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World of Trouble: The 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

For its twentieth edition, the 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival delivers not only a strong message about the abuses to human decency endemic around the globe — from anti-Semitism to cluster munitions to female genital mutilation — but also a glance at the recent past of issue-oriented documentaries. New nonfiction films make up the bulk of this year’s slate of 21 features and 11 shorts from 17 countries, showing in New York from June 11 to 25.

Unlike previous years, the festival is also showcasing five previous winners of the Nestor Almendros Award, named for the Spanish cinematographer who worked extensively with Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut and was one of the festival’s founders. Of these five films, at least two, 2004’s Born Into Brothels () and 2006’s Iraq in Fragments (), are nothing short of classics, and one, 2008’s The Sari Soldiers (), is a strong also-ran for that label. Seen altogether, they comprise some of the most eye-opening documentary work of the modern era, where compassion and artistry work in complementary fashion.

The 2009 Nester Almendros Award went to Anne Aghion’s admirably open-ended My Neighbor, My Killer (), which strikes closer to the heart of human rights concerns than just about anything else in the festival (which this year gives a welcome focus to African issues in numerous films). Aghion’s film follows the Rwandan government’s controversial method of dealing with the 1994 genocide, in which three-fourths of the country’s Tutsi population was massacred. Starting in 1999, the Gacaca court system brought the accused to face survivors of their rampages, attempting to start a supposedly healing dialogue. My Neighbor, My Killer is less about the assigning of guilt then about what happens to the people forced to live next to men whom openly butchered their family and friends?

One film that was hopefully a strong award contender is Masha Novikova’s astounding In the Holy Fire of Revolution (). From 2006 to 2008, Novikova insinuated her cameras into the quixotic campaign by Russian opposition party The Other Russia, and its most famous leader, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, to mount some sort of alternative to Vladimir Putin’s autocracy. The result is a gripping, fly-on-the-wall political diary that’s somewhat akin to Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, only with much higher stakes (Clinton’s staff didn’t get baseball bats to the head in the dead of night). While Novikova never allows her film to fall in love with its subject, in its riveting scenes of roiling protest marches being stormed into by stone-faced riot police and tired but undaunted activists plotting their next move, it falls in love over and over again with the idea of freedom.

Films at the Human Rights Watch fest have never been weighted toward the field’s stars, with works by your bigger-name nonfiction filmmakers tending to pop up more at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington D.C. later in June. Following the decade-plus lawsuit by 30,000 Ecuadoreans who charged Chevron with polluting their land, Crude (), directed by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Some Kind of Monster), is one of the few exceptions to that rule. Its story is as simple as its subject dire: corporation pollutes, people die, corporation refuses to take responsibility. What lies behind this formulation is infinitely more complex, of course, but Berlinger’s film never loses sight of that awful calculus.

The other star director here was Costa-Gavras, who presented one of the festival’s only narrative films, the intermittently brilliant but critically uneven Eden is West (). A modern-day Odyssean journey in which Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio), a baffled but bright-eyed illegal immigrant from an unnamed Central or Middle Eastern country, washes up in front of a luxurious European beach resort. A serio-comic catalog of pan-European misadventures follows as a hitchhiking Elias runs into every manner of allies and enemies, from gypsies and generous earth mothers to squabbling crypto-gay truckers. There’s a lot here to admire and enjoy, with Costa-Gavras’ uncharacteristically light touch and big-hearted admiration for his bumbling, Chaplinesque hero. If the finish hadn’t proved so anticlimactic, Eden is West could have marked a true comeback for the filmmaker.

Look Into My Eyes () tackles anti-Semitism with something between a sadly knowing sigh and a cockeyed chuckle. Its globetrotting director and interlocutor Naftaly Gliksberg — a former rabbi with a shaved head, linebacker build, and a mischievous twinkle — interviews everybody from a silver-tongued white supremacist spokesman hawking swastika boots to actors in a 350-year-old Polish passion play. Using a template between that of Protocols of Zion and Borat, Gliksberg’s m.o. is to march right up and ask people about their beliefs point-blank. His relaxed, easygoing humor then usually brings out the more jaw-dropping anti-Semitic statements in a matter of minutes. There’s the born-again Christian minister who goes from professing unequivocal support for the Israeli people to foul racial invective in a matter of sentences, as well as the iron-faced neo-Nazi who doesn’t take long to admit that he’s actually one-eighth Jewish. Gliksberg doesn’t try to force his film into too sharp a point, letting his eruptive conversations take their natural and frequently disturbing course.

Although only an hour long, Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter () packs a sharp punch equal to that of films twice its length. The titular protagonist is a Malian woman fighting for asylum to avoid being deported with her two-year-old daughter, Djenabou. The villains in the piece, though, are not necessarily immigration officials but fellow Malians who would perform a brutal ritual ‘excision’ (female genital mutilation) on Djeanabou if they returned. The filmmakers seamlessly weave together parallel storylines, contrasting the cold and blustery Philadelphia streets where Goundo makes her case to the court to the beautifully sun-dappled villages of her homeland. For the arguments over traditional culture vs. women’s independence, it’s the soul-sickening footage of anxious-eyed little Malian girls post-excision that makes Mrs. Goundo’s point more succinctly than words ever could.

Jawad Metni’s Remnants of a War () presents a straightforward take on a thorny topic, namely the immorality of militaries using cluster bomb munitions. The specific case analyzed by the film is a particularly egregious one: following Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, one million cluster bomblets were dropped on the country, roughly a third of which failed to detonate and now litter the countryside. Metni’s film details the aftermath of that metal harvest, following the Lebanese employees of a demining company through their painstaking and dangerous work. Remnants of a War makes up for a sometimes doctrinaire approach by taking the time to engag
e with its subjects on a human level. Fortunately for Metni, the deminers he follows are a lively and motley crew more given to goofing around than bemoaning their fate. Though as the camera tracks repeatedly over the rolling, olive-drab hills, covered in beautiful shady groves hiding the can-sized bombs that make so many Lebanese terrified of freely walking in their own country, the film speaks volumes about the fate of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Good Fortune () would deserve mention here even if it was only for its sweeping visuals, which if nothing else would make it clear that Kenya is one of those places that nature just took a lot of extra care in creating. Filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine have much more on their minds here than impossibly pretty pictures of Lake Victoria at dusk and the epic grandeur of the Yala swamplands. The thesis they present here in three intertwined vignettes is that top-down aid from Western corporations or NGOs often not only doesn’t help the people it intends to, it actually makes their lives substantially worse. There’s a Nairobi slum being cleared with UN help for high-rise apartments none of the residents will actually ever see and a farmer whose land gets flooded by an American company whose huge new rice farm is supposed to alleviate poverty, not cause it. In either case, the story is the same: Do-gooder Westerners don’t ever seem to ask the Africans they’re ostensibly helping if the aid is desired. (One UN director seems tellingly annoyed by having to deal with people.)

The gambit played by Good Fortune is a bold one, tossing a brick right at one of the Western world’s most tightly-held liberal pieties, but it more than pays off in this gripping and infuriating film. It helps that the filmmakers present their characters not as victims but as self-empowered strivers, willing to do whatever it takes to get by, and honestly sick of being told what’s best for them. As one elderly farmer woman puts it, ‘I’ve survived here 45 years, and [the rice farming company] just got here a few months ago.’ With its drop-dead gorgeous cinematography and truly respectful viewpoint, Good Fortune shows us some very good people in a very beautiful land learning a rough lesson the hard way: You can’t fight City Hall.

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