Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006


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Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death attests that the non-fiction film need not look as harsh as its subject matter, but in embossing third-world conditions, thus suppressing vital social insight, the film may have set a dangerous standard. The 17th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, a co-presentation between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Human Rights Watch, is blessed not to have a film as specious as Workingman’s Death lubing up its lineup, but only a few months after its theatrical release the film’s influence is only now gestating in the imaginations of impressionable filmmakers, which means it may be another two years before we can accurately gauge Glawogger’s pull. On the other hand, George W. Bush’s human rights violations have fully caught up with today’s documentary filmmakers, whose disquisitions on the effects of our rogue president’s war on terror account for three works in this year’s lineup: James Longley’s Sundance triple-crown winner Iraq in Fragments, Javier Corcuera’s Winter in Baghdad, and Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross hybrid doc drama The Road to Guantanamo. This year’s entries scan human rights violations new and old, far and wide: Michael Caton-Jones’s Shooting Dogs dramatizes what happened inside a Kigali school over the course of six days during the 1994 Rwanda massacre, Source takes a hard look at the effects of oil drilling on an Azerbaijani community, and Rosita chronicles how the rape and subsequent pregnancy of a nine-year-old girl politically disemboweled the nations of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. But it is Kz, which looks into the abyss of a former concentration camp, that towers supreme. You may scoff (“Another film about the Holocaust?”), but director Rex Bloomstein believes we still haven’t learned everything we could from Hitler’s war. Mixing complex moral and social inquiry with an original aesthetic approach, Bloomstein metaphysically scrutinizes our relationship to history, providing a philosophical lesson the Glawoggers and Bushs of the world could stand to learn. If your righteous indignation is roused, put it to good use by donating to Human Rights Watch, and for a full schedule of films and ticket information please see the festival’s main program. Ed Gonzalez

Black Gold (Marc Francis and Nick Francis, 2006)

Africa only seems to get face time in the news when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are on the scene. Bill Maher called this a coup on a recent episode of his HBO talk show, extolling the actors for forcing news cameras to go to places in the world that most need our humanitarian attention, but the couple’s lecherous gawker stalkers are not so easily affected by the wretchedness of the world: To them, Africa’s misery is a buzzkill (for proof, check out Beyond Borders’s box office receipts), and if they had their way, they’d airbrush the bags of rice Pitt piles into aid trucks and the starving children often seen dangling from Jolie’s hands. Which is to say, the priorities of the western world are seriously whack, a sickness directors Nick Francis and Marc Francis subtly diagnose throughout Black Gold, a documentary about a vigilant Ethiopian man’s efforts to save his cooperative of struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. This is a startling story of a continent excluded from world trade and wanting to wean itself off foreign aid. The humanitarian neglect implicit in the vast divide between the world of an impoverished Ethiopian farmer and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (and the auditoriums of pretentious coffee-brewing competitions) speaks for itself, and just as the documentary begins to repeat itself, the filmmaker brothers pull out their trump cards, revealing how the scant return Tadesse Meskele’s cooperative of 75,000 farmers see for all their hard labor has led to a global drug boom—a narcotic called “chat” turns a better profit than the coffee bean—and abject poverty in the Ethiopia. Think about that every time you have a Triple Grande Soy Latte. Gonzalez

The Camden 28 (Anthony Giacchino, 2007)

Anthony Giacchino uncovers a gripping lost chapter in the history of human rights activism with The Camden 28, a confident and astute reminiscence about a predominantly Catholic group’s efforts to defy the Vietnam War by compromising the Selective Service System. More than 30 years after they were tried and cleared of breaking into a Camden federal building in a botched attempt to destroy draft records, these men and women are still the coolest cats in the room, recalling from the same courtroom where they were prosecuted how their nonviolent resistance to the war was a moral duty consistent with their Catholic faith. Howard Zinn, purveyor of truth and a witness at the Camden 28’s trial in 1973, once again fiercely defends the group’s anti-war protests, likening their actions to the bold measures taken by the participants of the Boston Tea Party. Most of the film, though, takes place outside the courtroom through a smooth and exciting mix of hi-def interviews and archival footage through which the moral and spiritual struggle of the Camden 28’s decision to confront the government’s sick exploitation of the city’s underprivileged comes alive. Giacchino gets at many of the same points as Fahrenheit 9/11 but does so with the grace that continues to evade Michael Moore. Gonzalez

Dias de Santiago (Josué Méndez, 2004)

Josué Méndez’s needlessly abstracted Dias de Santiago is a slave to its low budget and likeness to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Santiago Roman (Pietro Sibille), a former member of the army who spent time decapitating terrorists, returns to his native Peru frustrated by the lack of financial opportunity. The story is sweaty and ripe with disappointment but Méndez’s jejune shifts from color to this-is-your-brain-on-drugs black-and-white are senseless. Social unrest and depression is given the quality of an Epcot Center attraction, and as Méndez afflicts his main character with one blunt trauma after another, Sibille toggles between self-righteousness and navel-gazing with a shrill lack of direction. Gonzalez

Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)

Made from footage shot between 2002 and 2005, James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments catches moments in the lives of various Iraqi citizens, though its structure is far less fractured than the title might suggest. Split into three, vérité panels, from an 11-year-old mechanic in Baghdad to a young, anti-American religious leader to a fatigued, old farmer in the Kurdish border, the progression could be that of life itself, or at least of hope, from razed urban centers to pastoral vistas routinely kept out of media coverage. In any case, the trenchant message is voiced by the young (“The world is so scary now”) and delivered by Longley’s harsh-beautiful compositions and sharp editing. Fernando F. Croce

Kz (Rex Bloomstein, 2006)

It’s some kind of insult to human rights and film culture that Rex Bloomstein’s Kz has yet to acquire a U.S. distributor. The essence of this riveting video documentary about a former concentration camp in the Austrian city of Mauthausen is implicit in the remarkable visual presentation of its title. The camera pulls back from revolving wedges of white and black lines to reveal the seemingly interlocked letters K and Z, subliminally calling to mind a swastika. This revelation is linked to audio from a tour-guide tape with an almost sci-fi tone advising patrons of the museum camp (and, by extension, the audience) to keep their emotions in check or risk insanity. It’s a funny proposition, but Bloomstein, like the people who work today at the former camp, understands the difficult, almost subversive sway held by the past over the present and the illusory comfort historical ignorance affects. The film’s structure approximates a tour to and from the concentration camp, but this isn’t some trite take-us-there promo video; a series of interjected interviews with people who live and shop around the perimeter of the camp prompts us to contemplate the ethics of people’s distanced relationship to history. Bloomstein palpable focus on words and mementos of things past reveals the way hearts and minds are metaphysically shaped and shames the mind-numbing banality of David Barison and Daniel Ross’s The Isther in the process. Gonzalez