The Pain of Others: Human Rights Watch's Cavalcade of Misery and Hope
by Anthony Kaufman
In her recent essay "Regarding the Pain of Others," Susan Sontag writes about the images of war, "Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc... would be the reactions of a moral monster," she states. "We are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind."
If there's any attempt at empathizing with the pain and suffering of others through the power of pictures, it is to be found at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, now in its 15th year and running through June 24 at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center. Originally a small showcase for foreign and domestic documentaries and dramas, the event has grown into a must-see series, selling out shows and galvanizing audiences in the more than 50 communities to which the festival travels across the country.
At last Thursday's special benefit screening of Joshua Marston's Sundance winner "Maria Full of Grace," the festival fundraiser exceeded expectations by some 30 percent. And the public opener, a double-bill consisting of U.S. government injustice (Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse's "Persons of Interest") and Peruvian corruption ("What the Eye Doesn't See," directed by HRWIFF Lifetime Achievement Award winner Francisco J. Lombardi), drew packed houses and a wait-list that stretched the lengths of Lincoln Center.
Mindful of Sontag's contemplation of images, the HRWIFF's most stirring entry looks at a unique group of photographers, the children of prostitutes in Calcutta's Red Light District (recently depicted in "The Five Obstructions" as the "most miserable place in the world.") In Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's "Born into Brothels" (winner of the festival's Nestor Almendros Prize, and a likely Oscar contender), Briski befriends the kids, teaches them photography and tries to find them boarding schools, all the while keeping the girls from getting sent "in the line" (a euphemism for prostitution).
Hopeful and heartbreaking, the film alternates between scenes of joyous play and horribly abusive home lives. The children's photographs -- mostly innocent glimpses of daily life devoid of cliche -- become internationally renown, and one boy, Avijit, even emerges as a burgeoning art-photography star. But as Avijit says at one point, "there is nothing called hope in my future."
Kim Dong-won's Korean entry "Repatriation" is another important film in the program. A monumental work, Kim chronicles the lives of several North Korean "spies" -- now frail and feisty old men -- incarcerated as political prisoners in South Korea, some for as many as 40 years, spanning their years after release, and their struggle to return home. We experience the director's self-revelations as our own: his disgust for South Korea's propaganda and its torturing of prisoners; the U.S.'s destructive policies of containment; but also the naivety of the North Koreans' love for Kim Jong-il and his own manipulative propaganda and abuse of his people. Trapped in the middle, between North and South, idealism and cynicism, Kim watches as the "grandpas" endure both intra-family conflicts and tearful reunions. "Repatriation" is an emotional, complex, and conflicted cry from a divided country.
"Born into Brothels" and "Repatriation" were both winners at this year's Sundance Film Festival ("Brothels" won the audience award, while "Repatriation" took home the freedom of expression award). But HRW festival director Bruni Burres argues the Sundance presence is not a result of the Human Rights Watch sampling from Park City's slate; on the contrary, "Sundance is programming a lot more human rights documentaries," she says. "That's been a change on their part." Burres notes that major festivals from Locarno to Buenos Aires have also jumped on the bandwagon, with human rights sections and sidebars.
"Born into Brothels" and "Repatriation" are also exemplary works, because they don't fall into the usual purview of the national TV news. The HRWIFF has its fair share, as usual, of films focusing on the Middle East conflict (for images of Iraq, however, you'll have to seek out "Control Room" or "Fahrenheit 9/11"), but what is perhaps more vital is that the festival shed light on conflicts and injustices that are not so familiar to audiences.
In the summer of 2003, for example, as the world media spotlight focused on the U.S.'s failed attempts to restore order in war-torn Iraq, the small Western African nation of Liberia was on the verge of total chaos. In "Liberia: An Uncivil War," documentary filmmaker Jonathan Stack ("The Farm," "Justifiable Homicide"), together with British journalist James Brabazon, take a ring-side seat to the country's collapse, as members of the rebel army LURD approach the capital while charismatic corrupt leader Charles Taylor waits for American peacekeepers to arrive before seceding power. Their face-off elicits the telling Liberian proverb, "When two elephants get fighting in the grass, the grass suffers."
While suspenseful and dire, "Liberia" is most adept at understanding the complexities of the situation -- the ironies of Liberia's status as America's oldest African ally (founded in the 1800s by emancipated slaves); the people's love and identification with the Americans; and their eventual disillusionment when the Americans come too little and too late (says one Liberian, "America's washed their hands of Liberia.") Financed by Discovery Times, the film is currently set to air on the small channel in July, but the film's incisive look at America's misguided geopolitics is worth a theatrical run in this year's summer of dissent.
America, as ideal and as hypocritical superpower, is difficult to miss at this year's HRWIFF. "We could have shown a whole program about films on the U.S.," says Burres. "I think more and more people are realizing human rights abuses and concerns are going on right here." Whether it's the compelling and evenhanded "Deadline," about Illinois governor George Ryan's commutating the state's Death Row inmates in the face of a capital justice system that is proven to be inadequate and racist, "Persons of Interest," which takes a hard and harrowing look at the Justice Department's post-9-11 detentions, which ripped apart several American families, or "Juvies," an account of the grossly mishandled cases of juvenile offenders, the made-in-the-U.S. docs are just as urgent as those chronicling human rights crimes abroad.
The U.S. also figures in the event's two high-profile anti-globalization documents, "The Corporation," currently in limited release, and HRWIFF closing night film "The Yes Men," which follows a group of liberal activists-pranksters who impersonate representatives from the World Trade Organization, voicing wildly inappropriate ideas such as the advocacy of slavery and the "reBurger," a McDonald's product for the Third World made from human waste. A sort of "Jackass" for the anti-globalization set, "The Yes Men" offers a funny glimpse at effective subversion.
"These films put stories behind this word 'globalization,'" says Burres, "because a lot of people don't really know what it means. What's great about these films is they use humor, they're smart, and they're not out to alienate people. They're interested in bringing you in."
Burres is also enthusiastic about the potentially wide reach for such films as "The Corporation," "The Yes Men" (opening in late August from United Artists) and of course, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." "I'm really worried about the world. It's the worst time ever, but we had so many people asked to volunteer, more than ever before, so I do believe there are pockets of hopefulness," she says. "I don't know if it's going to be revolution tomorrow, but during the first two weeks of the festival, I get so inspired."
Indeed, Michael Moore, speaking in "The Corporation," offers this hopeful diatribe about the power of documentaries. "They [the corporations] believe that when people watch my stuff -- or watch this film -- that they won't do anything, because we've done such a good job of numbing their minds and dumbing them down... They're convinced of that. I'm convinced of the opposite. I'm convinced a few people will leave the theater or get off the couch and do something, anything, to get this world back into our hands."