it is used for mass surveillance and social monitoring. In the USA and specifically in Western Europe face recognition technologies can violate the individual’s right to privacy but there seems to be no end to the rapid aggregation of data in our digital societies.


Claus Mueller




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