Susan Youssef's Habibi

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which opens today, sheds light on injustice all over the world. This year's “Women's Rights” category showcases three very different films that all do their part to show the struggle women are faced with all over the world, from the Middle East to the U.S. Military.

Director, writer, and producer Susan Youssef's Habibi follows the Shakesperean love story of Qays and Layla. This modern retelling of the ancient Sufi parable Majnun Layla welcomes the viewer into a world of religious extremism and strict gender roles. The film's full title in Arabic, Habibi Rasak Kharba, translates to “darling, there is something wrong with my head.”

When the two protagonists are forced to leave their university in the West Bank, the only hope for their romance to continue is if they are allowed marry. Qays, a constructor worker who lives in a refugee camp, has no way of contacting his beloved Layla as they are from two very different worlds. Instead, he must spray-paint his love poetry all over the walls of Khan Yunis. Layla, a privileged and wealthy young woman, is disgraced  by his overtures and deemed morally corrupt by her community. Her father denies Qay's request to marry Layla and the two lovers must create and enact a new plan to keep their relationship intact.

Tragic and beautiful, the film shows just how different courtships are in the Gaza Strip, where public displays of affection can result in horrible consequences. Habibi has won huge praise at a variety of international film festivals, including The Dubai International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival and Susan Youssef was named one of Filmmaker Magainze's 25 New Faces in 2010.

David Fine's Salaam Dunk

Often in the post-September 11/Operation Iraqi Freedom world, images of Iraqi and Middle Eastern women focus on pain, suffering, and repression. That is why David Fine's vibrant documentary Salaam Dunk is such a breath of fresh air. The film follows a women's basketball team at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani. The team is a reflection of the diverse ethnic and religious makeup of modern Iraq and includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians. Despite predisposed animosity between these religious groups, the players seemed unfazed by their differences.

These women, although attending a prestigious university, are often unable to tell their families back home that they go to an American school, as it could result in extreme punishment or even put their lives at risk. In addition, many of their countrymen consider women playing sports unacceptable, as their role is perceived to be in the home. Basketball offers the AUIS team a way to escape. a means of forgetting the pain they have been through and building towards a new life. Although many of the women have never run before, let alone played basketball, and never been on a team, they are steadfast in their dedication to win and build a new future for themselves, outside of the confines of Iraq's strict gender confines.

Filled with beautiful images, a rousing soundtrack, and confession cam-style video diaries, Salaam Dunk is an inspiring tale that shouldn't be missed.  The film was an official selection at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. Variety said “the players are a fascinating, genuinely inspiring bunch, and the squad's mere existence provides a stirring example of the possibilities for young Iraqis outside the country's war zones.”

Kirby Dick's The Invisible War

Kirby Dick's explosive documentary The Invisible War sheds light on the startling incidence of rape in the United States military. The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden offered praise, calling it “a shocking and infuriating indictment of widespread sexual attacks on women.” The film's subjects recount their own experiences of sexual misconduct while serving in various branches of the U.S. Military. This sexual abuse is not limited to female military personnel—two men come forward about their experience as well.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this epidemic is that the military hierarchy is so rigid that a victim can only report instances of sexual abuse to their direct commander and only 10 percent of cases are prosecuted. The lasting effects on the victims are highly damaging, sometimes leading to suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder. Through interviews with high-ranking military and Congressional officials, Dick unearths a history that has long been swept under the rug and hidden from the public eye. The film has received glowing critical praise and won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. 

Habibi and Salaam Dunk both screen this Saturday, Sunday and Monday, June 16 – 18. The Invisible War screens on Monday, June 18 and Wednesday, June 20. Buy a ticket to all three together and save with our Human Rights Watch Package!