Among this year's Human Rights Watch selection, six films bear witness to various strands of feminism, artistry, uprising, violence, and filmmaking itself as a tool for revolution. Many of them are accomplished; one may well be a masterpiece.
Iran's entrenched gender inequality afflicts maker and subject alike in Going Up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist. Director Rohksareh Ghaem Maghami and Akram, the titular artist, were both married before the age of 10, each threatened by their husbands with horrific physical deformations should they disobey their strict wishes. Now 50, Akram claims to love her husband, Heidap, even while fearful of him, and remains illiterate after he forced her to drop out of school at a young age. Now she paints, channeling her dreams into beautiful, childlike visions ripe with hope and purity, and at the film's outset, she's been invited to an exhibition in France, organized by her daughter, Toopa, in hopes that her mother will be able to display her work to the world. Matter of fact in its coverage, save for a few decorative time-lapse shots, Going Up the Stairs doesn't do much to explicitly examine the power struggles between husband and wife (Akram needs Heidap's permission to leave the country, and despite telling him off regarding her creative process, she cows to the sexist policies of her homeland), but at this historical moment, the documentation alone feels like a blow to the system. The triumph of an artistic spirit conquering its invisible chains is potent in front of and behind the camera, particularly when an awestruck Akram tours art galleries in France and states, "I feel as if I've entered a jungle in which I'm a simple shoemaker."
There's a muddled quality to 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film that feels simultaneously appropriate and frustrating; perhaps that makes it an accurate representation of the movement, if at the expense of cinematic virtue. The expected events and points of concern are addressed with brisk effectiveness: the bottom-up power-structure ambitions of the movement, the acts of police brutality committed against peaceful and often restrained protestors, the unconstitutionality of the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011, the media tactics used to distort and smear the Occupy ideology, etc. The gimmicky appeal of this doc—the result of 99 total filmmakers' collaboration—translates poorly to the viewing experience; it's frequently listless and comes close to hagiography, only superficially examining the difficulties of a revolution against such stacked odds. The smattering of styles and influences that stand out—a handful of tracks from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score for The Social Network prove effective but overused, and a shot of a police officer intimidating a protestor in Zuccotti Park is almost certainly included as an homage to the scene in Aguirre: The Wrath of God where Klaus Kinski observes a native playing the pan flute—fail to congeal into a satisfying whole, never speaking to the diversity and complexity of a social movement and only inadvertently to its often inherent disorganization.
Those filmmakers might learn a thing or two from Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, whose Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer compellingly dramatizes the months leading up to the titular female punk band's infamous performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the subsequent trial that saw three of the members sentenced to prison. From the use of conceptual art in the staging of protests to the cultural schism and worldwide outcry against Pussy Riot's imprisonment, it's well-rounded in its consideration of multiple voices without sacrificing a viewpoint in the name of such balance (Michael Moore, take note). Lerner and Pozdorovkin avoid merely glorifying these rebels' tenacity in the face of an obviously corrupt and rigged system, instead opting to paint a sobering portrayal of a culture still trapped in the claws of history, this despite an obvious surge of modernity among Russian citizens both young and old (bandmate Nadya Tolokno's father first opposed Pussy Riot's performance inside the Cathedral, only to then contribute to one of the group's more button-pushing lyrics). The film benefits greatly from the young feminists' understanding of political theater, particularly their subversion of a transparent courtroom cell into a makeshift throne, without augmenting their spectacle.
Raoul Peck's Fatal Assistance, on the other hand, holds an appropriately cynical attitude toward spectacle, a serious contributor to the undoing of the humanitarian goodwill heaped upon Haiti after the earthquake that killed over 220,000 in early 2010. Billions of dollars are committed to reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe, but it isn't long before politics, personal interest, ignorance, an international distrust of the country's government, and an overall lack of communication turn the cleanup effort into an even more reckless problem than the initial disaster. Funds donated with the intent of building schools are denied reallocation to more immediate necessities like rubble removal (however primary it is to longevity, rubble removal doesn't sell like photogenic children in a newly constructed classroom), while funds are wasted on importing supplies readily available within the country and no shortage of efforts are effectively duplicated or wasted outright. The aforementioned spectacle is most prominently embodied in the presence of Bill Clinton at the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) events; unlike other celebrity participants, such as Sean Penn to Angelina Jolie, the former president seems to be present for little more than photo ops and pep talks—"Haiti Reconstruction: The Movie," as it's dubbed by frustrated volunteers. The failure is a collective one, and, aided by the film's sobering voiceovers, speaks to a disturbing lack of coordination amongst the powers of the world.
A glimmer of hope, then, in the efforts of Tim Hetherington, seen previously in his and Sebastian Junger's Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo and here cataloged in Junger's eulogy-like Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. A humanitarian first and journalist second, the photographer and filmmaker was renowned for his immersion in violent conflict and ability to capture the side of humanity exposed by war, from the deeply bound brotherhood of soldiers (or even rebels capable of seemingly depraved barbarity—one of the few instances in which Hetherington puts his camera down is to dissuade the execution of an innocent medic) to the strength of those wounded and orphaned by the battle. Hetherington's portrait-like approach to his subjects is itself a form of cinema: the telling of stories through pictures, as he modestly describes. That the film opens with the textual acknowledgment of his passing in 2011 doesn't diminish the wrenching gut punch of seeing his life (including love and a surreal night on Hollywood's red carpet) leading up to the mortar fire that fatally wounds him, or the hazy shot of a Libyan sky filmed through his camera as he succumbed to his injuries.
That leaves Camera/Woman, Karima Zoubir's stirring fly-on-the-wall portrait of Khadija, a divorced woman forced to support her Moroccan family even as they castigate her for dishonoring them, her work recording wedding parties often demanding she stay out late at night and into the morning. The upside to her job is the increased relaxation of her frequently female subjects (male cameramen not only require higher pay, but scare away potential wedding guests) and greater abundance of work, but as a woman, she's forced to accept lower pay ("Think of me as your mother," says a condescending customer), to say nothing of the burden of suspicious gossip and hateful caricature heaved on her by an intolerant community. The film's scenario is ripe with crossroads at which the blatant cultural sexism proves most rank, and is so exquisitely captured sans breaking the fourth wall that it occasionally suggests a Kiarostami-esque blurring of fact and fiction. Baby chicks and Khadija's son evoke an innocence that may well soon be lost to time and corruption, and a momentary gaze at the ocean is as densely suggestive as any of Michael Mann's uses of the motif. Zoubir's film is a small miracle, and hopefully the first of many to come.
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs from June 13—23.