FESTIVALS: Human Rights Watch Exposing Film and Politics
by Dave Calhoun
(indieWIRE/ 04.24.01) -- Before transferring to New York in June, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival played at several venues in London earlier this month. Now in its fifth year, the festival highlights a selection of fictional and documentary films from around the world, all of them celluloid mirrors held up to international threats to the freedom and the dignity of the individual, and all of them representative of the crusading work done by Human Rights Watch, the charity committed to human rights research.
A well-matched mix of the high profile and the obscure, the big name draws of this year's London festival were Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" and Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses." While perfect for the festival's agenda and pulling power, these films don't represent the true creative importance of the festival though, which, through its strong agenda, can give exposure to films which may otherwise not see the light of day due to their distinctly uncommercial subject matter.
For Loach, the challenge of the underdog has always been a central concern, from "Kes" through to his last feature, "My Name Is Joe." And "Bread and Roses" is no different. It's a personalized snapshot of the recent Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, the fight for acceptable wages and working conditions for that city's virtual army of office cleaners. But, as is also the case with Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," it's not one of his best films to date, and you are left with the feeling that Loach's usually acute social sense does not travel so well across the Atlantic. The strongest of the bigger films at this year's festival is without a doubt Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls," his account of the life of persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.
Away from the headliners, it's the documentaries and smaller foreign films that make this festival important, relegated as they usually are to obscure sections of major festivals and late night television. And, of these, Edet Belzberg's first documentary "Children Underground" (winner of the 2001 Sundance Festival Special Jury Prize for Documentary) deserves special mention. Revisiting a popular, yet vital, subject, Children Underground gives voices and faces to the ongoing problem of child homelessness and overpopulation in Romania, whose former government's policy of forcing women to bear children has spurned a community of unwanted street kids.
New Yorker Belzberg spent several months getting to know and filming a group of children who live together in a Bucharest subway, yet her presence as filmmaker is not felt at all, lending the film a sometimes harsh unpartisan feeling (as when we see a girl repeatedly kicked in the head by an attacker and are reminded of the camera crew standing nearby).
The Middle East is especially well represented at this year's event, both in features and documentaries, and all of them indicative of the political, religious and moral conflicts faced by a region of the world where belief systems clash with exceptional violence, and the passions and personality of the individual are highlighted by the differing wills of others and of their governments.
Two exceptional Iranian films (which justifiably add to the recent critical acclaim for that country's recent cinema) confront the problems faced when modern life conflicts with strict Iranian customs. In Hassan Yektapanah's "Djomeh" -- the winner of the Camera d'Or prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and coming to U.S. screens this summer from New Yorker Films -- a young Afghan man working on an Iranian dairy farm has to face up to both the hostility of others and the laws banning him from marrying -- or even courting -- an Iranian because he is a foreigner. Similarly, Rassul Sadr Ameli's restrained and moving "The Girl In The Sneakers" examines the conflict between youthful desire and the overbearing presence of the Islamic state. In this understated film, a teenage couple -- Tadai and Aideen -- become the objects of police interest when Aideen is suspected of stealing Tadai's virginity unlawfully. Tadai is then forced to undergo humiliating interrogation and examination by the police and so runs away from home to spend a night wandering the streets of Tehran. "The Girl In The Sneakers" is an important and affectionate film, powerful in its sense of wandering and of the humanity of the random encounters which result from Tadai's time on the streets of Tehran -- and also hugely enjoyable within its serious message.
Lebanon, Israel and Afghanistan are the focus of four other films on the program. The Israeli documentary "Borders" collates personal accounts from the troubled inhabitants of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan of their experiences of national borders; meanwhile, the visually captivating Afghan/Italian documentary "Jung: In The Land Of The Mujaheddin" follows a doctor and a journalist who decide to set up a hospital within Taliban society, tracking their frustration at having to work in an overbearing environment and which brings worse casualties to them each day.
The only truly indie American feature on the bill was David Gordon Green's "George Washington," In the context of this festival, its dilapidated post-industrial backdrop and underlying message that all is not well in the state of America contains the important warning that human rights issues are as relevant in the affluent west as they are elsewhere.
As film festivals go, the HRWIFF is refreshingly different in that its theme is as important as showcasing unseen work. As such, not all the films here are new and some are recent releases uncovered again. But, most importantly, the film restates the case that cinema has an integral place in our lives, not just as entertainment, but as a reflection of society as a whole and the troubles that face everyone as individuals worldwide.
[Dave Calhoun is a London-based writer.]