Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2017

'Black Code' + 'Bill Nye' + 'The Blood Is at the Doorstep'

by Chris Barsanti

12 June 2017

A trio of documentaries on ostensibly diverse subjects (suppression of online dissent, a climate change crusade, a family’s struggle for justice after a police shooting) all circle back to the fight for agency in the modern world.
Black Code (2016) 
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Black Code

Director: Nicholas de Pencier

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: 14 Jun 2017
2017

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Bill Nye: Science Guy

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: 9 Jun 2017
2017

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The Blood Is at the Doorstep

Director: Erik Ljung

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: 9 Jun 2017
2017

It wasn’t that long ago that one-time proselytizers of the World Wide Web paradise to come, like Douglas Rushkoff, began to sheepishly come forward and admit that, yes, they might have been a tad over optimistic about the world-changing potential of the Internet back in the ‘90s. We are just now starting to see some reevaluations from the eager Netizens who proclaimed that the Twitter- and Facebook-fueled Arab Spring was the harbinger of a glorious new dawn of an empowered, jacked-in cybernetic citizenry. The darker side of the democratization of online messaging, however, is on full display in Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code, screening at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

An adaptation of the book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the movie is an anxious and earnest policy piece about the darkening Web that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring’s first flush of people-powered optimism. Deibert and the Lab’s band of “Internet sleuths” research monitor the state of worldwide human rights as it intersects with the virtual realm, where “Big Data meets Big Brother”.

What Black Code sees is that a tide turning against citizen activists around the world. In Tibet, the Chinese government’s strategy of total surveillance works to smother the decades-long resistance movement, particularly any online reference to the hundred-plus activists who self-immolated in protest of Beijing’s policies. The government in Ethiopia centralizes Internet access through a single, monitored server. Pakistan and Brazil keep close tabs on any anti-government activity online, while Syria’s place as the “Arab Spring’s dark aftermath” sees malware and Facebook misinformation weaponized against their citizenry. 

In what Deibert refers to as the “commercialization of cybercrime”, numerous companies now provide off-the-shelf products to companies and governments looking to monitor and stifle resistance movements. Deibert and the watchful researchers of the Citizen Lab don’t exactly provide answers to the campaigns of oppression they document, but they provide a hopeful reminder that at the very least, somewhere on the Web, somebody is watching—for the right reasons.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

A curious inclusion in the Human Rights Watch Festival, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy is a PBS-friendly thumbnail biopic of Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who—if the legion of his fans who show up in the movie are to be believed—is a pop science hero of magnificent proportions. As the bowtied host of a goofy kids science show back in the ‘90s, Nye was a great popularizer of scientific inquiry for the after-school crowd; a kind of bridge between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The former was, in fact, a hero of Nye’s and the latter shows up here as Nye’s slightly more authoritative but just as aggressively gung-go comrade in scientific arms.

While the movie itself is something of a hodge-podge, it keeps returning to one of Nye’s current missions: fighting the scourge of climate change deniers. While debating the reality of man-made climate change with oleaginous goons like the Creation Museum’s Ken Ham or the bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi (a glib and pugnacious propagandist who must be seen to be believed) might not seem like exactly the stuff of human rights, it is certainly a service to humanity.

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

Nearly the definition of the kind of movie an event like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is made to showcase, Erik Ljung’s captivating The Blood Is at the Doorstep tracks the aftermath and struggle for justice that came after the 30 April 2014 fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton in downtown Milwaukee during broad daylight by a police officer. Although it begins in fire and violence, the bulk of the movie is a timeline following that shooting itself and the passionate, quietly strong campaign fought by his family to ensure that the city found somebody accountable for what happened.

Ljung’s portrait doesn’t attempt to litigate the shooting itself. Instead of pulling apart the forensics of what happened, the angle of this bullet or the conflicting testimony of that witness, it focuses on the Hamilton family and their attempt to come to grips with what looked in all fairness like an unwarranted killing. There are times when this feels briefly like a weakness, that maybe a closer examination of the case itself could have helped clarify things. But Ljung’s approach is ultimately a humane one, embedding closely with Hamilton’s grief-struck mother and brothers as they move from shock to anger to steady and organized action. Before long, the family is leading a growing number of like-minded activists on marches protesting the reluctance of the city to file charges against the officer, or at the very least institute mental-health training for the police.

The outlines of the Hamilton shooting are depressingly familiar. From his history of mental illness to the officer’s history of excessive force complaints to the overwhelming amount of force used (14 shots fired at a man who by all accounts had started fighting with the officer after being woken up in a city park, but likely never posed a real threat) to the closing of ranks by police and the splits in tactics between nonviolent and more aggressive protesters, these are all elements that have become numbingly familiar in America’s cities.

Although there is plenty of outrage in The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Ljung is primarily an empathetic storyteller. From his surprisingly luminous cinematography to the intimate portrayal of the family’s stout and humble resilience, this is a movie that is always finding beauty in ugliness and manages to celebrate the former without forgetting the latter.

Black Code

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Bill Nye: Science Guy

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The Blood Is at the Doorstep

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