FESTIVALS: Films Matter; Human Rights Fest Surveys Geopolitical Landscape
by Mia Mask
(indieWIRE/ 06.19.01) -- Tired of the same old mind-numbing fantasy films and reconstituted blockbusters cycling their way through the multiplex? Relief has arrived. The 2001 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, screening at New York City's Walter Reade Theater through June 28, includes some gripping films, complete with bad guys, explosives and questionable sexual conduct. But these films don't promise happy endings or offer easy solutions. Human Rights Watch films invite audiences to move beyond passive viewing into actively rethinking the geopolitical landscape and America's privileged position.
Stephanie Black's "Life and Debt" (now playing theatrically at New York's Cinema Village) is one such film. Black's documentary addresses the economic repercussions of globalization in her homeland, Jamaica, which despite winning independence in 1962, has failed to repay foreign debt or develop its economy. The film's first images recall our collective fantasy of the tropics as a hedonistic adult playground. But Black's voice-over encourages viewers to look closer, beyond seashells and sunshine toward the humiliating political economy of tourism, Jamaica's only thriving industry. "Life and Debt" links Caribbean colonial history to current economic conditions, reminding us that existing debtor nations are former colonies whose arrested development has been exacerbated by global fast food chains, not-so-free-trade agreements and un-payable loans.
Black skillfully outlines how indigenous farmers and dairy ranchers have been bankrupt by more cheaply produced imports. She juxtaposes interviews with native politicians and foreign fiscal policy-makers, creating a point-counterpoint conversation. Former Jamaican Prime Minster Michael Manley explains the crippling debt instruments utilized by the World Bank and IMF, only to be contradicted by Deputy Director Stanley Fischer, who casually rationalizes IMF loan policies. Employment alternatives to farming are presented in free-zone sweatshops, but the film uses testimonials to show labor abuses and importation of even cheaper Chinese scab workers. Black also offers shrewdly ironic parings of soundtrack and image: Harry Belafonte's cheery version of "Day-O" (the banana boat song) is set to stark, black and white images of day laborers working and spraying banana fields. These contrasts underscore the paradoxical notion of Jamaica as untroubled vacation destination.
The thorny transition from colony to democracy is a common theme among festival features. Raoul Peck's "Lumumba" (opening theatrically later this month from Zeitgeist) dramatizes the rise and fall of politico Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Congo. Structured as a series of eerie flashbacks, "Lumumba" opens on the defeated leader and his two aides being taken to their execution deep in the bush. Foreknowledge of Lumumba's fate renders haunting the voice-over narration by lead actor Eriq Ebouaney recounting: "You never knew about that night in Katanga. No one was to know. Their mission was clear: three bodies to pick up and get rid of."
Lumumba lasted only two months in office, so Peck takes audiences back to the eponymous politician's ascent from brewery salesman to elected official. Editor Jacques Comets skillfully cross-cuts scenes of Patrice Lumumba's corpse being destroyed with festive scenes from the capital city where a once optimistic Lumumba first made acquaintances with future advisers like Joseph Mobutu (Alex Decas). Little did Patrice know Joseph would one day become Mobuto Sese Seko, the President who seized power in a 1965 coup. Once in office, factionalism proved insurmountable for Lumumba. His two principal rivals, Moise Tshombe (Pascal Nzonzi) who led the breakaway of the Katanga province, and Joseph Kasavubu (Maka Kotto), who became the nation's president, represented large, powerful tribes from which they derived powerful support. Each emphasized regional separatism, contrasting Lumumba's all-Congolese platform.
Unable to subdue warring factions, Belgium-controlled military in-fighting, or protect remaining white settlers from anti-colonial backlash, Lumumba prepared to seek Soviet aid. Accusations he was communist ultimately led to his demise. Raoul Peck's picture subtly implies -- the widely held belief -- that Eisenhower instructed the CIA to assassinate the radical liberationist as part of the West's strategy to contain Communism. While Mobutu's megalomaniacal betrayal of his longtime friend dealt Lumumba's ministry its coup-de-grâce, Belgium colonialism and American capitalism pulled the strings Mobutu used to place the Prime Minster under house arrest. Belgium officers oversaw the killing of 36-year-old Lumumba on January 17, 1961.
Tom Shepard's documentary, "Scout's Honor," tackles injustice on American soil. Shepard chronicles the efforts of Scott and Steven Cozza: a Petaluma, California father-son team spearheading a struggle against The Boy Scout's anti-gay discrimination policy. Though not gay, the Cozza men organized a national "Scouting For All" campaign, only to learn -- what most non-white, queer, working-class Americans already know -- membership has its privileges. When father Scott Cozza supports expelled gay camp counselors, he too loses his "morally straight" tag, faces expulsion, and is stripped of scoutmaster duties. The eye-opening experience faced by the Cozza family in Shepard's picture proves that Middle America lays woefully unaware of its bigotry. ("Scout's Honor" premieres on June 19 on PBS, as part of the 14th season of P.O.V.)
"Promises," directed by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, features children as potential instigators of social change. Borrowing from Michael Apted's time-lapse documentary practice, "Promises" could be titled "7up in Israel." Broad in scope but short on time, Goldberg spent formative years with pre-teen Palestinians and Israelis (secular and religious), trying to bridge the divide before opinions ossify and prejudice prevails. As with the Apted-inspired docs, however, "Promises" predictably proves the child at seven (or eight) is already well (in)formed.
Since many of the films are uneven, festival-goers are advised to tailor viewing to recommended films and to subjects of interest. Overall, this year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival features 38 films from 15 different countries, offering the widest variety of films to date. For a nation mesmerized by reality TV and sensational news, this rare opportunity to tune into the rest of the world is just what Americans ought to view. And what happens here really matters.