Slay the Dragon-Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Human Rights Watch has hosted a film festival in the heart of San Diego for a decade, bringing the fight for justice to the big screen. 

This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be held at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts from Thursday, January 30, to Saturday, February 1, with five films being shown. The lineup at this year’s event, which is one of 20 film festivals that Human Rights Watch puts on around the world, is stacked with award-winning cinema. 

The event kicks off on Thursday, January 30, with “Gay Chorus Deep South,” which is a 2019 film by David Charles Rodrigues that profiles the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir’s tour through the Deep South, between Mississippi and Tennessee. 

Other films being shown are “Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World,” “Slay the Dragon,” “Love Child” and “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.”

Jen Nedbalsky, who serves as Human Rights Watch’s deputy director, says she believes the festival’s importance is even more paramount in today’s age of disinformation and rampant human rights abuse, both in America and overseas. 

The key function of the organization’s film festivals is their ability to bring communities together and to educate people on the injustice that’s happening in their own backyard. 

“The film festival is really an extension of the organization, Human Rights Watch. We’re one of the largest human rights organizations,” Nedbalsky says. “The film festival exists in order to educate audiences that by getting involved they can make a difference. So, we like to showcase stories of change-makers who are working in their communities to change the narrative in regard to human rights, then using what they’re finding to press for change. 

“So, this year, we’re really happy to be shining a light on change-makers that are bringing change both in the U.S. and abroad.”

One film that Nedbalsky is excited to show at the San Diego festival is David Charles Rodrigues’ “Gay Chorus Deep South.” 

That excitement for Nedbalsky comes from the film’s reminder that human rights violations can happen here in America, and that they are not limited to what we see on the news in far-off places. 

Nedbalsky believes a key component of the organization’s film festival is its ability to thrust uncomfortable subjects upon viewers, which can help them stomach the injustice that’s happening around them. 

“It’s truly one of the favorite films that we’ve vetted over the years,” Nedbalsky says. “It shows the importance that everyday Americans can take simply by having those tough conversations with people that might not necessarily agree with them.”

Nedbalsky’s message about shining a light on rights abuses was seconded by Bud Johnston, who served as the producer of Rodrigues’ film. 

Johnston and Rodrigues spent the better part of three years working on the movie, which came from a desire to tell the tale of a cadre of men that bravely went into hostile territory to do what they love most, which is to sing. 

“I think that the film that we made came out of the elections in 2016, and David and I were working together and trying to find stories that could bring people together, as opposed to what we’re seeing in the media, which was just so much divisiveness,” Johnston says. “So, that was really kind of the start of it, and when the San Francisco Gay Man’s Chorus announced that they were going to be doing a tour of the South, David had found this article that had come out, and it was the poorest touring red states in America.

“And that was quickly shifted with a big headline, but it got our attention and it seemed like a story that could bring people together.”

Rodrigues and Johnston have barnstormed the country in support of their film, placing “Gay Chorus Deep South” in more than 130 film festivals nationwide. 

They were accepted into the Human Rights Watch Film Festival late last year, after the festival’s screeners approved its content. 

Johnston says being included in the San Diego festival was a dream come true for the crew, as it allows them to place a socially conscious film in front of its targeted audience. 

“Well I think the fact that it is specifically highlighting human rights stories and the definition of human rights is the right to be human,” Johnston says. “And I believe that we all have the right to be human as long as we’re willing to listen to the other side or to opposition. 

“But also, you have to listen to be heard, and I think the chorus members are out on stage putting themselves under the spotlight and that’s a really brave thing.”

Another key reason why Johnston and Rodrigues wanted “Gay Chorus Deep South” included in this year’s film festival was its proximity to the Bay Area, where the chorus came from. 

“San Diego is in our home state, and we need to spread the message as far as we can,” Johnston says. “And we’ve been able to do that all over the country, and all over the world as well.”

Exemplifying changemaker

Nedbalsky believes that films like “Gay Chorus Deep South” fit the key component of their San Diego event, as it tells the story of those seeking to bring positive change to their community. 

“We like to show films about people or groups that are making a change and then using what they’re finding to push for change,” Nedbalsky says. “So, this year, we’re really happy to be shining a light on changemakers that are bringing change both in the U.S. and abroad.”

The other film at this year’s event that Nedbalsky mentioned is “Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World.” 

Nedbalsky believes the film, which is directed by Hans Pool, is vital in this day and age, as it follows a collective of journalists that use open-source data to track down the perpetrators behind the assassination of a former KGB agents in London. 

She says she believes the film, which was also released in 2019, because the team of journalists used means of collecting information that are similar to the ways that Human Rights Watch chronicles abuses in countries where transparency is lacking. 

“We love this film because it shows some of the ways that we actually investigate human rights abuse and crime,” Nedbalsky says. “Using open-source investigations, opening up rights abuses in countries where we might not have much in the way of data. 

“We’ll be showcasing local journalists that are using similar methods. We’ll discuss the importance of rooting out truth.”

Nedbalsky’s response, when asked why San Diegans should flock to Balboa Park for this year’s event, hit on a lot of the themes behind the annual spectacle. 

“We feel by the end of the event that a conversation’s been had and that the community’s been exposed to topics that they might not have ever considered,” Nedbalsky says. 

“Especially as we enter into this 2020 election year, I know that we want to come together as a community and we want the San Diego community to come out and really engage each other in-person—get away from our keyboards and our phones—and to come together in-person to have these conversations, and to hear form inspiring human rights advocates and changemakers.

“We find that the festival’s really inspiring, and we hope that we’ll see a lot of the community out there to see it.”

Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado,, various times Thursday, January 30, to Saturday, February 1, $14-$45.