The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival Looks Inward to the U.S. as well as Overseas for 16th Edition
by Howard Feinstein
Many of us used to feel that films about human rights were more often than not about “them,” victims of abuse in foreign climes with whom we might empathize but feel little kinship. What did they have to do with our relatively secure lives in the States? (This isn’t to say that things have ever been hunky-dory here. Ask a member of any minority group — racial, ethnic, gender, sexually oriented, challenged — or the plethora of dissidents during the Vietnam War.) That’s changed.
Events following September 11 have brought human rights abuse not just closer to home, but home. Twisted and manipulated, the tragedy provided the rationale for the neo-con dream of invading Iraq (to protect Israel and, okay, to spread democracy), the reelection of a Republican president and Congress on a platform of terrorist fear-mongering (Pamela Yates‘ well-documented “State of Fear” exposes a similar strategy in Peru in the ’90s), stockpiling right-wingers in judicial and other posts, detentions without charge, and torture and homicide in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and even worse facilities provided by less restrained foreign powers. American democracy is in serious peril — though it doesn’t keep the powers-that-be from paying lip service to such useful authoritarian governments as those in Russia and China. This 16th edition of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is more relevant than ever.
Many of us also used to think that the features and docs in this kind of festival were well-intentioned, but mediocre, ever seen a Stanley Kramer film? Let me be clear: There are many excellent works out of the 26 in this year’s festival, which runs through June 23 at the Walter Reade. Most are from the major flashpoints of the world, including the Middle and Near East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Northern Ireland, Africa, Korea, and South Asia, but some are from our own endangered shores. Would Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz‘s frightening “The Education of Shelby Knox” have been selected if it dealt merely with a Southern Baptist high school girl’s championing of a gay-straight alliance? No, that’s NewFest material. That she fights for proper sex education in Lubbock, Texas, which has shockingly early pregnancy and VD rates, but appallingly permits abstinence-only teaching, raises it to a broader level. The zeitgeist created by Republicans and their retro evangelical base has an impact on everyone.
In the balanced “State of Fear,” Yates depicts the murderous methods of Maoist cult leader Abimael Guzman’s rural-based Shining Path devotees in Peru in the ’80s as much as the counterterrorist atrocities of an over-empowered military that commenced in 1985 and reached an apex under disgraced President Alberto Fujimori in the ’90s. In both cases, the chief victims were civilians, the ignored rural indigenous people of the campo. But it took a huge car-bomb explosion by Shining Path members near an upscale mall in the capital of Lima to heighten the awareness of the haves. As one interviewee recalls, “Most Peruvians were willing to exchange democracy for security.” Are we?
A similar tragedy transforms the lives of a sleepy town’s residents in Omagh, Pete Travis‘ fictionalized, nerve-shattering account of a tragic act of sabotage in 1998 in the eponymous Northern Irish town by a splinter group known as the Real IRA. A quiet but persistent man who has lost his son becomes active in the Omagh Self-Help and Support Group. They discover not only that Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, will not help in their investigation (it will hurt the peace process, Gerry Adams, its leader, claims), but that local police officials had been warned of the tragedy in advance by a reliable spy and had kept it quiet to discredit the IRA.
Two other South American films are exemplary. Alejo Taube deploys clever narrative devices in his feature “Una de Dos” to recreate the atmosphere of frustration and despair in his native Argentina in 2002, when corruption and incompetence led to a near-complete economic bottoming-out. The one guy in a provincial town with any dough is a trafficker in forged currency for organized crime toughies. The heavies in Margarita Martinez and Scott Dalton‘s amazing Colombian doc “La Sierra” are significantly younger and, yes, more likable. The co-directors spent a year among the young paramilitaries — their charismatic leader is 22 — who then controlled the poor Medellin barrio that gives the film its title. Their access is a documentarian’s dream: Martinez and Dalton film shootouts with the leftists who run the neighboring slum and capture serendipitous (for them) unplanned murders.
On the evidence of two works in the festival, little has improved in the former Yugoslavia since the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995 — although some of Dutch-based Katarina Rejger and Erik van den Broek‘s 20 short “Videoletters” end on a slightly optimistic note. The episode “Emil and Sasa” was one of the first they filmed in this six-year-old project of facilitating contact via videotapes between estranged and/or geographically isolated individuals and families from the republics that emerged in the ’90s. Emil and Sasa had been lifelong pals in Bosnia. When work broke out, Emil, who had a Muslim father, was deemed a Muslim, and Sasa, whose dad was Serbian, a Serb. Emil lives now in Holland, Sasa in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb Republic that is the by-product of ethnic cleansing. Emil accuses Sasa of murdering a Muslim friend of theirs under duress, but Sasa denies it. After multiple video exchanges, the two reunite on camera, and they embrace.
Feted Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic offers no such consolation in his powerful feature, “A Midwinter Night’s Dream.” A Serbian ex-con and army deserter returns to his home in an industrial town only to find there two refugees, a Bosnian single mother and her 12-year-old autistic daughter (in a stroke of genius, portrayed by an autistic girl). He allows them to stay. Even before he and the woman (predictably) fall in love, he becomes so attached to the girl that he believes, wrongly, that he can alter her behavior. She is a metaphor for Serbia under Milosevic. Her teacher explains, “Sometimes whole societies, not just individuals, start to panic from the fear of losing coherency, from inner disorder.”
No region is more of a powder-keg than the Middle and Near East. I did not view the three docs about Iraq, but I did see French-Israeli Simone Bitton‘s “Wall,” a film that studies and evaluates thoroughly and with visual finesse the enormous concrete barrier separating the West Bank from Israel. It’s not just a tall fence, it’s a system 50 meters wide that begins on the Palestinian side with barbed wire, a ditch, and the wall, and continues in Israel proper with a dirt road, a paved road, and more barbed wire, with sensors and radar scattered throughout.
With lovely Arabic music playing on the soundtrack, Bitton frequently pans the wall, shows us where Arab land has been appropriated and its owners separated from it (“It’s expulsion in disguise,” says one), and even visits the factory where the modules for the barrier and watchtowers are fabricated. It’s horrifying enough to watch economically distressed Palestinian workers putting in place the fence that isolates them. Even worse is to hear arrogant Amos Yaron, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the head of the whole operation, tell Bitton, “We see both sides as ours,” and “If they refuse to compromise, they will suffer more.” We all know where a huge chunk of money that foots his bills comes from. Nowadays we have so much to be ashamed of — and afraid of.