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June 2008 Archives

June 26, 2008

Sari Soldiers, 2008

sari_soldiers.gifThe national unrest and confusion following the massacre of King Birendra and the Nepalese royal family by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament by the ascended king, Gyanendra in response to an escalating Maoist insurgency, set the tone for Julie Bridgham's compelling and incisive portrait of a broad spectrum of women who collectively embody the country's cross-cultural struggle for peace, justice, freedom, representation, and accountability. In Kathmandu, a poor, uneducated, middle-aged woman from the province named Devi lives in self-imposed exile from her village after speaking out publicly against the rape and execution of her teenaged niece by royal army soldiers and, in the process, also becomes a victim when her daughter is taken away by soldiers in retaliation for her outspoken criticism. Having worked with representatives from international organizations such as human rights lawyer, Mandira to document the atrocities committed by the government in their campaign to root out Maoist insurgents from their strongholds in the countryside, Devi's traumatic experience only galvanizes her resolve in exposing the truth at all cost.

However, the face of the royal army is also changing in response to the Maoists' large number of women recruits, a transformation towards a more disciplined, regimented (and implicitly, more humane) one that Officer Rajani represents, as motivated equally by a desire for peace as she is to commemorating her brother who died fighting the decade-long insurgency. For a Maoist insurgent commander who assumed the pseudonym Kranti ("Revolution"), true humanity lies in dismantling the socially entrenched caste system, and the deep-rooted discrimination, arbitrary privilege, and oppression that it engenders. Nevertheless, despite the egalitarian values espoused by the Maoists, their ideological radicalism still proves to be a source of friction within the villages that they seek to convert, often using strong-arm tactics to recruit people into their campaign, and resorting to intimidation, brutality, and even assassinations against those who refuse to take up their cause. In one community, village elder and monarchist, Krishna defies the insurgents and stages her own rebellion to successfully drive away the Maoist agitators. In contrast, for nursing student turned activist Ram Kumari, the only way to move the country forward beyond the cycle of violence is by joining the daily, street level demonstrations organized by the pro-democracy movement. Interweaving the stories of these women into an intimate cultural mosaic of national struggle, Sari Soldiers is also an indelible image of national and personal transformation, the renewed hope of a figurative rebirth that Devi's husband eloquently expresses in their mutual grief: the idea that people are born twice, once when they enter the world, and again when they make a difference in it.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 26, 2008 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

China's Stolen Children, 2007

china_stolen.gifA thoughtful and remarkably comprehensive examination of modern day human trafficking, Jezza Neumann's China's Stolen Children opens to a portrait of Detective Zhu, an overworked, former police officer who left his post in order to dedicate his time trying to find some of the 70,000 children who are abducted each year. With a predominantly poor clientele from remote villages, and a dispiriting child recovery rate of one in 20, Zhu's caseload is equally overwhelming and heartbreaking. One of Zhu's clients is a young couple from Kunming, migrant worker Chen Lung and his wife Chen Li who, years earlier, hid from the authorities in the farm of Chen Li's mother to have their son, Chen Jie, unable to pay the fine for conceiving without a birth permit. Having only recently paid off their son's compounding birth penalty fee after five years, their lives seemed destined for better times until Chen Jie is kidnapped from a farmer's market while his grandmother sold vegetables nearby. Chen Jie's story proves to be an all too familiar one for Zhu, as young boys, usually between the ages of five and six years old (an age considered to be optimal for fetching the best prices on the black market, where the children would require less care and attention than an infant, but would not be old enough to remember their way home) are abducted from rural villages and transported to larger, affluent cities where they are registered by new families. The bureaucracy involved in applying for a birth permit (which requires a marriage certificate and which, in turn, enforces the marrying age at 20 for women and 22 for men) has also led to unmarried couples like Way Ling and her boyfriend into seeking the assistance of traffickers like Wang Li in order to help place their children into good homes. Having given birth to a daughter, Wang Li reassures them of the good potential for selling girls as well, a thriving market created by rampant gender selection that has left a shortage of marriage-aged women. With an eye towards their sons' future prospects, families have also begun investing in girls as a means of ensuring that their sons will have a wife when he is ready for marriage. At the core of Neumann's bracing and unforgettable documentary is an unprecedented - though perhaps, not unforeseen - social catastrophe caused by the confluence of China's "one child" birth control policy, its cultural preference for sons (who can provide for his parents in their old age, unlike a daughter who will marry and help care for her husband's parents), and rapid modernization that has led to deep socioeconomic division between rural areas and industrialized cities. Framed within the context of China's aggressive development, the harrowing stories of lost children and exploitation reflect a society disoriented by its dramatic transformation, precariously struggling between tradition and ideology, where humanity is reduced to a marketable commodity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

June 24, 2008

Project Kashmir, 2008

project_kashmir.gifThe specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947 continues to haunt the modern day consciousness of a divided Kashmir in Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel's provocative and acutely observed Project Kashmir. Propelled by the idea of capturing the Kashmir conflict from a Hindu and Muslim perspective, Southeast Asian-American friends Kheshgi and Patel attempt to navigate the murky waters of occupation and a deeply factionalized insurgency - often fueled by extremists - that define the volatile dynamics of everyday life in Kashmir. Guided on their journey by a Muslim newspaper journalist, Muzamil Jaleel (who immediately cautions them against taking anyone's perspective as truth, including his own), his friend and colleague, Aarti Tikoo Singh, a displaced Pandit Hindu now living in Jammu, and human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, who lost his leg in a car bombing, the filmmakers witness first hand the incalculable toll of the corrosive 60 year war: the almost ritualistic, random detention of local villagers at a detention facility each morning to root out possible insurgents, the profound distrust not only between the majority Muslim population and the Indian military who administer the region, but also within the population itself, the ruins of a destroyed Hindu temple and abandoned Pandit village after the intimidation and forced expulsion of the Pandit minority a decade earlier from the Kashmiri Valley. But as the filmmakers begin to struggle with the human tendency to gravitate towards the familiarity of their own culture, Patel becomes increasingly conscious of her identity as an Indian and Hindu woman in a Muslim society, and Kheshgi, the daughter of parents who lived through the trauma of the Partition, finds kinship with the struggle to end the occupation. In hindsight, the filmmakers' unorthodox contact with an anonymous guide who offers his candid, protective advice solely by telephone provides an insightful glimpse into the necessary first steps towards breaking the impasse, a bridging of broken bonds through communication and gestures of humanity that is poignantly captured during Singh's emotional return to her decimated childhood home where she is eagerly invited to tea by a persistent villager, who responds to the question of his immediate recognition of his former neighbor by remarking, "the scent of Kashmiri is the scent of one."

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

Behave, 2006

behave.gifContinuing in the vein of Justice, Maria Ramos's examination of the Brazilian justice system, Behave is an equally potent and sobering social inquiry into the state's juvenile re-socialization program. Working within the limitations of protecting the identity of the young offenders' identities, the film is predominantly shot facing Judge Luciana Fiala, a conscientious juvenile court justice who struggles to strike the right balance between humanity and reinforcing punishment in dispensing sentences (which often represents confinement at dirty and overcrowded juvenile detention centers where few resources are available to foster their rehabilitation) to the often poor and uneducated offenders who are brought before her. Enlisting non-actors from favelas to stand-in for the underaged offenders in re-enacted countershots (who often share similar experiences with these institutions) and repeat their given responses to the judge, the stories invariably converge towards underlying motivations of despair, gullibility, boredom, and ignorance: a first-time offender describes following the orders of his older friends to hold a gun during a robbery (perhaps knowing that, if apprehended, their sentences would be harsher), prompting the judge to ask the trite and true question of whether or not he would also jump off a bridge if asked; a young mother, desperate for money, is caught stealing a tourist's camera and now frets over being separated from her child if she is sent to detention; a girl brought in for shoplifting tries to manipulate her mother's already frayed emotions by suggesting that she would prefer detention over accepting the judge's offer of leniency and returning home on probation, prompting the surprised judge to remark that she has been spoiled too much; a boy who admits to the fatal stabbing of his father in his sleep tells of the family's continual abuse when his father would come home drunk, a sad reality corroborated by his mother, even as she expresses conflicted emotion over the lost income that his death represents; a boy found dealing a small amount of drugs supplied by a local gang is given partial probation to go home on the weekends with a stern recommendation to his mother that the family move away from the slums in order to avoid retaliation for the confiscated drugs - a well-meaning advice that proves impossible given the family's already meager finances. As in Raymond Depardon's "justice" films (especially Tenth District Court: Moments of Trial) Ramos's unobtrusive, yet lucid camera confronts the nature of our own complicit humor in observing the lives of the underprivilege and their intimidating experiences within an impersonal justice system, where rhetorical remarks by educated jurists are met with earnest, if confused attempts by undereducated offenders to respectfully answer the questions, and unfamiliarity with their constitutional rights during the judicial process leads to unnecessary bureaucracy and unforeseen consequences - a reality acutely illustrated by the bittersweet closing episode of a young father who, unaware of what parole meant, sneaked out of the detention center as he was being processed for release, and is forced to stand again before the judge after being re-arrested for his escape attempt.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch

Youth Producing Change, 2007

youth_change.gifThoughtful and impassioned, Youth Producing Change is a diverse and intimate reflection into some of the issues and ideas that inspire young people worldwide into taking action. The two collaborative films from Africa, Women Empowerment from South Africa and A Maid Is Not A Slave from Senegal, draw from the traditional culture of African tale-telling to convey their progressive themes. In Women Empowerment, Lithiko Mthobeli creates a panoramic ode to the resilience of women that was inspired by his single mother, concluding the film with the reverent chorus of "You strike a woman, you strike a rock", an African proverb popularized during the apartheid struggle. Meanwhile, A Maid Is Not A Slave evokes the country's rich film history in its Ousmane Sembène-like moral tale (especially Black Girl) on the exploitation of domestic workers. Cultural legacy also provides the heart and soul of Islands of the People, a portrait of the aboriginal Haida tribe in Canada, whose language (and consequently, culture), spoken by only a handful of people who are all in their 80s (including village elder and teacher, Nonnie Mary Swanson), is on the verge of extinction after forced integration and migration. Zane Scheuerlein's Monty Pythonesque The Hidden Cost of Cashmere from the U.S. and Slave Label from the U.K. both explore the impact of consumerism, from the environmental and economic toll of buying products from global markets, to the exploitation of factory workers in developing countries that is reflected in the affordability of consumer goods. In the U.S., Zachary Lennon-Simon's Playing with Other Tigers from Boston and Rene Dongo's The Countdown from New York find commonality in the aftermath of 9/11, as Lennon-Simon reflects on his lifelong friendship with Amir who, as a Muslim, lives with the constant harassment of being called a terrorist, and Dongo captures a performance by his friend, spoken word artist Sofia Snow, on the void left by the collapse of the twin towers and the hope that comes with rebuilding. Similarly, I Want My Parents Back from San Diego and The True Cost of Coal from Kentucky reflect grassroots issues: the misuse of broad Homeland Security powers designed to uproot terrorism as a means of targeting illegal immigration from Mexico, and the human and environmental exploitation associated with the lucrative coalmining industry that has left towns impoverished, waters contaminated, and landscapes altered, calling for a rejection of the coal to liquid initiatives that are being pushed by legislators under the nationalistic rhetoric of domestic energy development to curtail dependency on foreign oil.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Human Rights Watch