Slotted in for a couple weeks during the hot and sticky New York summer, this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is a bruising compilation of educational cinema that would be thrilling if it weren’t testament to the astounding misery people are around the world endure at the hands of others. Running from June 14-28 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, the festival is showing some 20 features (plus shorts) that run the gamut from narrative fiction to journalistic documentary to imaginative non-fiction.
One could say that the problems of the world stay the same from year to year: poverty, injustice, censorship, and so on. While this is mostly true, some things can change, particularly this organization’s definition of what constitutes human rights. So, between the stories of horrendous abuses in far-flung regions, the scope is widened to include a couple films on environmental destruction and voting issues. It’s a welcome move, this expansion of subject matter, because when it comes down to it, what basic issue seriously impacting a person’s life could not be considered a human right? Another welcome move is a greater trend toward domestic stories, serving as a helpful reminder that the U.S. is hardly free of these kinds of abuses.
Things start out strong with the opening night film, Laurent Hebiet’s Mon Colonel () one of only two narrative features in the fest. A classically outraged piece of indignation that works as well as a slap to the face, the film — co-written by Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) — starts with the murder of a French colonel, a veteran of the vicious 1950s Algerian guerilla war. In flashbacks related by diaries mailed bit by bit to an officer investigating the murder, we get the story of Rossi, ‘a left-winger with a broken heart’ who joins the army in Algeria in romantic abandon only to confront the colonel’s increasingly barbaric anti-insurgent tactics. (Smartly, the film makes the colonel a more complex figure than it had to, presenting a font of cruel though honest wisdom, resulting in a character of Kurtz-ian dimension.) Although Mon Colonel functions primarily as a stiffly-staged lesson in the war’s ugly realities, as a dying colonial power fights on in savage fashion for the illusion of its continued importance (many will likely find issue with its overly schematic structure), it is also a sharp and punishing drama that echoes Gillo Pontecorvo’s monumental Battle for Algiers for insight into the moral vagaries of guerrilla warfare. When an officer barks at the wide-eyed Rossi, ‘We’re in a world war against terrorism and communism. Your scruples don’t matter,’ it’s no guessing what current-day parallels are meant to be drawn.
It would be wonderful to see Evo Morales as the savior of long-troubled Bolivia. Sadly, given the portrait provided in Alejandro Landes’ Cocalero (), the firebrand Bolivian president — a proud socialist unionist and the first Native American to attain any sort of prominent office there — he may very well turn out to be nothing more than another South American strongman. Landes follows the chubby-faced Morales in the weeks leading up to his stunning 2005 electoral victory, aiming to give a warts-and-all picture of the man. Unfortunately for viewers, Morales (a onetime farmer) gives little away, chatting in soundbites designed to maximize his image as a regular guy sticking up for the little man. Unfortunately for Bolivians, he comes off as a low-key demagogue, flattering Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro abroad, and promising at home to redistribute land to the masses. While it’s refreshing to see an indigenous leader like Morales take charge in a place that’s suffered inordinately under global capitalist ‘modernizations,’ Landes’ rather dull film leaves open the possibility that this populist from the interior could turn out to be just another pile of empty promises the continent has already had so much of.
Though similarly lacking in aesthetics or much of a defining shape, We’ll Never Meet Childhood Again () has at least the advantage of more captivating subjects. During the late 1980s, something on the order of 10,000 children in Romanian hospitals and orphanages were infected with HIV — for the most part they were abandoned to cruel fate. The nongovernmental association Health Aid Romania set up homes for the kids to grow up in where they would be watched over by ‘house parents’ who essentially became their actual parents. Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock tells this heartrending story mostly from the parents’ perspective, as they list the kids in their charge who have died, and talk with pride and love about the ones who haven’t. It’s a slow work, with Lawlor and Pollock ladling out long stretches of uninterrupted interviews (frustratingly, we are given relatively little from the children themselves, who seem an incredibly scrappy lot), and maybe more public service announcement than work of art. But the fact remains that these house parents are doing amazing work, and deserve a forum of their own.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is so often seen from a military perspective — tanks battling crowds in the narrow Gaza streets — that it’s easy to forget that behind all the fighting is a story of law enforcement, with thousands of Palestinian convicts residing in Israeli jails, many serving multiple life sentences for planning or trying to carry out terror attacks. In Shim Doton’s Hot House (), we’re given an exacting, impressively unbiased view into the Israeli prison system, where inmates are divided into Fatah and Hamas cells, each group electing their own representatives in a shockingly calm and civilized environment. Guilty of heinous crimes and almost entirely unrepentant, many of the men are measured and polite, talking politics while following the run-up to the 2006 Palestinian election and studying for advanced degrees from Hebrew University. (A striking exception being the prisoner who wants to have kids just so that he can have the joy of strapping explosives belts onto his junior martyrs.) While it seems that the prison system is hardly changing these mens’ calmly detached points of view — or that of inmates in the women’s jail, who come off as almost uniformly brain-washed and sociopathic — the fact that many are serving upwards of a dozen life terms leaves little chance that they’ll be putting beliefs into action anytime soon.
Placing itself well apart from the standard 2004 election commentaries by not having an obvious political axe to grind, Election Day () tries instead for a more overarching kind of structure: in essence, a day in the life of democracy. Starting early in the morning and concluding well in the evening, Katy Chenvigny’s film follows the voting process in several locations simultaneously. A GOP poll watcher wanders the precincts of Chicago looking for Democratic malfeasance, affecting an underdog’s sarcasm (‘What’s it like being Republican in Chicago? It’s lonely.‘). An Ohio woman is sent from one polling place to ano
ther (baby in arms, in the rain) in a mind-boggling bureaucratic snafu. Lines of African-American voters refusing to be turned away at St. Louis poll; a tireless campaign organizer hustling for votes on a downtrodden South Dakota reservation. With its enthusiastic spirit, energized subjects and jaunty score, Election Day may not be great art, but it’s nevertheless a powerful avocation of civic duty as well as a reminder of the seemingly endless work that goes into such a seemingly mundane activity.
Making the case for a more intensive form of duty is Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s blistering warcry, The Devil Came on Horseback (), which should be burned onto thousands of DVDs and handed out on street corners to anybody saying, ‘I don’t really get what this whole Darfur thing is about.’ Told through the admirably tough voice of Brian Stiedle — a former Marine captain who served a six-month duty as an unarmed observer in Darfur with the African Union peacekeeping force during 2004 — the film tells first the harrowing tale of what Stiedle saw there, mixing his narration with the graphic, lividly colored photographs he took of burnt-out villages, massacred children. Having enough of watching the government-backed Arab janjaweed militias (the name means literally ‘devil on a horse’) try to exterminate the black Darfurians, when his duty is over, Stiedle comes back to the States to raise consciousness, even stopping random people on the sidewalk to show them his pictures. Most films of this sort would include a vindication, a moment at which it seems likely that the voice of this buzz-cut Marine (hardly the media stereotype of an advocate for the oppressed), but here, even after addressing massive rallies and meeting with top government officials, Stiedle is not satisfied or impressed. The U.S. labeled the Darfur massacres ‘genocide’ back in 2004, and those like Stiedle are still howling in the dark, faced with little but good intentions, pro-Khartoum Arab propagandists (the new millennium’s version of Holocaust deniers), and a maddening lack of action. When Sundberg and Stern follow Stiedle to Rwanda, one point becomes horribly clear: Unless something dramatic happens, and soon, it’s going to happen all over again, no matter how many Save Darfur rallies there are.
The threat of environmental collapse has been so repeated over the past couple decades that it would hardly seem to be news anymore. But, as Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfland’s Everything’s Cool () reminds us, Americans didn’t begin to believe in the existence of global warming in substantial numbers — a phenomenon that’s been reported in the major media since 1988 — much less think they needed to do anything about it, until only the past couple of years. Gold and Helfland set out to study what they refer to as a ‘seismic shift’ in opinion, particularly since 2004. The main culprits are no surprise: a number of professional dissemblers working for right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute who take energy industry money to show up in every media venue possible to throw up smoke screens of ‘It’s just a theory’ and ‘elitist environmentalists’ — the same type of non-scientific stratagems employed by creationists desperately trying to disprove evolution. Against them are a hard core of true believers — scientists, investigative reporters and government employees fired by the Bush administration for telling the truth — fighting the good fight. It’s a slackly-paced grab-bag of intermittently intriguing points, most particularly the idea that we didn’t really have 20 years to waste debating this topic, as it may already be too late to do anything. As one crusader puts it, ‘It’s a curse to know this stuff.’
Set on an entirely separate level of artistry is another story of ravaged and brutalized nature: Laura Dunn’s mesmeric masterpiece The Unforseen (). Its specific subject couldn’t be more prosaic: environmental regulations impacting real estate development in Austin, Texas; particularly one project that threatened the beloved Barton Springs community swimming hole. Within this narrow spectrum, Dunn’s supple and graceful narrative ropes in a tremendous amount, painting a portrait of a nation greedily gobbling up its open space at a virus-like speed, leaving behind a wrecked landscape of unforeseen consequences. While some expected lefty-Texan talking heads pop up (Robert Redford, who also produced, Willie Nelson, the late governor Ann Richards — where’s Jim Hightower?), this is more elegy than position paper. Visually it’s close to incomparable, as Dunn’s camera (floating underwater, hovering over horizon-reaching subdivisions, trawling past endless construction acreage) has behind it an instinctual understanding of the terrifying beauty of nature — those who see hints of Terrence Malick in these images will not be shocked to see him listed as producer. But there’s also a powerful political statement here about halting the reckless spread of concrete across the land, for the sake of our species if nothing else. To paraphrase a famous conservative, Dunn’s film is like a person standing the way of a bulldozer shouting, ‘Stop!’
In Eva Mulvad’s Enemies of Happiness (), the view is from deep inside Afghanistan, where the only Westerners are the occasional flickering image on a TV set with bad reception. Its subject, Malalai Joya, is a young woman infamous in the country for being thrown out of the 2003 Loya Jirga council for denouncing the powerful warlords ruining the country. Two years and many assassination attempts later, Joya was still tilting at the patriarchy’s windmills as one of only three women out of 41 candidates for a parliamentary seat. Enemies tracks Joya’s campaign and the necessary attendant security — she often has to wear a burqa when outside, and some areas are considered so dangerous her people simply tape her speech and broadcast it from a roaming van. Although frustratingly light on specifics, the film has a tremendous heart, one especially visible when it focuses on the faces of the beaten-down Afghani women as they listen to this tough and indefatigable campaigner who seems to be the only one even talking to them.
The war on terror has created many strange enemies for the U.S., but Steve Kurtz hardly seems one of the more threatening ones. In the jaw-dropping Strange Culture (), director Lynn Hershmann tells the odd but sadly true story of this artist currently facing up to 20 years in jail for doing nothing but ordering completely legal lab equipment and bacteria cultures for an art exhibit on genetically engineered food. What drew the FBI’s attention was the sudden death of Kurtz’s wife in 2004 — it was later believed to be a heart attack — after which an overzealous law enforcement apparatus swung into action, convinced that Kurtz (who did express liberal political views, so you know
) was a bioterrorist who accidentally killed his wife with dangerous materials. It’s a painful story, wherein Kurtz’s home is flooded by haz-mat-suit-wearing feds (who brazenly leave behind pil
es of trash, including supposed evidence; a seemingly small thing but pointing to a shockingly arrogant slackness on the FBI’s part) and he is denounced as an enemy of the state, without any evidence. Hershmann’s film itself is a goony and Frankensteined meta-contraption where actors like Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Coyote recreate parts of the case which Kurtz is legally blocked from speaking about himself (animation takes care of some of the rest) — when they’re not stepping out of character and chatting as their actor-selves. It’s all so seamlessly weird and hard to fathom — are the FBI and Justice Dept. really that clueless? — that one finds it hard not to imagine the whole thing isn’t an elaborate put-on; just like Kurtz himself no doubt wants to awake from the nightmare his life has become.