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The 2008 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

For the opening of the 19th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival on June 12, 2008, the organizers made a smart but possibly problematic choice with Peter Raymont’s A Promise to the Dead (). A cinematic essay subtitled ‘The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman,’ the film tracks the Chilean writer on a modern-day visit back to Santiago where he takes viewers on a block-by-block reminiscence of the events of September 11, 1973. That was the day when a CIA-backed military coup assassinated socialist president Salvador Allende (Dorfman was his Cultural Advisor) and instituted a bloody reign of reactionary terror. Dorfman riffs vividly on his status as near-permanent exile (born in Argentina, raised in New York and Chile, he now lives in North Carolina and Santiago and feels at home nowhere, but everywhere) and his eyewitness status to one of Latin America’s greatest tragedies is beyond compare. But while he himself is a fascinating guide to all these subjects, his preternatural calmness can be distancing at times, and it’s hard not to notice the occasional whiff of solipsism in his mini-lectures. It’s an interesting pick for the start of a festival dedicated to human rights, in that it rarely directly touches on the subject, but comes at it from an angle, intellectually. Cozy at times instead of combative, A Promise to the Dead tries for a meditative response to unthinkable violence but plays at times like wisdom and at other times like simply a bad idea.

Diving right into the subject in a very intriguing manner is Maria Ramos’ Behave (). Here, the filmmaker sticks viewers in the heart of the Brazilian legal system, where they watch a string of juvenile defendants (played by non-professional actors to protect the innocent, all other roles are performed by the real court employees) get shuffled through the machinery. Opening without preamble in a claustrophobic room where a judge with a piercing voice that would cut a diamond lectures the sullen teenagers sitting in front of her, the film has no overarching narrative or tone, just the enervating misery of bureaucracy. The fickle nature of justice becomes frighteningly apparent, as the judge get swayed one way for a particular kid and a different way for another, seemingly based on no more than a persuasive comment from a lawyer. Almost worse than the system itself is when one sees the condition of a house in the favela where one of the boys lives, and in comparison, even the overcrowded, fetid prison feels superior.

Issue journalism gets a far weaker workout in Critical Condition () by Roger Weisberg. Shot for the PBS documentary series P.O.V. (where it will air later in 2008), the film shows its roots quite clearly in the hokey graphics and nuance-free method of presentation. Its subject matter is certainly strong enough, as Weisberg follows the situation of four Americans from different parts of the country whose lack of health insurance drives them into perilous territory, both medically and financially. Ranging from heartbreaking to worse, the stories themselves are vivid enough and the people’s plights nothing less than anguishing, but Weisberg’s inattention to tackling the larger causes behind these individual stories keeps his film from being more than a recitation of horror stories.

One of the strengths of the 2008 festival was its focus on women, a tack that is used to great effect in a pair of war zone stories. Julie Bridgham’s The Sari Soldiers () follows a cross-section of Nepalese women in its examination of the effects that country’s long and bloody civil war has had on its population. Utilizing an impressive impartiality, the director presents a vivid array of women who range from a die-hard Maoist guerrilla leader (some 40% of the rebel army was female) to a fresh-faced army recruit and a strident student activist. Trying for a similar mosaic effect but with somewhat more meager results, Tamar Yarom’s To See If I’m Smiling () also presents a half-dozen women in a combat zone, only this time all of them are fighting on the same side. In this case, the women are relating their stories about serving in Israeli Army units in the Occupied Territories and their frequently contradictory emotions (caught between sexism and questions about their duties, several seem on the verge of full-blown PTSD). While not getting out into the field quite as much as Bridgham did, Yarom’s approach to these soldiers’ inconclusive misery is refreshingly personal.

In what should have been an awe-inspiring portrait of one of the great female heroes of our time, Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna () serves only as a passable but incomplete introduction to the life of the late Anna Politkovskaja. Bergkraut had been working on a film about the crusading Russian journalist, interviewing her extensively, when word came of her murder in 2006. (Although the murder is officially unsolved, most evidence points to the Russian government’s involvement in or at least knowledge of the killing.) The film that resulted in an uneasy mélange of footage shot with the charming, dashing Politkovskaja, and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues following her murder. What emerges is a certainly engaging personal portrait but one that doesn’t focus nearly enough on the work that she did. One of the last Russian journalists who dared challenged the Kremlin (her reporting on the genocidal nature of the fighting in Chechnya remains some of the bravest and most important journalism of the past couple decades) the woman who wisely quoted here as saying ‘freedom is a wearisome task’ deserves to be remembered.

The definition of a failed opportunity is on full view in Line Halvorsen’s USA vs. Al-Arian (). Halvorsen’s film is ostensibly about the trial of Palestinian-born university professor Sami Al-Arian, who faced a high-profile 2003 accusation from no less than John Ashcroft of funding and organizing a Palestinian terrorist organization. Al-Arian then sat in prison for two-and-a-half years before even going to trial on what appeared to be utterly spurious charges of the kind all too common in the post-9/11 panic phase. Halvorsen seems more interested in documenting the debilitating effects that Al-Arian’s Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare has on his family, and the emotional impact on his children (a bright-seeming bunch of teenagers and high-achieving college students) is palpable. But the rest of the film feels lazy, with Halvorsen feeling no need to provide more specifics about what Al-Arian was charged with and his defense, which would have helped bring a more focused sense of outrage; the film takes the man’s innocence and righteousness for granted and thus undermines the story’s power. A braver filmmaker would have told the audience more about Al-Arian’s beliefs (which may have verged on some advocacy of, though not involvement with, extremist actions; repugnant, but not illegal) an
d allowed some of them to disagree with him, possibly vehemently, while still thinking him to be innocent.

On the wall of his New York office, Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody keeps a map of the world, festooned with the mugshots of dictators. Klaartje Quirijns’s film, The Dictator Hunter () zooms in on one of the least-known faces on that map — former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré — and following Brody as he goes about trying to bring him to justice. Charged with torturing and butchering tens of thousands of Chadians during his rule in the 1980s, the Western-educated Habré (initially propped up by Reagan as a pawn opposing Gaddafi) escaped Chad, like most dictators do, into safe isolation. For years Brody, along with Souleymane Guengueng, a Chadian who was tortured and blinded in one of Habré’s prisons and gained asylum in America, fought to have Habré stand trial for his crimes, instead of just dying in protected retirement (financed by looting his country before fleeing) like Pinochet. Viewers of the film come upon Brody and Guengueng in 2006, as they’re reaching the culmination of their efforts, and realizing that it’s quite possible it could all come to naught. A classic piece of human rights cinema, The Dictator Hunter is also a modest-sized portrait of a pair of tireless crusaders, the kind who refuse to accept the casual racism of a world that accepts despotic African leaders by doing nothing about it.

In Traces of the Trade (), Katrina Brown recounts the brave effort by her and some relatives to reconcile their family’s evil past. Growing up as part of the storied DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island — who count politicians, industrialists, ministers, and artists in their number — Brown knew that their history involved some ugliness too, but was shocked to discover how awful it was. Between 1769 and 1820, the DeWolfs were among the country’s biggest slave traders, amassing a massive fortune and establishing themselves as pillars of New England society. Hoping to possibly exorcise their past, Browne and several relatives follow the family traders route from Bristol to the slave forts of Ghana to an old DeWolf plantation in Cuba. Just when it threatens to become a sort of white-guilt travelogue, though, Brown quite courageously turn the film into a more direct examination of the slave trade’s aftermath and their complicity in it, directly engaging in talks on reparations and what forms they might or should take. Part personal voyage and part history lesson on the hidden racial hypocrisy of New England (which Brown notes practically pioneered the American slave trade and then rewrote themselves in history as brave abolitionists), Traces of the Trade is thought-provoking work in the way that few films ever come close to even attempting.

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