FESTIVAL: The Wheat From The Chaff: A First-Time Programmer At The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
by Mark Rabinowitz
(indieWIRE: 07.11.02) -- Watching movies as a film festival programmer is far different from watching them as a critic or for fun. After eight years as a film journalist and many more as a fan, I discovered that difference when I took a position as a programmer for the 2002 Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF). As a critic, I feel that to be able to review the entire film, you should actually sit through the entire film. Sometimes it's torture. As a programmer, however, it's not always that way. Invited to curate a specific section of the HIFF -- Films of Conflict and Resolution (C&R) -- I had a rather specific mandate and the 2002 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) looked likely to provide me with at least two or three excellent films to program for my section.
The second film I watched from the festival had the greatest emotional impact on me. Shelia M. Sofian's six-minute short "Conversations With Haris" is a touching documentary narrated by an 11-year-old Bosnian immigrant as he recounts his experiences in the war in his homeland. The film is beautifully made using painted animation, and set against Haris' thoughts on the war and the deaths of so many of his close family, the film illustrates how startlingly adult a child's thoughts can be. It brings to mind the old adage: Out of the mouth of babes. It's painfully clear that adults should listen to children far more often than they do.
On the straight political doc tip, I was pretty impressed with Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki's "The Trials of Henry Kissinger." Based on renowned journalist Christopher Hitchens' similarly titled book, the film helps to make a strong case, along with the book, that Dr. Kissinger should indeed be tried for crimes against humanity relating to his involvement in, among other things, the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the Pinochet coup in 1973 Chile and the massacres by the Indonesian government in East Timor in 1975. The film also attempts to get inside the man, following him from his pre-Holocaust journey to America through his early political life where he played both sides against the middle when working for the Johnson administration during the 1968 Paris peace negotiations (the film gives evidence, albeit anecdotal, that Kissinger fed information to the Nixon campaign) and goes into Dr. K's fascination with and love of, celebrity.
Ken Loach, the current standard-bearer of English socio-political drama, makes films with an almost alarming regularity. Unfortunately, at least in the U.S., they drop off the radar almost immediately, due to their political content. His 2001 film "The Navigators" is both political and excellent, although if you're looking for a pat and happy ending, you must, as with many other Loach films, look elsewhere. This tale is about English railway workers in South Yorkshire, as they deal with the fallout from the privatization of British Rail. Unfortunately, there is no real-world resolution to this problem short of wholesale political revolution. The Labour government in England seems dead set on continuing in the footsteps of the Thatcher and Major governments, and as a result, no happy ending for Loach's film. Considering that his main theses are often the real-life issues facing the working class and oppressed peoples of the world, don't look for Loach to soar off into a world where the workers re-organize, strike, and force the British government to buy back the railways. The resolution here seems to be, at least for now, to take whatever steps you need to in order to take care of you and yours.
Moving from England to Palestine, Rachael Leah Jones' 48-minute documentary "500 Dunam on the Moon" is a brief and illuminating history of Ayn Hawd, a Palestinian village that in 1948 was captured and was evacuated by the Israeli army. In 1953 the empty village was turned into a Jewish artist colony (now called Ein Hod) by the Romanian painter Marcel Janco. What many people do not know, however, is that some of the original inhabitants of Ayn Hawd refused to go to refugee camps and instead settled a little over a mile away and called their new settlement after their old home, Ayn Hawd.
The current village of Ayn Hawd does not appear on maps of Israel and does not receive necessities such as electricity or water from the Israeli government, as it has been declared a national park and building is not permitted. Many of the residents of the new Ayn Hawd word for inhabitants of Ein Hod, and each day walk past houses and trees that were taken by force from their families and never returned. The film is an interesting and illuminating look at how the disposed deal with dispossession and even sheds some light on the feelings of some of the Ein Hod residents by interviewing a young Jewish Israeli couple who are clearly feeling somewhat guilty about their living circumstances, even offering up that much of the cultural touches in their new home was adapted from the Palestinians, since Israel didn't have any culture of its own prior to the mid-1940s.
Arthur Dong's effective and pointed documentary "Family Fundamentals" was one of a handful of U.S. entries in this strongly international fest and is one of the most moving docs I've seen in some time. The film is a look at the relationships between three conservative Christian families and their gay children, including Brian Bennett, the former chief of staff for strident anti-gay former U.S. Congressman Bob Dornan, who treated Brian like a son when he was in the closet. Excitingly, "Family Fundamentals" offered me one of the thematic elements I was looking for in a film this year. While the conflicts in the stories of these relationships are evident, sometimes the resolutions are not as clear. And, while the conflicts within the film might not be resolved in a traditional fashion, it's clear to the viewer that in some ways, a measure of peace can be found. Sometimes when there's a rift between people, and the combatants are not able to resolve their differences and close the gap, a form of resolution can be achieved unilaterally by simply getting on with our lives.
According to indieWIRE contributing writer Anthony Kaufman, a frequent HRWIFF attendee, "I think that post-9/11 the festival gained an urgency and relevance and import that I haven't see there before." I think it's fair to say that post September 11, life itself has gained an urgency, and it's a state of affairs that we should take advantage of. With any luck, events like the HRWIFF and the C&R section at the HIFF will inspire more people to make films on these subjects and inspire more audiences to go out into their communities and change the way the world behaves.
[DISCLAIMER: While there are clearly films in the following article that I like from a programming standpoint, I need to stress that at the time of publication of this article, no invitations have gone out to the filmmakers mentioned and no assumptions about the lineup of the 2002 HIFF should be made.]