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June 2006 Archives

June 16, 2006

Road to Guantanamo, 2006

guantanamo.gifSomething of an aesthetic hybrid between an impassioned cinéma vérité and the bracing docu-fiction of Peter Watkins, Road to Guantanamo is a provocative, confrontational, and impeccably crafted, if oddly sterile and incongruously stylized re-enactment of the plight of the Tipton Three, a group of working class, British Muslim young men on holiday from the West Midlands who, having traveled from the U.K. to Pakistan and Afghanistan on October, 2001 for an impending wedding and a cross-country road trip to their ancestral homeland, found themselves caught in the crossfire during the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban power structure that harbored him. Inadvertently detained in Afghanistan due to illness, the friends soon found themselves hopelessly strayed from the popular big city destinations, staying instead at a rural border village to recuperate during the untimely start of the military incursion into Afghanistan as the Allied Forces launched a large scale campaign to round up potential Taliban partisans and Al-Qaeda militants for transportation to the covert, extraterritorial detention facilities of Guantanamo on the southern tip of Cuba for intelligence gathering. Forced to evacuate when the village is subjected to heavy bombardment by advancing Allied troops, the friends, along with the displaced villagers, are unwittingly deposited along a stretch of open field for safety, and into the waiting hands of the Northern Alliance where the seemingly suspect coincidence of the young men's ethnicity, religion, age, citizenship, and circumstance singles them out as fitting the characteristic profile of radical extremists recruited by Al-Qaeda, and sends them on a brutal and unimaginably harrowing course to the limbo of indefinite Guantanamo detention as they are skirted away without trial for further deprogramming and interrogation. Interweaving archival footage, testimonial transcripts, and re-enactments of the young men's nightmarish plight, filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross explore similar issues of civil rights abuses, racial profiling, and political exploitation as Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse's sobering, incisive, and excoriating documentary Persons of Interest on the U.S. government's systematic human rights violation and flagrant disregard for the rubric of the Geneva Convention that calls for the civilized treatment of suspected enemy combatants in the wake of an amorphous, post 9/11 "war on terror" global witch hunt, and where the judicial principle of "innocent until proven guilty" has been repeatedly flouted and undermined by the government in its spectral evocation - and apocalyptic, false immediacy - of a looming, undefined security threat. Inevitably, it is the testimonies of the Tipton Three - and not the desensitizing, hyperstylized images of re-enacted, interminable (and often transgressive) brutality - that lucidly articulate the film's unabashedly critical and impassioned denouncement of the U.S. government's culture of systematic arrogance of power in its unconscionable rationalization of indefinite detention, torture, and inhumane interrogation as legitimate weapons in the waging of a delusive, interminable, and self-perpetuating terror war.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

June 13, 2006

Source, 2006

source.gifAn animated cartoon featuring rough drawn, under-detailed Playmobil-like characters driving away from their idyllic suburban homes and into a gas station to fill up their tanks for the morning commute to work sets the droll, idiosyncratic tone for the pointed social commentary, yet tongue-in-cheek humor of filmmakers Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky charming, offbeat, witty, and incisive documentary, Source, as the long cartoon gas pump line ultimately connects to a real-life shot of an oil pump at a derelict, oil soaked open field in Baku, Azerbaijan, the site of the country's first oil well. Hailed as both the future and salvation of the country, the oil industry dominates much of the country's economy as well as its consciousness, even if the windfall of profits rarely, if ever, trickle down to the everyday workers who labor in unsafe conditions at the poorly maintained oil fields, nor to the nearby villagers who live in an environment of elevated radiation levels, polluted air, toxic fields, and contaminated waters. Targeted by international conglomerates for supply and development (most notably, BP), the funding and profits often end up exclusively in the hands of corrupt politicians embedded at all levels of government. A human rights activist acerbically comments on the extent of the graft through the U.S. government's inequitable treatment of the two contemporary, fraud-laden elections from the former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where the U.S. quickly validated the election of Ilham Aliyev (son of the former president Heidar Aliev), even as it joined the oppositional chorus citing massive voting fraud in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze - the chance for democracy in action stifled in Azerbaijan by the presence of oil and the need for predictable - if endemically corrupt - political stability. Composed of a series of irreverently edited interviews featuring an eclectic cast of characters - impassioned human rights activists, bumbling oil company spokesmen (in particular, the running gag of a bemused oil executive whose interview keeps getting interrupted by telephone calls on a direct government line that never seem to go through), talking head politicians, exploited workers, dispossessed landowners whose property deeds have been confiscated and modified by the government to accommodate the pipeline construction (including a displaced village elder and self-described poet whose farmland has been bisected by a pipeline that now runs through the center of his field), abandoned women who have been set up in primitive condition camps while their husbands leave to work in faraway old fields, and a souvenir shop sales clerk who shows off their most popular tourist tchotchkes (where politically themed matryoshka dolls of the Aliev "dynasty" sell alongside the Osama Bin Laden terrorist nesting dolls) - and laced with incisive black humor (in particular, a hilarious cartoon re-enactment of the filmmakers' flight from local authorities and hiding of the incriminating videotape up a tree before being arrested and subsequently released through diplomatic intervention), the film is an infectiously engaging, yet astute and relevant exposition into the exploitive politics of resource economy.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Black Gold, 2006

blackgold.gifA bold, impassioned, no-holds-barred look at the profoundly deleterious effects of artificial price setting by commodities trading in western financial markets (most notably New York and London) and the inherent inequity of the World Trade Organization's policies on the livelihood of impoverished farmers in developing countries, Black Gold traces the lucrative coffee trail to its humble origins in Ethiopia at the plateaus of Yirgacheffe where a genial, dedicated businessman and tireless fair trade advocate, Tadesse Meskele visits one of the many small farms that make up the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union whose interests he represents at international markets, corporate sales, and trade shows. Citing the World Trade Organization's unjust practice of continuing to allow government farm subsidies in determining trade policies that economically favor the agricultural products of nations engaging in these subsidies - thereby undervaluing the true cost of the products and imposing a great disadvantage on developing nations from competing fairly in the world market - Meske serves as a guide to the sobering reality of increasingly abject conditions and constant threat of famine faced by these farming communities, as infrastructures for clean, potable water, medical facilities (including financially strapped, volunteer crisis centers forced to turn away "moderately" malnourished children in order to maintain enough provisions to treat the severely malnourished), and plans for opening schools remain on perpetual hold as the villagers are unable to raise enough money to sustain even the most basic quality of life projects in their community, even as Ethiopian coffee is still highly regarded as one of the finest coffees in the world, and coffee itself has become a popular staple on the commodities exchange and a booming global industry. Contrasting the image of desperate farmers receding ever deeper into poverty - or worse, turning away from coffee farming towards the more lucrative market of narcotic plants - as the paper-based commodities exchange price remains artificially low (an imposed, non market-based price system used by international suppliers of most major coffee companies to undercut the purchase price of coffee offered to farmers) against the images of curious, but ultimately superficial barista competitions, connoisseur taste tests (where the flavor of Ethiopian coffee is invariably singled out by the judges), and Seattle coffee tours that trace the genesis of Starbucks, filmmakers Nick Francis and Marc Francis presents an audacious, trenchant, and unapologetic examination of corporate exploitation, economic imperialism, and the myth of globalism.

For more information, please visit the film's website. Additionally, Tadesse Meskele indicated during the Q&A that the Oromia cooperative's coffees can be purchased through Massachusetts-based, fair trade coffee roasters Dean's Beans.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 13, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

June 12, 2006

Iraq in Fragments, 2006

iraq_fragments.gifComposed of three self-contained chapters that integrally represent the figurative image of the country divided, not only by ethnic and religious sectarianism, but also by the further destabilization of an undefined and politically - and culturally - intrusive occupation, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments exquisitely fuses the aesthetics of Godfrey Reggio in the artful presentation of decontextualized, self-expressive landscape (most notably, in the accelerated, time lapse interstitial sequences between regions) with the immediacy of objective, indigenous documentary. Opening in the working class district in Baghdad where young Mohammad, an apprentice mechanic struggling with his studies and his conflicted emotions over his heavy-handed, but compassionate and well-intentioned boss and mentor (and surrogate father figure) who ridicules his poor performance at school, even as he encourages him to stop working in order to concentrate on his schoolwork, the first chapter tersely encapsulates the complicated reality of postwar Baghdad, as children must increasingly compromise their education, childhood, and ultimately their future for economic survival. The second chapter takes place in southern Iraq during the Shia'd Uprising, as seen through the eyes of a young Shiite cleric and disciple of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite Revolutionary as the faithful perform their atonement ritual on a public street and the Islamic militia subsequently sets off on a (sometimes brutal) campaign to return the region to the strictures of Islamic law and purge the contamination of occupation and secularism. Vacillating between images of law enforcement and vigilantism, enlightened spirituality and intolerance, the chapter incisively articulates the delicate balance between maintaining social order and repression inherent in a theocracy. The third chapter is shot from the lush, agrarian region of a northern Kurdish village, as two childhood friends are inevitably separated, not by war or ideology, but by cultural tradition of familial duty as Suleiman must abandon school in order to work for a brick factory and tend to the family farm for his aging father. Concluding with Suleiman's acceptance of his humble destiny, the chapter evokes Mohammad's earlier articulated hopefulness for a better life for his family and his community, bringing to full circle the complex image of a diverse country still burning in the wreckage of an imposed war and ensuing violence, fragilely - and eloquently - held together by the dreams of children.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Camden 28, 2006

camden.gifA penetrating, affirming, and bracing examination of what the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would deem as "one of the great trials of the twentieth century", filmmaker Anthony Giacchino's Camden 28 broaches on similar issues of Bernadine Mellis' The Forest for the Trees in the government - and specifically, the FBI's - systematic abuse of power in its practice of surveillance, infiltration, intimidation, and discreditation of activist organizations as a means of curbing dissent against current national policy. Composed of interviews with members of the original prosecuted Camden 28, reenactments, archival material, and excerpts from trial transcripts, what emerges is a profoundly disturbing account of the government's deliberate (and insidious) attempts to sabotage the activities of (with the goal of bringing down and dismantling) the Catholic Left - a loose alliance of Catholic priests, blue collar workers, housewives, conscientious objectors, families of fallen soldiers, and other ordinary citizens opposed to the Vietnam War who, as the tide of popular opinion was beginning to turn against the Vietnam War, engaged in a series of high visibility "actions" (such as public burning of draft cards and vandalism of draft board records for 1A-classified, first line recruits) to protest the draft throughout the northeast and mid central United States. At the heart of the issue is the Camden 28's surveillance of a federal building that housed the draft documents for the district as a potential candidate for a break-in (for what the members would subsequently describe as a surgical strike against the draft mechanism by dismantling the cross-referencing system used to file the draft papers) which, given the impenetrable security of the building, would likely have resulted in aborted plans, had it not been for the aid of a perhaps all too knowledgeable handyman who seemed to have convenient workarounds and the proper tools to gain entry into the secure building, and who, on the evening of the break-in, was nowhere to be found. Later revealed to be an FBI informant who naïvely sought to protect his friends from committing a crime believing that the government would intervene and prevent the break-in, he instead found himself manipulated by agents who furnished him with tools and information to carry out the break-in for the specific purpose of arresting the group and striking a blow to the Catholic Left movement. Opening with the almost comical testimony of Father Michael Doyle who, at the very onset, admitted that he had, indeed, broken into the draft board office that fateful evening, the defense then sought to exonerate the Camden 28 through the process of jury nullification, presenting a series of moral arguments against the injustice of the very war itself: from the two priests (and brothers) who evoked their profound spiritual, moral, and vocational duty to stop the suffering and bloodshed, to the statistics of the disproportionality of lower income young men from the impoverished neighborhoods of Camden being drafted to war, to a mother who had lost one son in Vietnam and now stood to lose her other son for his participation in trying to stop the senseless (and seemingly interminable) war that killed his brother. Culminating with the Camden 28's reunion at the site of their original courtroom trial, the film serves as a trenchant reminder of moral conviction in the face of strong-arm politics, institutional intimidation, and social stigma.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

Total Denial, 2006

total_denial.gifA fascinating chronicle of the landmark tort case brought against Unocal on behalf of fifteen displaced Burmese villagers who were raped, beaten, enslaved, tortured, and even killed by the Burmese army in service to Unocal for the construction and security of the Yadana pipeline linking southern Burma to Thailand, Total Denial is a dense, intimate, and often overwhelming exposition on the insidious, blind-eye approach of large corporations - and in particular, the oil companies Total and Unocal - towards conducting business within the countries of corrupt, repressive, and illegitimate regimes with known histories of human rights violations. Guided by human rights activist, Ka Hsaw Wa, a native Karen (Burma's largest ethnic minority) who cut his activist teeth with the violently suppressed student demonstrations for democracy in 1988 (for which he was arrested and tortured) who has been gathering the testimonies and documenting the plight of the displaced villagers as they hid in the jungles between Burma and Thailand, the film exposes the interrelated political and economic machinations that knowingly enable the perpetuation of human rights violations with relative impunity. Following the ignominious trail of corrupt symbiosis - from Unocal's creation of a series of shell companies that obfuscate their involvement (and the extent of their involvement) in these unethical practices, to government intervention in the legal action (former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage campaigned to sway the court into dismissing the lawsuit without going to trial), to the Burmese army's long history of dealing with independence movements of ethnic minorities through brutality and genocide, to a kind of myopic, powder keg diplomacy that favors silence and willful ignorance in order to achieve short term national goals than in confronting the reality of human rights abuses and global dynamics in order to forge a long term solution - and juxtaposed against the haunting testimonies of the face obscured, Burmese "John Doe" litigants as they recount their traumas of repeated village burning, intimidation, extortion, forced labor, and violations suffered at the hands of Burmese army in an attempt to clear and depopulate the area around the construction site and logistics infrastructure, filmmaker Milena Kaneva presents a probing, illuminating, and incisive exposition into the everyday reality of the incestuous alliance of politics and big business economics.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch

The Forest for the Trees, 2006

forest_trees.gifQuis custiodet ipsos custiodes? - "Who guards the guardians?" - muses famed civil rights attorney, Dennis Cunnigham during an informal breakfast interview with his daughter, filmmaker Bernadine Mellis. A self-confessed dropout during the early 1960s whose passion for civil rights crystallized during a train ride home after the 1963 March on Washington that galvanized the Civil Rights movement, Cunningham has spent his entire career defending civil rights of all people against the abuse of authority and overreaching government, from the brothers of Attica who staged a revolt in 1971 for inhumane prison conditions, to the Black Panthers whose influential Chicago leader, Fred Hampton was killed by the Chicago police during a targeted raid instigated by the FBI. On the final stages of trial preparation for a long and hard fought court date on a civil lawsuit brought by the late environmental activist Judi Bari and fellow activist Darryl Cherney against the FBI twelve years earlier, the case represents the disturbing tactic and dirty politics of government's involvement in undermining radical organizations, subversives, and resistance movements (arbitrarily) deemed a threat to their central authority and national order. At the center of the civil action is the still unsolved car bombing of Earth First organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney during a period of delicate negotiations with the logging industry to end the protracted (non-violent) protest over deforestation of the redwoods and work towards an agreement on responsible logging and resource renewal. Cursorily and conveniently characterized at the instigation of the FBI as an eco-terrorism plot gone awry - with the perpetrators seemingly hoisted by their own petard - at the onset of the crime scene investigation, Bari and Cherney would be immediately arrested at the hospital while still in intensive care and the news of their foiled plot expediently broadcasted for public consumption (and ridicule) despite Bari's own revelations of received death threats and intimidation at the scene of the explosion. With the charges subsequently dropped due to lack of evidence, Bari would then pursue a civil case against the FBI for their role in impeding the bombing investigation with knowingly false conclusions to forensic evidence (a "hidden in plain sight" bomb which had been mounted in the underbody of the car, and box of "matching" nails found in the trunk of the car that were neither from the same origin nor even the same type of nails) with the deliberate intent of discrediting the bombing victims and the Earth First movement. Chronicling the day to day activities of Cunningham and the Bari legal team as they prepare for the start of the trial, review depositions and testimonies, discuss strategy for closing arguments, and wait for the jury verdict, The Forest for the Trees provides an provocative, impassioned, and sobering perspective of the long, often frustrating uphill road to justice against government misconduct and abuse of power, and a reverent homage to the dedicated, principled few who, in guarding the rights of the persecuted, serve as the ever vigilant sentinels for the rights of all.

For more information, please visit the film's website.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Human Rights Watch