Human Rights Watch Film Festival:
Its Eye Is On the Sparrows
One of the great attractions of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is its piercing gaze at many subjects otherwise unseen, and the passion and depth of its committed filmmakers. Definitely not for those accustomed to bread and circuses, yet so compelling it’s hard to turn away. In fact, truth can be addictive. And what a welcome relief!
This year’s slate, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, includes traditional values and human rights: disability; LGBT; crises and migration; focus on Asia; the rights of women; and human rights right here at home. Taken together, they make essential viewing that can shock, repel, fascinate, and tear your heart out.
One example that delivers on all four counts is Joshua Oppenheimer’s controversial The Act of Killing. It’s a reenactment—by the principal villains—of their murders of more than one million of their Indonesian countrymen after President Sukarno’s ouster in 1965. They preen like movie stars as they discuss production details and the finer points of “playing” themselves in their glory days, their bloated faces revealing everything you need to know about who they are even before the horrors mount before you. Without going into too much detail, I can verify that the movie is hard to watch, but it’s a stunner that won the audience award at the Berlinale, was co-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and has earned (so far) a Metacritic score of 92. (See trailer). Opens in New York on July 19. Brace yourself. Be there.
The issue of women’s rights (in the headlines right now) is given a powerful boost by HRW with four new films. Three are about the lives of Muslim women in Senegal, India, and Morocco, living in villages, towns, and cities. Despite their cultural differences, what they have in common is Islam and the pain of isolation as they try to remain independent in societies that are largely unsupportive, or actively hostile to their goals. Education, for all of them, is freedom; the difficulty of achieving it (which we have long ago left in the dust, now having to focus our energies on the perpetual defense of Roe vs. Wade) is a reminder of what life, for women, is really like elsewhere.
Of the three, Tall as the Baobab Tree—a drama—(Senegal; Jeremy Teicher) is the gentlest. It’s set in a peaceful rural village where two sisters (Coumba and Debo) and their families are part of a close-knit, traditional community, tending cows and gardens. They talk about learning and work hard to become good students. Their lives are protected, yet circumscribed. Longing for learning and a place in the world beyond their village, Debo, the younger sister, is sold in marriage to a much-older man, denying her forever the possibilities that education would bring. Coumba vows to buy her back, but village customs make it unlikely, even when she has secretly earned money to do it by working at a hotel in a nearby town. The beauty and serenity of the landscape are a sad contrast to lives that will never be.
Salma (India; Kim Longinotto) Salma’s life is less about serenity than about the stubborn insistance of a Tamil woman in India secluded (like many other women in her culture) when she reaches puberty; she must wear a burka and cannot study or leave the house until she finds a husband. She marries and, against all the odds, begins writing poems on scraps of paper, which ultimately find their way to a sympathetic publisher. In time, her husband reluctantly accepts her increasing fame and urges her to run for local political office (she runs and wins). But decades of inner and outer struggle have taken their toll. She will go on writing, but is realistic about the limited options available to her countrywomen in the future.
Camera/Woman (Morocco; Karima Zoubir) The bright lights and city energy of Casablanca are an ironic contrast to the reality of Khadija’s life. She is divorced, with a young son, and living with her parents and brothers. The fact that she is divorced shames them almost as much as her occupation as a camerawoman, recording the weddings and celebrations of anyone who will hire her. She must bargain with her clients for enough money to cover the cost of stock and camera rental, with no profit margin. It’s a hard life, but the only one she has been able to put together for herself. There seems to be no way out except marriage, and she’s reluctant to embrace it a second time.
Now this is where HRW has done us a huge favor: by offering us these rare glimpses into the lives of others, then contrasting it with Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer (Russia; Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin). Make no mistake—Pussy Riot is a clever, well-made and thought-out film, backed by the BBC. The bright lights and big city energy here are in Moscow, and the issues are sophisticated and complex. The Punk girl band is very naughty; they have chosen to express their displeasure with Vladimir Putin in very public ways, for one by performing in tights, tunics, and masks on the most sacred altar of The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Consider for a moment the back story here: the cathedral was originally raised (right next to the Kremlin) to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat and the many sacrifices of the Russian people. It was the tallest Orthodox church in the world, took 21 years to build and required another 20 for the completion of its lavish decoration and gilding. In keeping with its origins, Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture had its premiere there. After the Revolution, Stalin, sensing its power, had it dynamited. Eventually the remaining foundations were used to house the biggest swimming pool in Moscow. Yet the Orthodox faithful watched and waited, biding their time until Glasnost to begin raising funds from the public; the cathedral was rebuilt and reopened in 2000. So its symbolic importance to Russians in general, and to Muscovites in particular, is unique. In short, Pussy Riot’s brief fling on its altar caused a virtual riot, and the band was jailed on a number of charges.
In the course of the film it becomes clear that the band members (in contrast to the Muslim women described above) are educated, well-to-do, wordly and attractive. and very much in charge of their lives. They have a huge following. During their trial (filmed in detail), the daily confrontations between Orthodox Russians and Russians who support the detainees grow in numbers and intensity. Of course serious attention is paid; the world press has a feeding frenzy, recording everything that moves. (We note that many of the Pussy supporters’ signs are in English). Their provocations may not move the implacable Mr. Putin, but they continue to generate CDs, videos and impressive publicity for the provocateurs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoJqzGG7u_k
What to make of all this? It raises some important questions, and we learn that three of the girls are sentenced to two years at hard labor, while a fourth is released on a technicality. We also learn that the band has taken part earlier in some fairly questionable forms of protest (including a performance of what looks like busy non-simulated public sex), has considerable support from the public as well as from their families, and has planned its strategies knowingly and for maximum impact. Madonna has taken up their cause, and two band members have somehow made it to New York for the film’s premiere in June.
Pussy Riot was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema—Documentary at Sundance this year, but did not win. With backstage politics no less Byzantine in Park City than in the Kremlin, it was then awarded the Special Jury Prize in the same category. It has theatrical release and has been showing on HBO. How could Coumba, Debo, Salma, and Khadija imagine such things? And who will speak and protest for them?
99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, Nina Krstic). Unlike some collaborative films whose broth has been stirred by too many cooks, this one gets five stars in every category. Remaining clearly focused on the issues that generated the movement in 2011, the film was put together by almost 100 filmmakers across the country, driven (and kept together) for a year by their frustration with the system and their conviction that it can be improved. 99% not only identifies the problems and the ways in which they are self-perpetuating and interdependent, but offers thoughtful solutions that demand consideration.
It’s not just about getting publicity, but about generating (and maintaining) enough energy to bring about lawful change. Brilliant interviews and editing keep the issues front and center and remarkably clear. Because the subject has truly international implications, 99% is required viewing for everyone who hopes to improve the present and secure the future. FYI: It’s also fast and smart!
Fatal Assistance (Raoul Peck). Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010, like hurricane Katrina in 2005, struck a fatal blow to its struggling and already impoverished victims. However, the immediate worldwide outpouring of funds, material aid, and celebrities on the ground seemed to ensure that Haiti would recover and rebuild, perhaps finally even be able to break free of a century of corruption and desperate poverty. Such a dream was soon obliterated by reality: much of the money promised was not actually released, or slipped away and remained unaccounted-for; the NGOs involved had their own conflicting agendas; little of the reconstruction was completed, or even begun. Rubble still fills many streets, and roads from the cities to the interior remain impassable. Gradually, the pattern of corruption reasserts itself in the chaos. Even as Bill Clinton and Sean Penn lobby eloquently on Haiti’s behalf it becomes clear that relief efforts are doomed to failure. The question of where Haiti goes from here cannot be answered with any certainty.
See more about the festival at: human rights watch