Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2007

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2007


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This year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, a co-presentation between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Human Rights Watch, features one of the strongest lineups in the program’s history. Twenty films and three shorts, in addition to a special New Visions screening of two works-in-progress (A Jihad for Love and Project Kashmir), decorate this 18th edition of the festival. Among the New York premieres: the Algerian War drama Mon Colonel, co-written by Costa-Gavras; Carla’s List, about prosecutor Carla Del Ponte’s daunting journey to pursue criminals who perpetuated crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia; Election Day, which charts incidents of voter fraud, disenfranchisement and general ineptitude during our 2004 presidential election; and Manufactured Landscapes (pictured above), which ruminates, according to the program, on “the aesthetics and social and spiritual dimensions of globalization around the world today” in a manner evocative of Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread. For a full schedule of films and ticket information please see the festival’s main program. Ed Gonzalez

Banished (Marco Williams, 2005)

We were unable to preview Banished before the publication of this feature, but the subject of Marco Williams’s documentary, a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at the last Sundance Film Festival, is thought-provoking. The film allows the director to explore the legacy of slavery in small towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas, where African-American families were violently thrown out of their homes by their white neighbors in the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Banished will play once on Thursday, June 21 at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival before returning to New York City on October 10 at Film Forum. Gonzalez

Carla’s List (While Marcel Schüpbach, 2006)

Carla’s List observes the 2005 efforts of International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor Carla Del Ponte to locate and bring to trial the outstanding seven fugitive war criminals under arrest. “I stay out of politics,” claims Del Ponte, but the film’s behind-the-scenes access to her day-to-day work at The Hague reveals otherwise, as politics proves a constant hindrance to her work’s completion. The hypocrisy of countries pledging support for the detainment of Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ante Gotovina (Del Ponte’s prime targets), yet simultaneous refusing to productively aid in their capture, underscores the prosecutor’s quest, which must, by mandate, be concluded by late 2007. While Marcel Schüpbach effectively uses his up-close-and-personal footage to reveal the barriers to Del Ponte’s success, his non-admittance into various closed-door conferences and secret meetings—and consequent use of narration to fill in the gaps—weakens the fly-on-the-wall film’s you-are-there dramatic urgency. Nonetheless, the director pinpoints his subject’s tireless pursuit of justice as a force besieged by diplomatic convenience and selfishness, and one that remains steadfast even in the face of continuing setbacks as well as criticisms from the media and the Mothers of Srebrenica, who question whether justice is possible 10 years after the loss of their relatives. Their anger and frustration are entirely justified, though as the film illustrates, the target of their disappointment and disgust shouldn’t be the indefatigable Del Ponte, but rather an international community too slow to stop genocide, and then too self-interested to apprehend its perpetrators. Nick Schager

City of Photographers (Sebastián Moreno, 2006)

Cameras serve as instruments (if not outright weapons) of social protest and retaliation in Sebastián Moreno’s City of Photographers, a nonfiction account of the Chilean photographers who took to the streets to document demonstrations and military brutality during Pinochet’s reign of terror in the 1980s. As Moreno’s father was one of those brave guerrilla photojournalists, his film is not only a historical record but also a personal tribute to those who risked life and limb to expose the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the country’s ruthless dictator. Interviews with the camera-wielding rebels in question intermingle with their stark black-and-white snapshots and television footage of the era’s urban turmoil. Complementing the notion that photographs were agents of change is Moreno’s representation of these pictures—via mothers wearing portraits of their murdered children on their lapels—as acts of remembrance and revitalization defiantly opposed to Pinochet’s methodical process of murderous erasure. The documentary ably captures resistance to tyranny at its most courageous (and self-sacrificial). Equally impressively, however, is that the film manages to remain reverential while tackling both the confliction and guilt felt by some of its self-critical subjects, as well as the corrupting seductiveness of lethal conflict, the latter point via admissions that the addictive rush of facing and overcoming one’s fear of death led some to question whether they were, in one candid photographer’s words, “becoming some kind of blood creep with no values. Was I picturing pain for my own glory?” Schager

Cocalero (Alejandro Landes, 2006)

Coca is currency in Bolivia, so one concrete (and unintended) consequence of our country’s War on Drugs, with its brutal eradication program in the 1990s which sent marines and local military to uproot and napalm coca farms, was to unify popular resistance into a mass movement. Organizing themselves into unions, Bolivian peasant coca farmers finally succeeded in electing one of their own, Aymara Indian Evo Morales, as the country’s first socialist and indigenous president. In the vivid and fluently shot Cocalero, a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Brazilian-born documentarian Alejandro Landes and Venezuelan-Spanish cameraman Jorge Manrique Behrens tag along as the dynamic yet accessible populist wages his 2006 electoral campaign from the storm-clouded mountains of Cochabamba to the steamy forests of El Chapare. While the burly candidate shrewdly watches for signs of yankee-instigated coups d’état and fields trick questions from right-wing TV personalities (“If you are elected, will we be invaded by Cubans?”), local unions conduct voting rehearsals for the unlettered. Top quality visuals convey his supporters’ energy and the movement’s optimism, right up to a crossroads moment as Evo locks arms with Fidel and an especially exuberant Hugo Chávez. Robert Keser

The Devil Came on Horseback (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, 2007)

Jangaweed is Arabic for “devil on a horse.” Do not forget that name—or its translation. In the Darfur region of Sudan, the Jangaweed, a militia group sponsored by the government, has been largely responsible for the genocide that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced from their homes. Directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, whose documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt is currently in theatrical release, The Devil Came on Horseback explores the tragedy in Darfur through the eyes of a marine captain, Brian Steidle, who took a job with the African Union, armed only with “a camera, pen, and paper.” After the area exploded in violence, a heroic Steidle shunned his role as an impartial observer in order to shed new light on the genocide, photographing the horrors committed against Darfur’s black Africans and interviewing members of the Jangaweed who readily admit to being funded by officials in Khartoum. Sundberg and Stern’s aesthetic is seemingly indebted to Tony Scott (sketchy uses of speculative sound effects, fancy camera angles and whip flashes, and an over-reliance on maps and typewritten fonts), but their insult is not so grand as that of the international community’s inaction in the region. Devil Came on Horseback both explains the rationale for the chaos in Darfur in terms we can all understand and asks us to follow Steidle’s lead by demanding our leaders to act now in order to save the helpless people of Darfur. God help us if we don’t. Gonzalez

Election Day (Katy Chevigny, 2007)

On November 2, 2004, the day of the Bush-Kerry showdown, filmmaker Katy Chevigny deployed a dozen-plus film crews across a great swath of the country, from Wisconsin to Florida, to track a cross-section of the American citizenry exercising their franchise. The result is the masterful verité documentary Election Day, which cuts across race, class, and ethnicity to give us a snapshot of a politically-informed and galvanized America. Included in this dense fabric: a bulldog-like Chicago poll-watcher; American-Indian activists struggling to turn the tide of their community’s traditionally low turnout; a Muslim woman urging her family to vote; lower-class black voters weary and frustrated by polling discrepancies; an ex-felon casting his ballot for the first time; working-class parents struggling to make ends meet, cynical of America’s widening economic gap; and an Australian election observer, clearly concerned about the intolerably long voter wait-times, and inadequately equipped polling stations. Underscoring all these stories is their subjects’ enduring and passionate belief in democracy. For her open-hearted yet gently caustic style, Chevigny proves herself a worthy inheritor of Frederick Wiseman and his Direct Cinema compatriots. The verité sights and sounds give us a charming, engrossing glimpse of everyday America, and, in the shrewdness with which they’re cut together, offer an unmistakable critique of the voting system, and—seen three years since the Bush reelection—of the tragic path we’ve been led down since. Jay Antani

Enemies of Happiness (Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem, 2006)

Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem’s hour-long documentary Enemies of Happiness details the final stages of Malalai Joya’s 2005 campaign (in the first democratic election held in 35 years) for a seat on the Afghanistan parliament. Joya lives in what can only be described as a constant, ever-mutating state of threat. The curtains on the windows of her apartment are always drawn, blocking out both the sun and the prying eyes of anyone who might wish her harm. She has staunchly and publicly decried the identity-obliterating nature of the burka, but wears one, nonetheless, as a protective measure during her occasional journeys into the outside world. A consummate politician, Joya campaigns publicly in the safest towns and privately via television and Hal Phillip Walker-like audio recordings. She is also a tireless confidant to and arbiter for various Afghan citizens, intervening in one couple’s vicious divorce proceedings and counseling a young girl who is to be married against her will. A 100-year-old woman walks two hours from her village to pay homage to Joya, offering herbal medicine and recollecting her days as a planter of land mines. She speaks of Joya’s democratic ideals with a gleam in her eyes. No mere hagiography, Enemies of Happiness is more an anecdotal collection of personal incident and action that culminates in a series of harshly realized truths. Even in victory, Joya recognizes the things that have been sacrificed and lost in her pursuit of the moral high ground, and as she takes her seat among the 200-plus members of the Wolesi Jirga, an all new threat emerges: the prospect of anonymity amid the myriad voices of a damaged nation. All that has come before is mere prelude. It is here, to paraphrase Western playwright Tony Kushner, that the great work begins. Keith Uhlich