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Presenting the website


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 2021


As I noted in my introduction to the 2020 HRWFF, this annual film festival is organized by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and continues to be one of the most important international issue-oriented festivals providing up to date, mostly empirically based, documentation on current human rights issues throughout the world. Starting in 1978, HRW has been expanding and now has sections in Europe, North America, Africa, Central Asia, Middle East, and North Africa. The topics are mostly based in empirical research, published in regular reports, and range from arms control, human rights, crises and conflict resolutions, political oppression, environmental problems, legal issues, LGBTQ rights, children’s issues, and refugee rights to name but a few. Given its representation in more than 30 world cities, in addition  to numerous local field offices, HRW has a comprehensive global presence. HRW is an independent non-profit organization not accepting any support from governmental sources. Its comprehensive 2020 World Report volume runs close to 700 pages and covered human rights issues in 95 countries including detailed analyses of Brazil, the European Union, India, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, The United States, and China. For each individual country or region, significant human rights abuses, impact of local human rights activists, and the actions of international organizations are identified. The investigations are carried out by more than 400 HRW staff members and freelancers partnering with related global  organizations. Among the specialized reports are studies of Syria’s Civil War, the Rohingya migration, refugee movements ins in Europe, the South Sudan Conflict, mass killings in the Philippines, and US immigration problems.

An essential way for influencing opinion makers and media specialists was the establishment of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 1989, and the new digital platform started in 2020. Documentaries from the HRWFF are now screened in 20 cities globally showcasing more than 720 films from past programs. 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. One important factor in the selection of films for the festival and wider distribution is the potential and the relevance to the human rights issue addressed.

The HRWFF was forced to adapt to the coronavirus crisis by embracing  the digital online format.  In the 2021 edition, 10 productions were chosen. These productions were complemented by online discussions held for each film, resulting in an increased viewing and discussion audience. Like 2020 this year's edition  was geoblocked for the USA reaching a larger audience and more press report tghough there was a decline in attendances, The NY HRWFF digital editions paid filmmakers for their films and shared revenues from their screenings with their longtime  Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) and IFC Center (IFS)partners. For 2022  a hybrid model of digital and in person theater film screenings and panel exposures is considered with its partners. The 32nd year of HRWFF was held with groundbreaking and innovative documentaries from May 19 to 27, 2021.

Today’s audience lives in the context of the expanding authoritarian regimes, an apparent decline of strong interpersonal supportive values, the dismantling of voting rights, growing global and national class discrepancies, the rise of systemic worldwide pandemics, and progressing environmental degradation. The focus on human rights concerns and violations is more important than ever. The return to maintaining safe and sane bonds provided by the family and social communities, and their contributions to democratic and moral processes has returned to the foreground. In many countries and regions, opposition to human rights violations are only effective if they emanate from the affected communities and families.


200 METERS, a feature debut by the director and writer Ameen Nayfeh, is a 2020 co-production by Palestine, Jordan, Qatar, Italy, and Sweden, and was an audience favorite in Venice. The film demonstrates, on a minimal but persuasive narrative level, how security measures and travel restrictions prevent a Palestinian family from having a normal life. As recent deadly conflicts have shown, these measures, no matter how sophisticated or “basic”, have not led to a modicum peaceful life for Palestinian and Jewish families in Israel, though Palestinians carry most of the burden. In 200 METERS, a Palestinian family is separated by 200 meters by  a wall erected by Israeli security forces. They can see each other but cannot touch. The husband, Mustafa, makes a living as a construction worker in the Israeli sector but lives on the Palestinian Israeli controlled occupied side. His wife, Saiwa and their three children who are all Israeli citizens, live on the Israeli side. Both come from neighboring Palestinian villages. Physical contact between all members of the family is difficult because entering the Israeli sector requires a permit and passing through cumbersome border crossing controls. When the husband, who refuses on political grounds to get an Israeli identify card, tries to cross into Israel, he is stopped by a border guard because his permit  expired. On this weekend he cannot renew his identity card and hires someone to smuggle him into Israel. He needs the money and must see his family but learns from his wife that his son is in an Israeli hospital due to a car accident, heightening the emotional pressure. His perilous car journey into Israel alongside an assortment of bizarre fellow passengers, with the fear of constant detection, is well depicted. Using the format of an adventure film, Nayfee embraces a subdued but effective approach to storytelling. The problems of having a split family life beyond the control of its members and overcoming constant obstacles are transparent enough, needing no strong narrative or visual accounts. Ali Sulantin delivers a strong performance as  Mustafa.


The Columbian BAJO FUEGO (Under Siege) documentary by Sjoerd van Grootheest and Irene Velez-Torres, filmmakers with an ethno-social education and training, is an excellent demonstration of the disastrous consequence of US efforts in Columbia to win the war on drugs by funding large scale Coca eradication programs. The National Police continues to receive $160 million from the USA each year to curtail growing drug crops and trafficking. During the last ten years, though US financial support for Columbia and its governmental agencies involved in the war on drugs started much earlier, there has been a significant increase in Columbia of violence aimed at civilians, specifically under the presidency of Ivan Duque, elected in 2018. US lawmakers recently requested that US Aid to the National Police be suspended because the violence during spring 2021 has been the worst in decades.  BAJO FUEGO focuses on one Coca growing area affecting about 70,000 families where most farmers had grown Coca for generations on small plots. Under duress, the farmers agreed to become part of the agreement reached in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) to end the civil war with the understanding that the provision of the peace agreement would be honored. The essential sections included surrender of arms by FARC, land reform, financial compensation for farmers eradicating Coca, provision of seeds or plants to replace Coca, and establishment of a basic health, education, and transportation infrastructure. After FARC withdrew from the region, a vacuum of power arose, and the relative stability farmers enjoyed under FARC disappeared. Armed gangs moved in, former FARC members and known individuals representing the  community were killed, and farmers forced to leave their plots. Virtually none of the stipulations of the peace agreement were kept. There was no compensation, replacement crops arrived if at all after two years, no education and health facilities were built for the region, and governmental agencies played no part in maintaining the law. Farmers who had made a precarious living supporting their families growing coca on small plots and had eradicated now their coca plants were left in poverty with no support. The human costs of the failed peace agreement were tremendous, impacting families and their communities. Farmers organized nationwide demonstrations against the government, but President Duque responded by sending the military and the riot police. The pandemic was used by Duque as an excuse to suspend the peace agreement, replacing its provisions by military backed eradication programs funded by the US. Now he has declared that there are no funds to implement provisions of the peace agreement. Contrary to assertions by the US, research by international agencies  show that there has been no significant decline in the production of Coca in Columbia and neighboring countries. The destruction of the social and agrarian infrastructure in Columbian regions persists.


THE RETURN:LIFE AFTER ISIS, an independent 2021 documentary from Spain and the United Kingdom is a superbly executed film by Alba Sotorra Clua. THE RETURN:LIFE AFTER ISIS focuses on the fate of mostly European women who were affiliated with ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) and their children after ISIS was defeated. At the end of the war they were left behind in two detention camps, Al Hol and Roj in the Kurdish sector of Northern Syria under the tutelage of Kurdish organizations which ISIS had tried to destroy. These women left their home countries on a voluntary basis, often when they were very young. They came to discover ISIS had established a regime that executed policies and crimes far away from the perceived notions they expected in the religious caliphate.  Clua carried out intensive interviews over several years with a few women and children who tried to return home and presented alongside carefully selected and disturbing ISIS archival video segments about the promised life in the caliphate, Clua delivered a remarkable film. THE RETURN: LIFE AFTER ISIS is probability the best documentary I have seen about the endless suspended limbo women and their children experience in the years spent in detention camps, living in a stateless existence because the countries they came from refuse to let them and their children back. They are deprived of citizenship, living with their families and communities, and punished for sins from their past. Early this year, their possible returns were rejected based on the fear that they may bring terrorist  convictions back to their countries based on the belief these women had been thoroughly brainwashed by ISIS. Such views disregarded the fact that they had lived in captivity under oppressive male culture and were forced into marriages or agreed to marriages as a survival mechanism. Most suffered abuse and frequent rape. They have remained attached to their children and the few men who treated them well. Apart from the fundamental denial of creating a home in their old country, the policies embraced by European and other Western countries are human rights violations. To mention just a few: depriving individuals of their citizenship, breaking up families by allowing repatriation in some cases only for women, in others restricting the return to children according to age groups with old ones considered to have been radicalized, allowing return only if individuals agree to prosecution, authorities refusing their return because courts may impose a light  or no sentence, and requesting that prosecution must first take place in countries like Iraq where the alleged crimes were committed. Though recent news reports indicate that some EU countries are reconsidering their repatriation policies due to massive objections by human rights activist, one needs to keep in mind that according to the New York Times, only 200 European women and 650 children are affected, despite the at least 60,000 people being held in the Al Hol and Roj camps.


New York

Claus Mueller





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