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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


New York: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016

Of all global non-governmental organizations focusing on the protection of human rights the New York based Human Rights Watch ranks among the largest and most influential.   In five geographic divisions encompassing Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Central Asia, The Middle East and North Africa, and a United States program more than 80 researchers carry out their work in virtually all countries; executing systematic data analysis, generating information through fieldwork, and interviewing victims and witnesses.  Among the thematic areas explored in these countries and regions are arms, children’s rights, terrorism and counter terrorism, justice, sex rights, women’s rights, migration, and emerging issues. Results of the investigations are widely circulated in daily news releases, reports and case studies.  Shaped by pragmatic objectives to draw attention to human rights violations in areas where Human Rights Watch can make a difference and end abuses Human Rights Watch has established a demonstrated record of achieving an impact.

The annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is a crucial part of the HRW outreach and impact strategy presenting the most topical documentaries on human rights violations to a largely upscale audience and “empowering audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference”. The festival accepts documentaries from around the world produced by established and new filmmakers but excludes films that are factually inaccurate.  The HRW film festival is held in more than 20 cities around the world. Local programmers select from the 40 productions recommended by New York’s HRW programming committee which reviews more than 500 productions each year. Given the information generated by the HRW field staff there is internal up to date knowledge of relevant productions and no need to solicit submissions as is customary in most other film festivals.

In 2016 The HRW film festival was held from June10-19 and co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center. The Program featured 18 productions and several seminars including Q&A sessions with directors and experts. Many films were New York premieres and had some already received awards at other festivals. Maximizing audience exposure, HRW posted trailers of its films classified by region and topics on YouTube with some also presented on related channels such as Al Jazeera, IFP, and Vice.  During the festival several of the films from the 2016 program could be viewed on MUBI, an online streaming service. Among the topics addressed this year were women’s issues, LGBT rights, US problems, migration, and indigenous rights.  More than half of all the films shown were directed or co-directed by women.  As in past editions of the HRW film festival, virtually all productions screened were characterized by the provision of new insights, exemplary execution of the thematic concepts driving the films, and high production values.  

Two special programs were presented with panels on the potential use of virtual reality technologies in the human rights area and the growing European refugee crisis. Because immersive interactive approaches are more entrenched in the profitable video game area their application in the human rights area though promising remain currently in a nascent state given the technical and financial limitations of VR productions.  High end VR headsets are expensive, running about $1000, but certainly give a sense of presence that is difficult to achieve with film alone. The samples shown during the seminar were very impressive ranging from images of starvation in South Sudan, the presentation of an immersive experience in solitary prison confinement to which close to 100,000 inmates in the US are subjected to, and the Peace Project’ where viewers can place themselves in the positon of paramilitary soldiers or peasants assuming their perspectives. Unfortunately, current VR technologies are a bit ahead of widespread software and programs. At this point they are not as cost effective at reaching an audience as other media technologies. Print, films, and digital media convey human rights issues and solutions to a larger audience.  Virtual reality reaches only a select number of individuals on an experimental and highly individualized basis. Further, there is little research on the impact of virtual reality programs. As distinct from traditional media they may very well create greater empathy for the victims of human rights abuses, but it remains to be seen if they actually help to create the motivational basis for acting on human rights violations. The seminar on Europe’s refugee crisis was well illustrated by The Crossing documentary (George Kurian, 2016), an exhibition of superb photographs and short video clips during a panel. The session had the objective of clarifying how governments could effectively respond to the crisis. Because the context of the refugee crisis was not discussed, the goal of the seminar remained elusive, apart from the pursuit of actions needed to save refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Virtually all European governments have severely limited or stopped the influx of refugees with the welcome extended to them by Germany and a few other countries long over. There has been a remarkable increase of conservative right wing forces in Europe and a growing resentment against refugees. A recent representative survey in Germany shows that close to half of the population feels ill at ease in the presence of Muslims and fear their presence facilitates terrorism. Further, the stream of refugees leaving their countries is growing steadily. Widespread armed conflicts have forced many refugees to leave their home countries but there are many others are trying to reach stable and affluent countries for economic and environmental reasons. 


Noteworthy productions included

Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu Wang, 2016, USA

Nanfu Wong received the festival’s 2016 Nestor Armando’s Award for courage in film making for her documentary on human rights violations, in the case study of the activist Hooligan Sparrow. Using a hidden camera and smuggling her material out of China, Wang was able to complete a documentary graphically showing the disregard for law and justice by Chinese authorities. Hooligan Sparrow attracted wide attention in China and overseas through press coverage of her sex work which included free services for migrant workers. After she embraced the struggle of several young schoolgirls who had been traded by their principal for sexual favors to local officials in her political work, authorities cracked down on her. Police and undercover thugs used all means at their disposal to prevent Sparrow from drawing attention to the sex abuse scandal and from acting on it. She and her fellow activists were constantly harassed followed frequently by detention. Sparrow was forced to leave her apartment and landlords refused to rent her a place making her and her daughter homeless. Her lawyer as well as other legal professionals specializing on human rights were arrested and even their children persecuted in an act of collective punishments. Officials refused to advise sexual abuse victims and their caretakers of their rights. Constant intimidation prevented victims and their parents from reporting abuses due to fear of retaliation by the authorities.  Wong documents this process and the courageous fight by Sparrow against powerful officials.  Governmental agencies seem resist the rise of a civil society, implementation of human rights and the establishment of transparent legal systems, though in what would seem to be a contradiction, are publicly committed to eradicating corruption.

P.S. Jerusalem, Danae Elon, 2015, USA

Daughter of the well-known Israeli critical liberal Amos Elon, the film maker Danae Elon decides to move with her husband Philip, an Algerian-French Jew and their two young children from Brooklyn to Jerusalem against the advice of her father who relocated from Israel to Italy. She records the everyday life of her family and their experience in conflict ridden Jerusalem and its ethnic and class contradictions they are exposed to.  Her non-directive chronicle capturing the mutual hostility and antagonisms many Israelis and Arabs share and the reactions of her husband and children provides an excellent perspective of the impact this environment has on a family.  After staying there for three years the family returned to New York City. The constant exposure to conflicts and tensions was not conducive for the children and their development of a strong sense of identity.

Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson, 2016

Atkinson’s documentary is an exemplary demonstration of the militarization of local police forces in the United States where surplus armaments from the military are received on demand without subsequent control or oversight.  Heavy weapons have been provided for use against civilians who engage in ‘terrorist’ or threatening behavior. Footage from special industry shows record how local policeman are told to perceive actual and potential criminals as untrustworthy enemies who can only be controlled by brute power. The police perspective of future of law enforcement transpires as a sort of civil war between the police force and suspected civilians and criminals requiring the armaments provided by the government free of charge, a tendency reinforced by the department of homeland security which has provided $34 billion to purchase such equipment since 9/11 and $5 billion worth of military hardware from the department of Defense. About 36% of the arms given away is new.  No data is collected on how this military equipment is used. This billion-dollar enterprise is complemented by the sale of sophisticated tools which allegedly permit the prediction of criminal behavior. Observation of dangerous individuals is facilitated by rapid data scanning and face recognition technologies as well as the use of drones for seamless 24-hour surveillance. As an instructor conveys to the police in a training seminar, “you are at war and you are the frontline”. Recent use of undue force by the police and the killing of unarmed civilians can be accounted for in part by the accelerated militarization of the police force and antagonistic mindsets shared by some of its members.

 The Uncondemned, Michelle Mitchell and Nick Louvel, 2015

In1994 one million persons were killed in Rwanda in 100 days and widespread rape was applied as a weapon of war. But most prosecution prior to the Rwandan genocide was directed at individuals for murder whereas rape was not acknowledged by the international criminal courts as a war crime. The Uncondemned offers a moving study of how a few committed lawyers were able to convince a jury of 15 people from eleven countries to incorporate sexual violence and assault into the war crime charges for which Akayesu, the mayor of a small village, was prosecuted. During her witness testimony a woman spontaneously told the jury about women being raped in the mayor’s office and that he could have prevented it. The court amended the charge against Akayesu to classify rape as a war crime and broke new judicial grounds. With Akayesu convicted of all charges, rape gained the long overdue status of a war crime. As a weapon of war, rape destroys the fabric of society with severe physical and psychological consequences, with the additional impact of severely impairing the status of a woman in many traditional societies.

Tempestad, Tatiana Hueza, 2016

Many living in Mexico experience helplessness and are overwhelmed by the power of the state, its institutions and its criminal cartels.  In this documentary two parallel fates are reconstructed. One story shows an airport employee who is arrested with her coworkers for alleged human trafficking, a charge that is seemingly only for the sake of the press reporting that the police have cracked down on that crime. She is shipped by a government agency to a decrepit prison run by a cartel. She has to adjust to an oppressive environment where corruption and violence prevails. Her family is blackmailed for $500 a week with threats of her being tortured. Much later she is released for lack of evidence. After returning home to her child she finds that she has been so traumatized by her experience that she can no longer leave her apartment or properly care for her child. In the parallel story Adele, a circus performer, has a satisfying life with her children and is especially proud of her attractive daughter Monica.  However, when Monica turns 20 she disappears and Adele is asked for ransom. The family pays but the daughter is never returned. Monica’s boyfriend, the son of a local policeman, had sold her to traffickers. The family is threatened by the abductor and has to go into hiding. Both stories show how a dysfunctional society victimizes innocent individuals.


Claus Mueller



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