FESTIVALS: Human Rights Watch Screens Movies That Make a Difference
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/6.22.2000) --"It's a perfect human rights film," one attendee replied after leaving Marc Levin's "Twilight: Los Angeles," a stunning performance-documentary film version of Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show about the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed in L.A.1992. But what exactly is a "human rights" film? In the words of Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth: "It does not have to be gloomy or heavy or earnest or politically correct. But a human rights movie needs to have some moral themes at its core, and more than anything, it should be provocative and new."
"Twilight" was just that for last week's opening night benefit screening of the 11th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (now running until June 29). Based on Deavere's stage play, where she interviewed 300 individuals involved with the incident -- from Police Chief Daryl Gates to the beaten truck driver Reginald Deny to activist leaders and everyday witnesses -- "Slam" director Levin expands the project to include archival footage and brief interviews. But what remains most astounding is Deavere's ability to merge herself with her many characters (academic Cornel West got a big laugh, so did an unnamed Hollywood producer) -- and the message of devastation, difficult healing and hope that emerges from their voices.
Unfortunately, "Twilight" got lost at last year's Sundance Film Festival where it premiered, but it is scheduled to air on PBS as a presentation of Thirteen/WNET's new prime time drama series, "Stage on Screen." A small distributor is rumored to be looking to exhibit it in theaters, and they really should; television is not the place for this film. It cries out to be seen in a community, with neighbors' elbows brushing on armrests, and the intermingling of crowds' gasps and laughs in a large theater.
In the festival proper, thirty films, mostly documentaries, are being showcased from 12 different countries from around the globe, highlighting such human rights hot points as the Middle East, Argentina's past, U.S. law enforcement, the Balkans, Cuba, and many more.
Opening the festival last week was this year's Nestor Almendros Prize winner (which holds a $5,000 cash prize), "Civilisees" ("A Civilized People") about the horrors of war in Lebanon, from director Randa Chahal Sabbag. "I don't want to keep making movies about death and violence. I want to make a musical comedy, but I didn't succeed," said Sabbag at the opening ceremonies. "And now I think it wasn't useless, because now I'm here," she continued, regarding her award highly. "It helps us continue to go on and gives me hope."
If "Civilisees's" exploding cats and melodramatic tale of love among the snipers isn't your bag, a more delicate piece of narrative filmmaking could be found in the U.S. premiere of Indian director Jayaraaj's "Karunam" ("Pathos") about an elderly couple who must leave their life-long estate in favor of a rest home. Though the primitive filmmaking style might be off-putting to some Western viewers, this is an elegantly paced tale of quiet devastation.
This year's Centerpiece film offers the most assured and stunning narrative piece of filmmaking, Italian director Marco Bechis' "Garage Olimpo" (screening Friday, Sunday and Monday; read indieWIRE's review tomorrow) a harrowing tale of one woman's capture during Argentina's military dictatorship -- a multiple winner at Italy's equivalent to the Oscars and a festival winner from Havana to Santa Barbara to Thessaloniki. Complementing "Olimpo" is the inclusion of David Blaustein's exhaustive documentary on the subject, "Spoils of War," which interviews many of the "Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo" -- those women whose children were "disappeared" by the Argentine military -- as well as the grandchildren who never knew their parents.
The plight of suffering children is more emotionally felt in Mai Masri's "Children of Shatila," which looks at a Lebanese camp filled with poor Palestinian refugees -- and many of the children whose family members were massacred by the Israeli army. "There are times when I curse the day I was born," says Issa, a little boy who was hurt in a car accident and provides much of the pain and pathos of this small documentary shot on digital video (sometimes by the kids themselves). (For more information, contact Arab Film Distribution at email@example.com.)
Veteran news, television and radio journalist Kevin McKiernan investigates the Kurdish situation in "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains," a well-traveled favorite on the festival circuit. With the eye of a former Frontline producer, McKiernan makes an excellent network style news report that the networks wouldn't run (he's still looking for broadcast). Skillfully balancing stories of the political (the arrest and near execution of Kurdish leader "Apo" Ocalan) and the personal (a Kurdish family living in the U.S. with an activist son), the documentary brings to light injustices and hypocrisies committed by both U.S. and Turkish governments -- and is the kind of hard hitting journalistic effort that deserves wider exposure. McKiernan, however, will get perhaps his most important audience to date today (June 22) when the Human Rights Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives is sponsoring a special showing for lawmakers. (For more information on the film: <http://www.silcom.com/~kevinmck/>)
The Middle Eastern region also gets an acute examination in Nurit Kadir and Eran Riklis's "Borders" -- an hour-long doc that puts a sorrowful human face on border issues. The directors capture one of the more lasting images in this year's fest; a bride-to-be, in full white wedding regalia, is held at the Syrian border, waiting indefinitely to meet her future husband on the other side. (Similarly, on the border between U.S. and Mexico, Elizabeth, a charming young migrant worker on the verge of marriage must contend with the strict (oftentimes arbitrary) division between the two countries in Hannah Weyer's touching slice-of-life doc "La Boda" ("The Wedding") screening later this year on POV.
As "Twilight" so forcibly showed, one doesn't need to fly to Argentina or Lebanon to witness human rights issues. Several films document abuses right in our own backyards. The world premiere of "Showdown in Seattle: Five Days that Shook the WTO" -- a film made collectively by several independent media organizations -- plunges the viewer smack dab into the liberal spirit and painful strife of the Seattle protests. Most horrible is the treatment by the city police; with gas masks, batons and battle gear, the gun-wielding, tear-gas throwing enforcers look like the evil stormtroopers that they are. For those interested in what the WTO and its decriers are all about, the movie is essential viewing -- the kind of activist media-making that one hopes the handicam-generation will continue to incite. "The whole world is watching," chant the protesters as the riot police bear down on them. (The complete 5-part project can be purchased on Paper Tiger TV's website, www.papertiger.com.)
Another world premiere, "900 Women" directed by Laleh Khadivi and produced by Jonathon Stack of "The Farm," subtlety chronicles the inmates of a woman's prison in Louisiana. One intelligent 67-year-old lifer stands out among the film's other less than engaging characters. "I found love at this institution," she says. Other prison life revelations include a "no touching rule" and a woman who must give up her just born baby. (For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org).
A more devastating look at incarceration can be found in another world premiere, David Belle and Nicholas Wrathall's "Abandoned: The Betrayal of America's Immigrants," which looks at a 1996 law that allows for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to imprison legal permanent residents and asylum applicants. "They can't do that," say the astounded victims of this unjust law -- and so will you. The doc also elucidates the profit-making industry of INS detention for the U.S. prison system and shocking footage of a facility's treatment of its detainees in Manatee, Florida. The directors are pursuing a PBS broadcast, but perhaps more importantly, they are making "the film available on cassette to immigrant rights activists who plan on using it within their communities as an organizing tool," said Belle in a recent e-mail. (They can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com).
Thanking Anna Deveare Smith at the festivals' opening night event, director Marc Levin said it was she who made him realize what was most important: "not only if [the film] made money, but if it made a difference." The same should be said for all of the films in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival -- and I can't think of a better reason to make a movie -- or watch one.
Portions of the Festival will travel throughout the year; cities already confirmed include Buffalo, Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Spokane, San Francisco, Memphis, San Diego, and Portland.
For more information on Human Rights Watch and the festival: