Posts Tagged ‘human rights watch’

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016


apollo and lyre


Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (

hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..


Apollo’s Girl

July 16, 2014




A Summer’s Tale (1996)

Just in time for the dog days, Eric Rohmer’s third installment of Tales of the Four Seasons has been restored and released for the first time in America. Why so long? Perhaps it fell into some cinematic crack, but the timing couldn’t be better. With July simmering around us, there’s no better antidote than this survivor of a movie. So let’s go to the beach…

But not the sun-drenched, saturated-color glamour
of the Cote d’Azur, where you pick summerstale2our way toward the Mediterranean while looking around to see who’s in the water. No.
This summer’s tale plays out on the lesser-known and everyday Atlantic, near La Rochelle. It’s cool, in every sense of the word. The film’s crisp, restrained palette of rocks, sun and sand, the middle-class ambiance of the beach and the pale bodies of its citizens are rendered as an alternative to the heat of the Riviera. And what a relief!

Eric-Rohmer-001Rohmer himself is a relief, too. We have missed his adolescents talking out their problems on long walks, or over the ubiquitous red wine that lubricates their opinions. It’s always about relationships–monogamy or the thrill of the chase and the unknown–talk is life to his self-obsessed young adults. What makes Rohmer so special is his fondness for the angst that never dies, expressed with eloquence and reticence. And how, in his young, heartfelt protestations of probity are delivered so that the audience is in on the joke and the layers of denial and emotional need that frame every conversation.

summer's tale 3A Summer’s Tale begins simply enough, with Gaspard (Melville Poupaud) arriving on the beach looking for his girlfriend Lena (Arélea Nolen) who is traveling to meet him. But she’s still in transit. Soon Gaspard is deep in conversation with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a charming waitress/graduate student, about his relationship. And–what do you know–the waitress professes friendship, and suggests he meet Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a friend of hers who might be just right for him while he waits.

No sooner has he begun to explore the possibilities of Solène’s “rightness,” then his capricious girlfriend shows up to tantalize–just as the waitress decides that perhaps Platonic might not be the way to go.
summer's tale 1There are no ultimatums or slamming doors, but eventually the lovelorn soloist has become the pivot of an increasingly lively menage
à quatre. It’s complicated: all sincerity and self, with incrementally elaborate deceptions necessary to maintain equilibrium. The comedy is sly, but
consistent, and just as we wonder exactly how summers tale- 2Gaspard will extract himself from what has become an embarrassment of riches, he finds a solution. Won’t give it away, but it’s worth waiting for and drew appreciative, knowing laughter from the sophisticated crowd. Definitely the right movie for right now. Look for
A Summer’s Tale and thank Big World Pictures for bringing it back.

Human Rights Watch Festival

Compared to the scale of last year’s political turmoil, 2014 offered a different aesthetic: small-scale, tightly focused, and intense. Often quieter. But no less affecting. One of the most powerful choices was the Sundance Audience Award-winner, The Green Prince, directed by Nadav Schirman.
It green princetranscends the you-can’t-make-stuff-like-that-up category with a real-life journey that, against all odds, generates a deep friendship between a young Palestinian zealot and the Shin Bet officer assigned to recruit him as a double agent for Israeli intelligence. It is, in fact, a terrifying story, with implications that remain troubling long after you leave the theatre. Schirman has figured out how to enhance the essentials with a combination of archival footage (chilling) and occasional reenactments designed for maximum impact.
The Green Prince pulls no punches and, given the current news from the Middle East, is a must for anyone who sustains even a scintilla of hope that coexistence is an option. Though still on the festival circuit, it will be in general release later this year. Find it! (From Music Box Films)


privateviolencedeanna_touched-finalPrivate Violence
(Director: Cynthia Hill) The tag line of Private Violence is “…the most dangerous place for a woman in America is her own home,” and ample evidence for the statement is offered repeatedly in this harrowing, disturbing account of the truth behind many marriages, and not just in America. Many of the victims are disadvantaged, but the pattern of violence and escalation is not confined to the 99%. One of the most shocking interludes reveals a highly respected doctor with a long history of domestic violence screaming imprecations at his wife and those who would restrain him. If that doesn’t unsettle you, the narrative thread of one woman’s terrifying attempt to find justice should forever answer the question “Why didn’t you just leave?” She eventually finds an ally with a similar history who is able to navigate the judicial labyrinth and bring the case to trial, with a verdict of guilty that will make you cheer while you weep. This is one instance where states’ rights are an almost insurmountable obstacle to a good outcome. (HBO: October, 2014)

(Director: Richie Mehta) is narrative fiction, generated by the reality of child trafficking that forms a horrific bridge between the haves and have-nots in the Third World. Needing extra money to subsist, a father “sells” his adolescent son through a relative to work in a distant factory, rationalizing the arrangement as a necessity, but only temporary.

Due to come home for the holidays, the son never returns. With the growing fear that something has gone terribly wrong, the father sets out to cross India and reunite with his boy. He encounters realities far beyond his simple existence and is unable to find anything more than the likelihood that Siddarth has been kidnapped and forced into an unthinkable life. Siddharth (like Mehta) has both gravitas and modesty, but the understanding that Siddharth will never be found shakes the father and mother, and its understated sorrow has greater magnitude than a more sensational film could ever provide. (Zeitgeist Films: In national release.)

The Beekeeper (Der Imker)  Director: Mano Khalil

der imkerAnother gentle and understated storyof a Kurdish beekeeper (Ibrahim Gezer)who has been granted
asylum in Switzerland. Only gradually does he reveal to his new friends the horrors that led him to flee Turkey (his entire family was killed), and find the strength to take up his old profession despite the Swiss laws—generating a hilarious sequence of the absolute and well-meaning correctness of Swiss bureucracy versus the beekeeper’s real need. The bees are his salvation, and he will pass his knowledge on to the next generation. But The Beekeeper, without a domestic distribution, will remain unseen in America.


casa grandeAlways a pulsing grab-bag of unexpected goodies,
the current Latinbeat scores with two  debuts: Casa Grande (Director: Fellipe Barbosa) is an unsparing coming-of-age story
that offers one of the most arresting (and original) opening sequences in cinema history.

Forget that car on the road going endlessly toward the horizon! Casa Grande’s beginning tells you everything you need to know about one of the essential players (the father): his conflicts, goals, and the house he has acquired for his family that is a source of pride for him, and a burden for his rebellious son. It is dusk; he paddles in his Jacuzzi, cools off in his pool, dons his expensive terrycloth bathrobe and heads across the patio to his house. He switches off the music that we mistook for a background score, then methodically turns out the lights that blaze through the windows as he climbs from the entry to his bedroom. The house is comfortable and welcoming, and will turn out to be built on sand.

The economic and social issues that plague modern Brazil are navigated well and imaginatively here, without short-changing any of the human drama, or the seriousness of what lies under the surface of suburb and favella. Barbosa keeps all the complex threads in motion so we can see the fabric of society unraveling without requiring explanation. It’s what movies can do in the right hands.

paula hertzogAnd now for another understated gem that simply sneaks up on you:
Natural Sciences (Director:
Matías Lucchesi) and yes, another example of how to tell a story by making the camera dialogue’s equal partner. The story is simple—a young girl’s obsessive quest to find the father she has never known—and, at 77 minutes, brief. But every second counts. At its center, and its alpha/omega, is (the then) 11-year-old Paula Hertzog, co-winner of Best Actress Award at the Guadalajara Film Festival. More, Natural Sciences also won Best Film and Best Screenplay there, then went to Berlin and walked off with its Generation Kplus Grand Prix. But you know, it’s not about the statuettes and crystal plaques; it’s about what happens on the screen and how you feel about it.

The old saw about not appearing with child actors does not apply here. As spectacular as Hertzog is, and will be (the camera really, really loves her!), the ballast is shared with her co-star, Paola Barrientos,  who (while never natural sciencesstealing a scene) manages to provide a compelling and beautifully nuanced portrait of a teacher who recognizes her pupil’s gifts and is determined to help her find herself, whatever the cost. You might call it a buddy movie, or a road movie, but it’s just a movie that will stay in your mind for a very long time. You will probably cry, too, but you will be happy. 

Apollo’s Girl

July 3, 2013


apollo and lyre

Human Rights Watch Film Festival:
Its Eye Is On the Sparrows


OimagesCA1XM8ERne 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. 

act of killing2One example that delivers on all four counts is Joshua Oppenheimer’s controversial The Act of Killing. It’s a reenactmentby the principal villainsof 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 Treea dramatall as the baobab tree(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 salma 1women 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 Camera Womanlights 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 Pussy Riotinto the lives of others, then contrasting it with Pussy RiotA Punk Prayer (Russia; Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin). Make no mistakePussy 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.

christ the saviorConsider 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 swimming poolhouse 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 pussy riot4band 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.

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 CinemaDocumentary 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 99%(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 99% 2(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!

clinton_in_haitiFatal 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

%d bloggers like this: