Human Rights Watch 2015:
A Very Good Year…(June 11 – 21)
Even with festivals multiplying like so many digital rabbits, HRW has always been the one to look forward to, sure to amaze and shock, provoke outrage and sorrow and—sometimes—even generate hope. That said, HRW 2015 is the strongest slate in memory. A co-presentation between The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, the films are shown at least once (or twice) at each venue. But before I get going on some specifics, a warning: go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york before the screenings are sold out and book your seats; they have a way of disappearing.
Now: 3-½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is riveting stuff; a case resonant with echoes ofGeorge Zimmerman’s collision with Trayvon Martin and, like it, a paradigm of Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws which keep the state’s playing ground decidedly unlevel. It has all the elements of contemporary conflict:, unarmed young black men playing loud music; an armed white man (Michael Dunn) who dislikes loud music, who decides that the way to get it turned down is by shooting them—and killing one of the four (Jordan Davis). But this case is far more complicated than George Zimmerman’s; it leads to a jury trial in which the revelations of witnesses take surprising turns, and the ongoing pain of the dead youth’s parents and friends is like a knife that separates flesh from bone. In the end, none of the usual cliches apply to the story and its outcome. Director Marc Silver has created a film that is both rigorous and emotional in making its points and making you think, hard about how to effect change. (Sundance: Special Jury Prize, Documentary)
The Wanted 18. Only a French/Canadian/Palestinian co-production could come up with a film like The Wanted 18. To describe it in conventional narrative would be to miss its point entirely. It is, like all the entries in HRW, a true story. But a story like no other. In real life, the Palestinians in the town of Beit Sahour, tired of Israeli occupation and the economic chokehold it imposed, decided to fight back. They started small—buying 18 cows to produce their own milk as a cooperative. Soon the co-op became a productive farm that was feeding most of the town. Dairy and produce no longer had to be purchased from the Israelis at pre-set prices. It was a peaceful agrarian revolution that succeeded, until the Israelis, piqued at the competition, shut it down. Its spirit, though, still hovers over Beit Sahour like a latter-day Chagall, made more poignant by the filmmakers’ (Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan) decision to scatter an army of tiny clay figures and drawings among the real Israelis and Palestinians. Although the film’s issues are deadly serious, its whimsical execution makes it easier to applaud the truly creative solutions the townspeople found for an all-too-brief moment of empowerment. They are, by the way, Christian, rather than Muslim. And, as in all stories, its not the tale itself, but how its told. A truly original work, to be enjoyed and pondered.
The Trials of Spring (Gini Reticker) makes clear the divide between the status of women in Egypt and in the West. There is contempt, abuse, and virulent public sexual harassment to deal with every day, with little or no help from the authorities or families, and the ideals of the Arab Spring—including parity between men and women—long since trampled in the dust. Despite all they have suffered, the experiences of the three women who bear eloquent witness to the cruelty of Egyptian justice have made them all the more determined to find solutions to their own oppression.
Life is Sacred (Andreas Dalsgaard) This film, one of the most extraordinarily intelligent and thrilling documentaries I’ve seen, will break your heart and mend it with wild hope (repeatedly!) as you are catapulted into the cauldron of Colombia’s 21st-century politics. They are complicated, yet Dalsgaard’s encyclopedic knowledge of their every twist and turn is equaled by his enormous skill at spinning them into legend. At its heart, Antanas Mockus: the larger-than-life philosopher, academician, and ultimately Mayor of Bogota—who galvanizes the electorate to take back their lives and their country by routing the profoundly corrupt politicians who have run, and ruined it. For this Herculean task, Mockus takes up his weapons: throngs of committed , fiercely loyal young people who struggle with him to achieve a future for their land.
But things do not go as planned: the elections are rigged, and the future is recaptured by the old guard. And that’s when the film reveals its complex design. Mockus withdraws (for reasons that are withheld until the right moment). His cause is moved forward by one of his deputies (charismatic and brilliant in her own right), pledged to opposing the elections’ winner (hand-picked behind the scenes by Colombia’s invincible strong man). Surprises and reversals keep the narrative exploding, enriched by Dalsgaard’s archival footage (much of it shot for his earlier film, Cities on Speed: Bogota Change). And while there is plenty of action, the film’s greatest impact comes from its revelations of character. They are profound, and entirely universal; Dalsgaard’s brilliance is underscored by his ability to maintain clarity throughout an exceptionally chaotic period (about eight years) without the use of narration. He is a master of structure, telling an unforgettable story. See it twice if you can.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson) Black Panthers has been chosen for HRW’s closing night on June 21st, will open at the Film Forum on September 2, and be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series in February of 2016 (as part of Nelson’s America Revisited trilogy.) Black Panthers reminds us that, within living memory, our streets were filled with demonstrations for equality, our newspapers were filled with headlines demanding that attention be paid, and organized violence (on both sides) threatened civic order. In the 21st century it’s hard to imagine how intense the 1960s were before snarky Tweets replaced the actual, physical expression of dissent.
The short and disturbing history of the Black Panthers was written by people who had become tired of the low-key progress of conventional Civil Rights and had decided to take action. That action, its consequences, and the retribution that ended it permanently have become obscured by the passage of time; Nelson’s searing documentary lays bare the heat and reawakens the emotions that captured America in the years that changed its direction forever. This is essential viewing for those old enough to revisit history and first-timers alike, and you will have many opportunities to think hard about its lessons.
The Yes Men are Revolting
One of HRW’s strengths is its option to reprise films seen earlier that deserve another run. This year, they’ve selected Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (opening in theatres on July 17), and The Yes Men are Revolting (now running at the IFC Center). For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Laura Nix and the Yes Men—a.k.a. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno—you will have a chance to play catchup this week. (I admit to really loving this film and the Yes Men, whatever their real names). They are always funny, always smart, and have perfected the art of the serious tweak on subjects who are in desperate need of reining in. (See November 20, 2014 post on this blog) Or an eloquent clip:
So, whether you prefer screenings uptown or downtown, be glad that Human Rights Watch offers infinite variety, has your back and your neighborhood. http://ff.hrw.org/new-york .