Finding Humor in the Horror; Human Rights Watch Flourishes in Time of Crisis
by Anthony Kaufman
A joke: An Arab man comes upon a checkpoint where an Israeli soldier demands he get him some tea. But first, he must leave his shoes behind. Aggravated, the Arab man finally agrees, takes off his shoes, and leaves. When he returns with the soldier's tea, he sees the Israeli soldier peeing on his shoes. Then the Arab man says, "How are we supposed to achieve peace if you piss on my shoes and I piss in your tea?"
Is this supposed to be funny or tragic, or both? At this year's 14th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which opened last week with a special benefit screening of Michael Winterbottom's epic Mid-East road movie "In This World," a number of highlights offer a touch of black comedy alongside the heartbreak. Jokes such as the above are told intermittently in "Welcome to Hadassah Hospital," Dutch director Ramon Gieling's look at the Israeli and Palestinian staff and patients of a Jerusalem hospital where victims on both sides of the conflict seek treatment. The participants' jests add a wry sense of humor to the important Human Rights Watch film series, one in which audiences usually leave devastated and wracked with worry about the state of the world. This time out, I laughed and I cried.
This year's Nestor Almendros Prize winner for "courage and commitment in human rights filmmaking" (which comes with a cash purse of $5000) is Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, whose two works "Rana's Wedding" and "Ford Transit" also bristle with a biting wit. A fiction film, "Rana's Wedding" tells the story of a young Palestinian woman who has until 4 p.m. to get married. With endless checkpoints, scuffles with Israeli soldiers, even a forgotten handbag that is blown to bits by the military, Rana's romantic comic misadventures mix with a deeply oppressive political situation in what could be dubbed "My Big Occupied Palestinian Wedding."
"Ford Transit" is equally incisive and darkly comic. A documentary about a Palestinian taxi-shuttle driver who traffics his fares around Jerusalem and Ramallah, "Ford Transit" offers backseat interviews with politicians, psychologists, and ordinary citizens, whose thoughts on the crisis range from the equivocal ("Poor Bush, he's doing his best") to the angry ("This is the real terrorism: an American President with a low IQ"). Equal parts irreverent and enlightening, "Ford Transit" is a uniquely vivid and frank account of the Middle Eastern morass.
Human Rights Watch Fest's associate director John Anderson acknowledges this presence of humor in the selection, and suggests a greater complexity in the films as a result of it. "I think when people started making films about the region they were afraid to have humor," he says. "But I think now they are opening up more and allowing more dimensions, which might point to things getting better."
This year's festival centerpiece "The Cuckoo" also uses comedy within a story of conflict. Even its logline sounds like a joke: a Finnish soldier, a Russian soldier, and a female Lapp farmer who's been without a man for several years find themselves waiting out the final days of WWII together -- and neither of them speaks a word of each other's language. It's an apt metaphor for current political discourse.
Other films like "My Terrorist" also suggest a tentative push towards reconciliation. But while Yulie Cohen Gerstel's self-examination of her struggle to find and forgive the Palestinian man who injured her in a 1978 terrorist attack, the events of September 11, and the outbreak of renewed violence ultimately paints a picture of paranoia and fear. Similarly, "Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda?" investigates a citizen-based tribunal aimed at unifying the country after the 1994 genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, but the bitterly divided and heartbroken people appear far from achieving justice, let alone peace of mind.
Rwanda is also the subject of one of the selection's most devastating films, Steven Silver's "The Last Just Man," a portrait of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, the UN peacekeeping commander who tried to prevent the slaughtering of the Rwandan Tutsis. Dallaire recounts the events that lead up to the violence. While simple in its construction, the documentary is a harrowing record of human fallibility: Dallaire seems to shoulder much of the responsibility for the genocide, and it's painfully clear on his stern, teary-eyed face.
The festival is heavy with these powerful nonfiction documents, which both provide human faces as well as depth to the stories we see on the news. The engrossing epic "Balseros" traces several years in the life of seven Cuban "balseros" -- or rafters -- who eventually find their way to America, and end up either realizing their dreams of middle class paradise or falling pray to drugs and crime. "State of Denial" exposes the AIDS crisis in South Africa and the country's president who refuses to believe that HIV causes the syndrome. "The Flute Player" documents the devastation of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and one Killing Fields survivor's hopeful project of reviving his people's music. And "Pinochet's Children" recounts Chile's troubled political history though three activists who saw their dreams ruined during the 1973 coup and then helped fight against the military dictatorship for democracy in the '80s.
A roller coaster of hope and dread, satire and horror, the 14th HRWIFF presents stories that alternate between the two. Not only are these elements a smart way to structure a movie, the oppositions reveal the purpose of Human Rights Watch: to expose injustice and then try to do something about it.
And the film festival -- the human rights organization's most valuable method of raising awareness for its causes -- follows the same model. Previous year's entries like Maria Warsinski's "Crime and Punishment," Lourdes Portillo's "Senorita Extraviada" (Missing Young Woman), and Edet Belzberg's "Children Underground," just to name a few, have shaken audiences out of their apathy and propelled them to act, leading to the freeing of political prisoners, inciting protests, and raising funds for street children.
Furthering inspiring optimism, the HRWIFF and its umbrella organization are growing. From 2001 to 2002, the festival saw ticket sales increase by roughly 38 percent. During the 2002 New York edition, the festival set the highest single-day attendance record at its Lincoln Center venue, the Walter Reade Theater (beating out such high-profile series as Rendezvous with French Cinema). Indeed, the record-breaking Saturday was a stellar program: starting out with Portillo's "Missing Young Women," followed by "The Trials of Henry Kissinger"; Arthur Dong's "Family Fundamentals"; and "Hijos", from HRWIFF favorite "Garage Olimpo" director Marcos Bechis. The 2003 event could turn out to be just as popular in its opening days, with the largest crowds turning out for "Ford Transit," "The Last Just Man" and Karim Ainouz's tale of Brazilian gangster and drag queen "Madama Sata." And the festival's Traveling Film Festival component now journeys to some 40 different cities, up from last year's 35.
Perhaps even more heartening, however, is that donations from concerned citizens -- not big money donors -- but those in the under $200 range, skyrocketed from 2001 to 2002, at an increase of nearly 46 percent, with the first three months of 2003 surpassing all such donations in the year 2000. According to John Anderson, much of this attention unsurprisingly derives from September 11 and its aftermath of human rights crises. "Right after 9-11, people felt adrift and scared, and in a strange way, they turned around and wanted to see parts of the world they didn't normally pay interest to," he says.
"People wanted to help, to empathize, and I think that's going to continue for awhile, as a lot of people are waking up to the fact that Fox News and CNN are just flat-out lying," Anderson continues. "People who are actually trying to think about what's happening look to Human Rights Watch because we have a great reputation of really probing these issues and uncovering what's happening. And the films speak for themselves."