Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006

George W. Bush’s human rights violations have fully caught up with today’s documentary filmmakers.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006
Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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

Men on the Edge (Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon, 2005)

For a little while, the small stretch of beach captured on film by Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon in Men on the Edge: Fishermen’s Diary represented a microcosm of idealized Middle East peace. Between 1999 and 2003, Palestinian men shared their ancient casting secrets for the opportunity to fish in the Israeli waters. It was an agreeable brotherhood, but the bittersweet Men on the Edge: Fishermen’s Diary understands the impossibility of utopia, and as such it was only a matter of time before the troubles of the outside world would pollute this place, making enemies of friends and dispersing them so that all that remained were the scattered remnants of thwarted possibility. Gonzalez

Road to Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom, 2006)

Road to Guantanamo rubs the audience’s nose in the story of three young men who, taking a trip to Afghanistan from Pakistan, were accused of working for Al Quaeda and imprisoned. Once it sprints through the story of these three guys and the way they get in over their head, much of the running time is devoted to their trip to the house of pain. A little goes a long way, and an audience will probably burn with righteous indignation until they’ve burned it into exhaustive frustration. The narrative part of the movie, shot in frenetic and murky digital video with rapid cuts and flickering title cards announcing where and when the events transpire, is accompanied by documentary-style interviews with the actual detainees, which lets us know this is a visual representation of their story. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely most viewers will engage with the international crisis at hand, and even less likely they’ll want to subject themselves to the brutal hectoring of this film. Still, the film encourages action. It’s not about events from the past, but events of the present, and like the best Charles Dickens novels it demands we grow indignant at the cause, investigate the problem further, and do something about it. Jeremiah Kipp


Rosita (Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, 2005)

In January 2003, U.S. news outlets deemed it important enough to report on the rape and pregnancy of a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl known as Rosa. Filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater flesh out this nightmare, documenting how the press, the state, and the Catholic Church would become complicit in a shameless enterprise to further victimize the child and hijack her fetus. Because Rosa was the daughter of poor coffee pickers who came to Costa Rica with dreams of progress, many thought Nicaragua would use the case for political leverage against its neighbor. Meanwhile, the state and the Catholic Church would conspire to prevent Rosita—as she came to be known in the press—from getting a therapeutic abortion. Amidst threats of taking Rosita away and promises of adopting the girl’s newborn, the parents were caught in a sticky political situation that would call due attention to the way state and religious organizations were meddling in the lives of a country’s people, showing callous disregard for their personal and emotional affairs. Attie and Goldwater’s contrived aesthetic—a synergy of faux authentic broken-English voiceover (adapted from María López Vigil’s Historia de una Runa) and overzealous and misleading shots of women and young girls holding children (this is to compensate for the fact that the filmmakers couldn’t shoot Rosita’s face)—is regrettable, but the eye-opening horror of this story sells itself. Gonzalez

Shooting Dogs (Michael Caton-Jones, 2005)

Before Basic Instinct 2, Michael Caton-Jones made this fictionalized account of what transpired inside a Kigali school during the Rwanda massacre in 1994. Caton-Jones improves on Hotel Rwanda, replacing that film’s Hollywood uplift with BBC grit. Produced and co-written by David Belton, who reported on the massacre for the BBC, the film may prioritize the feelings of its white characters but does so without sanctifying them. Hugh Dancy’s English teacher and John Hurt’s both see their idealism and faith, respectively, strained throughout the film in interesting ways, and when a news reporter reveals that the horrible massacre of the country’s Tutsi population is not as affecting to her as the crisis in Bosnia she also reported, Caton-Jones succinctly identifies the racism that allowed the Western world to turn its back on the people of Rwanda. Gonzalez

Source (Martin Marecek and Martin Skalský, 2005)

“How do you measure corruption?” wonders a citizen of Baku in Azerbaijan, the site of the world’s first oil well. A pH test of the soil may not be feasible, but the evidence is abundantly clear in the water, the junk on the ground, and the sticky poisonous air. The television news is equally instructive: Is there anything more insulting to the poor, exploited people of the country than the spectacle of rich fat cats impishly wiping their faces with oil on an illegal election day? Source simmers with the righteous indignation of a feisty community of people tired of the stink of oil and bullshit in their backyards. The film is a bit loose-limbed and rambling (its cartoon asides are not off point, simply distracting), though there’s something to be said about how this primitive work becomes difficult to differentiate from Milena Kaneva’s Total Denial and Manel Mayol’s more mannered Switch Off. In one of Baku’s gift shops, a woman displays a series of Matryoshka dolls, including a presidential-themed set in which Dubya factors as the largest figure. Inside Switch Off you might find Source and inside Source you might find Total Denial—all parts of a similar crusade that demonstrates how big corporations disease the people of the world in familiar patterns. The message of these three films may be the same: that spotting these patterns in advance may be the only way to buck further abuses. Gonzalez

Switch Off (Manel Mayol, 2005)

Oil and water may not mix but fascist governments and corporations are drawn to both with equal zeal. Director Manel Mayol arrives in the Chilean Andes, where the Pehuenche-Mapuche people are still fighting hundreds of years after their victories over the Incas and the Spanish—this time against Endesa, a hydroelectric company that built the world’s third largest dam in the Ralco valley. After moving people to higher ground, the corporation rescinded its offer to provide families with electricity, flooding the valley and the graves of the native people’s ancestors. The film’s subjects are eloquent and calmly incensed, and Mayol uniquely bolsters their righteousness not with conventional footage of Endesa’s human rights abuses (safeguarded by a complicit Pinochet’s anti-terrorists laws) but with Zen-like crawls of the Andes landscape. The back and forth of Mayol’s camera—first from left to right, then from right to left—is symbolic of the runaround he’s given by the Endesa corporation’s public relations office. His conversations with the office’s obviously sympathetic secretary are amusing, but whenever the focus of the film shifts too far from the crisis of the Pehuenche-Mapuche people, Mayol’s aesthetic erudition almost gets the better of him. Gonzalez


Total Denial (Milena Kaneva, 2005)

Total Denial’s 65 minutes aren’t nearly enough for the audience to process the plethora of information filmmaker Milena Kaneva gathered over the course of five years traveling to and from Burma and the United States. Kaneva’s aesthetic lacks elegance and her thesis could use some tightening, but the film is testament to the ability of human rights advocacy to effect change in the world. Together, Burmese native Ka Hsaw Wa and Katie Redford of Earth Rights International linked atrocities committed against the people of Burma to the construction of a pipeline, using the evidence they compiled as leverage to launch an unprecedented case against oil giants UNOCAL and TOTAL in a U.S. court. It’s the rare film in this year’s HRWIFF with a happy ending. (The film will play in conjunction with Bernadine Mellis’s The Forest for the Trees.) Gonzalez

Winter in Baghdad (Javier Corcuera, 2005)

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and director Javier Corcuera uses his to pander to our liberal bias, but even the director’s more specious indulgences—like an off-point montage of pictures from Abu Ghraib—barely compromise what is otherwise a sophisticated documentary vision of the effects of Dubya’s war on terror on the people of Iraq. Over and over again—through interviews with children maimed during the conflict, young boys who left school to support their families (one because petrol prices were too high), an ambulance driver, and a woman who lost all of her offspring in a terrible explosion—Corcuera philosophically arrives at the phantasmagoric toll of war on landscape and the human spirit. To see or not to see is the existential crisis of an occupied people, who fear the night as you or I might dread a cloaked killer and whose schoolchildren no longer draw flowers, only tanks and bombs and falling buildings. Horribly deformed after an explosion, a boy speaks of how dogs and giants appear to him in dreams—a poetic musing that chills the spine. Another opines casually while walking through the shambles of a lost paradise, “I wish we did not have oil.” From the mouths of babes whose innocence has been smitten, the fallacy of the war on Iraq becomes impossible to deny. Gonzalez

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