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Human Rights Watch

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

June 20, 2007

New Visions: Sundance Documentary Film Program 'Work-in-Progress' Screening

The screening of the New Visions program at this year's HRWIFF marks the inauguration of the series showcasing upcoming documentaries that were made in collaboration with the Sundance Documentary Film Program. The interactive program combines both panel discussion and open forum formats for the discussion of the process of collaborative filmmaking, as well as excerpts from the films themselves (each roughly 20 minutes in duration).

The first film preview is A Jihad for Love, by Parvez Sharma who was accompanied by the film's producer, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, the director of the groundbreaking documentary, Trembling Before G_d that explored homosexuality in the Orthodox and Hasidic Jew communities. The collaboration between Sharma and DuBowski seems particularly suited since A Jihad for Love is a companion piece of sorts to DuBowski's film, an intimately told panorama of the gay experience throughout the broad spectrum of Islamic communities around the world, from conservative societies where homosexuality is outlawed such as Egypt and Iran, to secular Islamic societies such as Turkey (where many gay Iranians seek refuge to avoid persecution), to non-Islamic, free societies such as France and South Africa where, despite the protection of civil liberties, people continue to be persecuted, often from within the Islamic community. One of the main narrative arcs presented in the film is the story of a young Egyptian man, shown with his face obscured, who was prosecuted by the government as part of the "Queen Boat 52" (a group of gay men who were arrested on a floating nightclub in Cairo under assorted charges intended for prostitution) and who, before his retrial, escaped to France to avoid prosecution. After years of secrecy and despite the financial hardship of starting over as an immigrant in foreign land, the young man is ready to embrace his newfound liberation, and allows Sharma to photograph his undisguised face as he enters his new apartment.

new_visions.gifThe second film preview is an equally fascinating and illuminating collaborative personal journey, Project Kashmir by long-time friends Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel who, having grown up in the United States, had never had to confront the minefield of deep seated emotions and cultural biases that define everyday life in the disputed region of Kashmir, where the war for control still rages on, and people, in their profound distrust, have stopped talking to each other. Guided by an anonymous telephone informer who is quick to advise the filmmakers not to take anyone's word at face value (and least of all, the press), Kheshgi and Patel attempt to navigate the treacherous maze of occupation, insurgency, unrest, censorship, and religious animosity, slowly pulled apart by their own increasing identification with the opposing factions of the interminable conflict. As a Hindu in an Indian-occupied land, Patel immediately finds herself in a position of privilege, often afforded access to places and information that Muslims are denied. Meanwhile, Kheshgi, a Muslim, excluded from the community that has openly embraced her colleague, naturally gravitates towards the plight of the persecuted Muslim majority. Barely speaking to each other by the end of the film excerpt, Kheshgi and Patel's experience serves as a powerful example of the dehumanizing toll of systematic oppression and injustice, and the importance of open communication and honest dialogue in the path towards moving forward and reconciliation.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

Manufactured Landscapes, 2005

manufactured.gifDuring the Q&A for Manufactured Landscapes, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal indicated that the idea for the film came from photographer Edward Burtynsky's comment that for every building that rises from the ground, there is a corresponding hole somewhere else where the raw materials have been mined for the construction. This idea of an overarching, interconnected, shifting equilibrium that fuels our material consumption echoes throughout Baichwal's organic rumination on the repercussions of globalization. Opening to the extended take, tracking shot of a large appliance factory in China as row upon row of visually undifferentiable materials are fabricated (in a languid traveling shot that bears the imprint of Peter Mettler camerawork, most notably in Gambling, Gods and LSD), assembled, and integrated into larger components before emerging in its immediately recognizable form - the clothes iron - the image of the factory as a metaphor for a closed cycle, seemingly self-fueled microcosmos is reinforced in the subsequent shot of scrap workers sifting through mounds of recycled materials to collect reusable metals for smelting, unearthing a battered triangular metal plate that bears the characteristic steam hole vent pattern of an iron. This theme of closely interrelated cycles of production and consumption is also reflected in a subsequent episode at a ship-breaking yard in Southeast Asia (ironically, a destination that is also featured in Michael Glawogger's ode to the worker at the turn of the century, Workingman's Death) where old commercial freighters that were once used to transport goods throughout the world are themselves recycled, and consequently, re-enter the cycle that feeds the global economy in a different capacity. But perhaps the most emblematic of this self-exploitive cycle of construction through destruction is illustrated in the implementation of Three Gorges Dam project where local residents, soon to be displaced upon completion of the dam, have been hired to demolish the houses that will be submerged by the diverted water - in essence, chipping away towards their own homelessness. This theme of dislocation is subsequently repeated in the story of a defiant elderly resident who refused to be relocated as real estate investors target her community for high-rise development. Inevitably, what emerges from Burtynsky's sublime, yet implicitly ignoble transformed landscapes is an uneasy self-reflection that exposes our own implication in perpetuating these insatiable cycles of consumption and (non)disposal, a reminder that the price of industrialization is not a finite measure, but a fulcrum point in a zero sum ecological balance.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2007 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 19, 2007

Sari's Mother, 2006

sari_mother.gifAs in Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness, James Longley's Sari's Mother, the edited "fourth fragment" from Iraq in Fragments, is a sobering portrait of the pervasive confusion and uncertainty that continues to define everyday life under postwar occupation, and its unseen toll on the weakest and most vulnerable. In this segment, Longley chronicles the travails of a village mother whose ten year-old son, Sari, contracted AIDS as a child from a blood transfusion, and is now slowly wasting away from the ravages of the incurable disease. Debilitated by chronic lethargy which prevents him from attending school, Sari spends his days bed-ridden, rising only briefly to receive his (seemingly arbitrarily) prescribed injections that must be administered by his mother, unable to find appropriate medical personnel who can perform the regular treatments for her son. The travails in obtaining proper medical care for her child prove even more frustrating at the hospital, where overworked doctors, often determining the latest course of treatment from incomplete medical histories and disorganized paperwork, continue to prescribe regimens that have already proved to be ineffective or induce serious reactions. Evoking Moussa Bathily's Le Certificat d'indigence in its harrowing portrayal of the figurative breakdown of a health care system that has lost its sense of purpose under the weight of procedural (in)efficiency and petty bureaucracy, Sari's Mother is an impassioned and potent reminder that, even in its resigned inevitability, dying with dignity is still a fundamental human right.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

Enemies of Happiness, 2007

enemies.gifOne of the clear highlights at this year's festival is the appearance of human rights activist and outspoken political figure, Malalai Joya at the Q&A for Enemies of Happiness, who, until recently, served as one of the few truly democratic voices in an Afghani parliament that is riddled with rampant corruption, collusion, and inaction, where elections were often won through intimidation and bribery by powerful warlords who operated with relative impunity under Hamid Karzai's presidency (and who, in turn, cannot afford to alienate the warlords for fear of destabilizing the country's tenuous unity). The recipient of this year's HRWIFF Nestor Almendros Prize (as well as the Grand Jury World Cinema Prize for Documentary at Sundance Film Festival), Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness is not only a remarkable portrait of Malalai Joya, but also a bracing and illuminating glimpse into the fragile democracy and uncertain peace that now shape everyday life in Afghanistan. Thrust into the political spotlight in 2003 when stood at the microphone at the Loya Jirga she publicly criticized the inclusion of powerful warlords in the formation of the new government (the very warlords whose strident support of the Taliban regime enabled the decimation of the country) and their subsequent efforts to enact a bill that would provide blanket amnesty for Taliban-era crimes (a gesture that, as Joya subsequently contextualizes, is tantamount to criminals pardoning themselves for their willfully committed atrocities), the genial and articulate Joya has become an unlikely controversial figure in Afghani politics, drawing repeated assassination attempts and barbaric threats of violence (including public officials who have publicly called for her rape and killing during parliamentary assemblies). Chronicling Joya's candidacy in the immediate days before the country's first parliamentary elections in 2005, her daily routine seems less that of a well-honed politician looking to extend her popular reach in her native town of Farah, than a social worker, diplomat, negotiator, and advocate seeking to find seemingly impossible resolutions to the everyday grievances and entrenched cultural injustices that continue to plague Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal and class entrenched society. Despite being compelled to wear a burqa while in transit in order to avoid chance detection by political enemies and scuttling from house to house among supporters each evening to thwart predictable patterns, Joya continues to reach out to the people: a young girl who is being forced into marriage by a local warlord, despite her family's refusal, a woman who is seeking a way out of an abusive marriage, but fears losing custody of her children, a sprightly, elderly woman who pays a visit to express her support for Joya's candidacy, fondly recalling (and irrepressibly demonstrating) her acts of insurgency for the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion. Concluding with Joya's historic victory at the polls to become one of the few women who were elected to the first Afghani parliament, what emerges from Mulvad and Al-Erhayem's incisive gaze is a people devastated by a legacy of repressive history, haunted by its own unreconciled demons, torn apart by petty self-interest, and desperate to find a semblance of hope amid the blinding dust of a beloved country struggling to emerge from the rubble.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

The Violin, 2005

violin.gifFrancisco Vargas's admirable first feature film, The Violin deceptively starts on a seemingly tangential, wrong note by opening to an underlit, vérité-styled shot of what has become an all too familiar (and arguably gratuitous) image of military atrocities in the face of guerrilla warfare - the arbitrary round-up and brutalization of civilians in an attempt to extract information, the torture of prisoners, the raping of women. But the obscured, bleak, rough hewn images then subsequently - and unexpectedly - give way to the sunlit, distilled beauty of the rural landscape as an elderly farmer and street musician, Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira), his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) prepare for their trip to town, hitchhiking for rides in the backs of passing trucks, before making their way to the town square, stopping in the doorways of cafeterias and along main streets to play music and solicit charity. An encounter between Genaro and a cheese peddler at lunch time, and subsequently, between Genaro and an attractive, young hitchhiker, reinforces the atmosphere of implicit secrecy and covert resistance that pervades the film (a bracing reality that is established in the film's confrontational opening sequence) - the exchange of objects and information performed tacitly through casual gestures and passing glances. Returning home to the sight of women, children, and the elderly in flight after the military descended on the village in order to root out insurgents, Genaro attempts to gain access to the occupied village in order to retrieve a supply of ammunition that has been stashed away within their property to no avail, chased away by soldiers who spot his surveillance. But Don Plutarco has another idea for gaining access into the farm. Trading a year's worth of crops for a burro and carrying only his violin, Don Plutarco ingratiates himself into the company of the stern, yet genial captain (Dagoberto Gama) by playing his violin. However, as the insurgency rages on, can the idealistic notion of music as a uniting medium truly coexist with the cruelty of war? Shot in stark, elegantly composed black and white images, The Violin tonally evokes Henri-Georges Cluozot's The Wages of Fear in its creation of tension through the performance of the mundane. In hindsight, it is this atmosphere of disarming nothingness that ultimately reconciles the film's oddly incongruous opening sequence - a sobering reminder that the capacity for inhumanity and instinctual survival resides in everyone: silent, ever-present, unabated, and inextinguishable.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 18, 2007

Strange Culture, 2007

strangeculture.gifDuring the Q&A for Strange Culture, filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson explained that the unorthodox, mixed format approach to the film evolved organically as a result of the Department of Justice's ongoing prosecution of the film's primary subject, SUNY Buffalo arts professor and experimental artist, Steve Kurtz, that continues to limit his ability to fully participate in the film project by rendering him unable to discuss certain matters associated with the case. Ironically, this imbalancing, oddly structured, interweaving patchwork of real-life footage and actor-improvised sequences, documentation and deconstruction, appropriately complements the film's provocative exploration of the uneasy and disturbing broader social implications that have been raised by the federal government's zealous prosecution of Kurtz and co-defendant, University of Pittsburgh genetics professor, Robert Ferrell. Kurtz's neverending nightmare began on May 11, 2004 with a personal tragedy: the sudden death of his wife and creative collaborator Hope from heart failure. Summoning 911 for help after discovering that his wife had stopped breathing, the police conduct a routine survey of their home and immediately find the collection of Petri dishes, bio-organic cultures, assorted unregulated (and non-hazardous) chemicals, and lab ovens that they had been using to create a bio-themed, interactive installation that had been commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, along with an invitation advertisement postcard for their art collective, the Critical Arts Ensemble that had been designed with calligraphic images that appeared to be Arabic writing. Alarmed by the unusual paraphernalia that had been discovered inside the home, the police call in federal agents, seal off the house, and impound Hope's body under suspicion of bioterrorism. However, despite concluding that the suspicious substances were innocuous and not used to build weapons of mass destruction, the government has refused to drop charges and instead, continues to pursue the case against Kurtz and technical adviser, Robert Ferrell, spearheaded in part by assistant district attorney, William Hochul, whose own career was, not surprisingly, fast tracked as a result of his successful prosecution of the Lackawanna Six. Combining elements of documentary, re-enactment, serial comics, and even metafilm, Strange Culture poses the integral question of artistic freedom in an age of aggressive and increasingly emboldened federal government prosecution. At the heart of Kurtz and Ferrell's legal quagmire is the implicit assault on free speech that the case represents, an attempt to intimidate and suppress work deemed critical of government policies (and by extension, policies within its alliances of special interest groups). Having collectively surrendered a measure of individual freedom under a demoralized and vulnerable climate of post 9/11 paranoia and an untenable war on terror, the compounding tragedy of Kurtz and Ferrell's case is a potent and harrowing reminder of the price exacted by our illusive search, not for a sense of security, but for an impossible return to innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

The Railroad All-Stars, 2006

railroad.gifAlternately humorous and heartbreaking in its candid and unflinching portrait of the exploited lives of low rate prostitutes living in the shantytown of La Línea in Guatemala City (an emblematic place of abject poverty built along the marginal buffer zones of railroad tracks that also evokes Ditsi Carolino's Life on the Tracks), Chema Rodriguez's The Railroad All-Stars affectionately, yet soberingly chronicles the adventures of the close knit community of these sex trade workers (including a nearly blind, elderly, retired prostitute who now earns a meager income selling condoms to the new generation of local prostitutes) who, frustrated by police inaction over crimes committed against their fellow workers, public apathy over their desperate economic plight, and marginalization in the justice system in such traumatic, life-altering cases as child custody, rape, and domestic violence, decide to form a soccer team in the hopes of competing in tournaments covered by the local media in order to increase public awareness and humanize the plight of these anonymous, faceless women and bring attention to the rampant discrimination that is endemic in their profession. Seeking to register in a first-round high school competition under the team name of "Las Estrellas de la línea" - The Railroad All-Stars (a name that accurately, albeit euphemistically, represents their station as prostitutes working "the line", that was chosen to conform to the league's naming conventions) - a local reporter senses the potential of the breaking story and sponsors the team for the tournament, a modern-day Cinderella story that abruptly ends after the first game when the opposing team's parents, enraged by their daughters' exposure to the women, demand their expulsion from the league under trumped up charges of vulgar language (an earlier sequence during the team huddle about continuing to play with dignity and remaining positive, even in the sidelines, refutes the baseless accusation) and assorted health violations stemming from their sordid profession (as several parents express outrage over their children's exposure to HIV and AIDS just from coming into contact with the women during the game). Denied from competing in the league but having captured the public's imagination thanks in part to a sympathetic press that has seized on the human interest story, the women begin receiving invitations for exhibition games from around the country - including an unlikely match-up against a policewomen's team - that will soon take the women on an unexpected cross-country journey into the figurative other side of the tracks of Guatemalan resort towns, cultural centers, luxury hotels, and ancient architectures, a reality far removed from the squalid slums that seems, for an all too brief moment, tantalizingly within their reach. Something of a bracing corollary to Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born into Brothels, The Railroad All-Stars is, above all, a thoughtful and poetic tale of self empowerment, as corporate sponsors fall away with the short attention span media coverage (or more appropriately, exploitation) of yesterday's news, and the women inevitably return to the familiar routine of their interrupted lives. It is this sense of spiritual enrichment that is reflected in the elegant image of the elderly peddler staring out the window of her rebuilt home on a quiet morning - a small shack made from wood beams and corrugated metal that had been painstakingly rebuilt by her devoted husband during her absence - a profound desire to linger in these understated moments of fleeting beauty and quotidian grace.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 17, 2007

The City of Photographers, 2006

city_photographers.gifDuring the 1980s, a loose network of politically committed photographers sought to document the atrocities of the Pinochet regime from within the country, establishing a press accredited alliance known as the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI). Capturing the atmosphere of protest and unrest in the streets (most notably, in the daily vigils of women seeking answers for the fate of the desaparecidos, usually husbands and sons who were abducted by government), documenting covert sites of torture and execution, and converging en masse to hot spots of activity in order to effectively chronicle the government's repressive tactics of press intimidation and police brutality as a means of suppressing dissent, their collective body of work inevitably evolved to become the most intimate, highly visible, and incontrovertible testament on the transgressions of the CIA-backed military dictatorship. Often working with members of the foreign press on the distribution of their photographs as a means of drawing attention to the country's struggle, their photographs would become integral to the engagement of international community in exposing the abuses and ultimately discrediting the Pinochet government. But beyond the poignant and reverent tribute to the personal sacrifices and everyday heroism of these dedicated photojournalists and the collective toll of their tireless commitment to document their nation's struggle and raise public awareness for the government's flagrant human rights violations (the filmmaker, Sebastián Moreno Mardones' comments on piecing together second-hand memories of the turbulent period from his father's assembled AFI-era photographs suggests his attempt to insulate his family from the uncertainty of the group's ideological imperative), what makes The City of Photographers particularly contemporary and insightful is revealed in several photojournalists' own ambivalence towards their own increasing complicity in the creation of the images (particularly towards the end of the struggle), often deployed into the pre-arranged sites of social action by the protestors themselves, a duality that reflects their complex role as both observers and embedded insurgents in the resistance, from photographing fellow colleagues' maltreatment and abuse at the hands of police, to a subsequent tragic episode involving the accidental blinding of a child at the hands of the police maltreatments a photographer tells the boy to uncover his face (which he had instinctually covered with his hands at the sight of violence) in order to sensationalize the image of police brutality at the precise moment that an officer swings a baton over the boy's eyes. It is this provocative, self-reflexive inquiry into the implication of the media in the creation and desensitization of violent images that inevitably makes their story continually relevant, a reminder of the need for self-equilibration in maintaining the integrity of the photographers in their complex role as documenters of the sociopolitical reality and stagers of the spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 17, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

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

June 20, 2005

The Boys of Baraka, 2005

baraka.gifOn a typical summer night in inner city Baltimore, a children's game of cops and robbers shootout plays against the morbid backdrop - undoubtedly in familiar imitation - of a real-life police arrest of a teenager on a neighborhood street. A single statistic posted on black screen provides a sobering context to the children's "art imitating life", role-playing games: that 76% of all African American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. A dedicated middle-school school counselor and program recruiter named Mavis Jackson seeks to remedy this grim statistic by assembling some of the city's greatest "at risk" boys into a school auditorium in order to confront the reality of their situation, explaining that that by the age of 18, as an African American young man in Baltimore, their futures can take on three paths: an orange jumpsuit and a pair of Department of Corrections "bracelets", a black suit and a brown wooden box, or a black cap and gown and a diploma that can also serve to open up opportunities for them. Handing out an information package and application form for a two-year boarding school in Laikipia, Kenya called The Baraka School, Jackson encourages the children to give serious consideration to the educational opportunity, citing that graduation in The Baraka School offers them entry into the city's most competitive schools where most then go on to graduate high school. An introverted, musically inclined (and emotionally closed) boy named Devon who lives with his doting grandmother (and away from his financially unstable, drug-addicted mother) dreams of becoming a preacher. An argumentative boy with a natural aptitude for mathematics named Montrey aspires for a career in science. An academically struggling student named Richard and his thoughtful younger brother Romesh are encouraged by their supportive, strong-willed mother to undertake the journey, realizing that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to change the direction of their future (Asked what would happen if only one of her sons had been accepted into the program, she immediately answers that one would become a king, the other, a killer). Far from the distraction of their desperate surroundings and impersonal institution of the public school system, the boys begin to academically (and emotionally) thrive in the challenges of their new environment, returning home for summer vacation with a newfound sense of maturity, deliberativeness, and character. However, when heightened terrorist concerns and global politics intervene and threaten the future of The Baraka School program at a critical stage in the boys' development, their learned life lessons are soon put to the test. Following the real-time progress of the Baraka boys throughout their formative years (since their recruitment to the school in 2002), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture the depth of intimacy, conflict, poverty, and desolation experienced, not only by the children, but also by their well-intentioned families and guardians who realize the weight of their children's demoralizing environment but feel powerless and financially unable to easily change their circumstances - a sentiment articulated by a concerned father who debates the issue of safety to a program official after hearing the heightened security warnings for the school by commenting that his son has a greater chance of being killed on his own neighborhood street in Baltimore than he does by becoming a victim of a terrorist attack in Africa. In presenting an equally bittersweet, tragic, and affirming portrait of the boys' bifurcated trajectories since their Baraka School experience, the film presents a haunting and complex portrait of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement that defies socially expedient trivializations of human worth, ability, perseverance, and destiny.

*Screened at AFI Silverdocs 2005. The film will premiere in NYC at the HRWIFF on June 23, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2005 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 18, 2005

The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

education.jpgIn an incisive encounter in The Education of Shelby Knox, (then) high-school student Shelby from Lubbock - a devout, abstinent, southern Baptist, child of conservative Republicans, and fierce advocate for comprehensive sex education in the classroom as a means of curtailing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, stemming off widespread health misinformation, and promoting important life (and life-saving) skills - turns to her charismatic, spiky-haired youth pastor, Ed Ainsworth for advice in a moment of spiritual crisis. Recognizing the inherent failure of the George W. Bush-backed, faith-based initiative, "abstinence only" program that teaches only marital relations and fails to address the concerns of - and effectively excludes - the gay population who cannot marry, young Shelby (an amusingly typical, hyper-romantic teenager who still envisions the man of her dreams in grandiose, operatic gestures as someone who could play the role of the Phantom to her Christine in The Phantom of the Opera) has become an unlikely ally in the school's gay student movement towards equal rights and representation. Struggling to reconcile her religious beliefs with social reality and her innate compassion for the marginalized, she muses that "God could not have made all these people just so He could send them to Hell." Nodding with the (apparent) gesture of an understanding heart, Ainsworth then embarks on a bafflingly open-ended (if not condescending), veiled allusion to Shelby's "questionable" faith by remarking that Christians have had a traditionally long history of intolerance and that, when he listens to her articulate her inner turmoil, what he is hearing from her is "tolerance" (and yes, the audience let out a collective sigh upon hearing this comment). Remarkably capturing Shelby's infectious effervescence, fearlessness, sense of egalitarian justice, and unwavering integrity of faith, filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt have created a whimsical, yet potent, inspiring, and affirming portrait of the true meaning of moral activism and spiritual service.

The film will premiere on PBS' P.O.V. series on June 21, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 17, 2005

State of Fear, 2005

state_fear.gifOne of the festival highpoints (and certainly one of my personal favorites) from this year's slate of films from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is filmmakers Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy's exhaustive (and inspired) documentary, State of Fear: a sobering, trenchant, and disturbingly relevant dissection of Peru's contemporary history through the socio-political framework of a protracted (and seemingly interminable) decades-long war on terror that had contributed to a demoralized culture of tolerated erosion of human rights, systematic military abuse, mass killings, torture, and fear-mongering political opportunism. The film traces the rise and fall of an underground, insurgent Maoist organization known as Shining Path that, under the direction of radical intellectual, Abimael Guzmán, seized on the desperate poverty and marginalization of the Andean indigenous people (living predominantly in rural areas) as an ideological rallying cry for social revolution and began to mobilize the peasants into a terror campaign with a strategy of violent revolution and scorched earth policy in order to (coercively) convert the rural countryside to their cause towards the greater path of encircling - and eventually capturing - the city of Lima. Unable to effectively identify Shining Path operatives - the faceless, anonymous enemy embedded from within the grassroots level - and weed out the real terrorists from ordinary civilians, the government empowered the military with broad, unchallenged authority to take any necessary action (at the expense of civil liberties) in order to stem the tide of domestic terrorism. In an incisive (and deeply unsettling) interview, a tribal elder recalls the incalculable devastation inflicted by the crisis on her people as Shining Path radicals first attempted to forcibly conscript some of the villagers, including children, to their bloody cause (and execute those who opposed them) then, after the group's departure, were visited by the military who subsequently armed and recruited them into forming a civilian militia empowered to gather intelligence, torture, and execute terrorists, resulting in a gruesome and devastating (and unreined) tribal infighting that would nearly exterminate the entire village. Nevertheless, despite suffering through years of rural atrocities, domestic terrorism continued relatively unabated until Guzmán decided to accelerate the revolution and bring the war to Lima by initiating a campaign of random bombings throughout the city. It is within this atmosphere of desperation and chaos - a constant "state of fear" - that political outsider Alberto Fujimori ran a successful presidential campaign under the platform of waging a strong-armed war against terrorism. To this end, Fujimori suspended the national congress under a heightened - and indeterminate - state of emergency and concentrated power to the presidency. A Truth Commission member appropriately comments, "We traded our liberty for security." Perhaps the most incisive and insidious aspect of Peru's recent history lies in Fujimori's calculated ability to maintain his continued grip on the centralized and corrupted power of the presidency even after Guzmán's arrest by continuing to raise the specter of an unspecific terrorist threat despite the effective decapitation - and subsequent disintegration - of the Shining Path movement. Alternately harrowing, engaging, illuminating, and inciting, State of Fear is not only remarkable account of opportunism, inhumanity, and corruption, but also a cathartic, hopeful tale of humility and enlightened transformation (as in the case of privileged, upper middle-class Lima-based lawyer and Truth Commission member, Beatriz Alva-Hart who emotionally breaks down upon the conclusion of the testimony hearings and expresses her profound apologies to all the victims for not realizing earlier the extent of the atrocities occurring within her own country).

Posted by acquarello on Jun 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 16, 2005

Occupation: Dreamland, 2005

dreamland.gifDuring the spring of 2004, as the Iraqi city of Falluja slowly metamorphosed from secondary, wartime infrastructure target to the emerging epicenter of an escalating (and increasingly emboldened) Iraqi insurgency, soldiers from a squadron of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the volatile city struggle to adjust to their amorphous, undefined, and intrinsically irreconcilable roles as law enforcers, occupiers, and goodwill ambassadors in a foreign land. For a few hours each week, the young soldiers are directed by their superior officers to go out into the streets in full body armor for mandatory, pre-scheduled "public relations" where they canvas as many streets as possible in order to psychologically reinforce their presence and visibility in the city, initiate contact with the townspeople (usually through an interpreter) in an often fruitless attempt to gain their trust and gather information, and, with alarming frequency, play reflexive games of survival as militants seize the opportunity to take pot shots and launch last-minute offensives in their direction. The dangerous, frustrating, and often surreal encounters experienced by the soldiers underscore the seeming futility of their reluctant role as a peacekeeping (rather than combat) force in the openly hostile, war-ravaged town. Unfamiliar with the language and local customs, the soldiers' relationship with the town has become palpably acrimonious (especially following the death of a fellow soldier from their squadron): distrustful glances from the Iraqis are often retaliated with verbal hostility and profanity (in English) by the disrespected soldiers; a soldier is reproached by several village men at a public square for committing a cultural faux pas a few days earlier by publicly detaining (and later releasing) an unaccompanied Iraqi woman to headquarters for routine interrogation; another soldier attempts to engage the townspeople in friendly conversation, but then hurriedly truncates the uncomfortable dialogue after receiving a blunt earful of how bad the standard of life really has become for the average Iraqi civilian since the invasion. Returning to the barracks, the soldiers receive little respite from their ambivalent roles and conflicted sense of duty as superior officers conduct periodic "pep talk" debriefings in order to encourage their re-enlistment and continued service, often raising the specter of their troubled youth, reinforcing their insecurity over their level of maturity and responsibility (and accomplishment) and preparedness for civilian life, or appealing to their economic reality with the promise of a college education and a life-long career. Filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds were embedded with the soldiers for the duration of the filming of Occupation: Dreamland, and the result is immediately apparent in the sense of intimacy, conflict, disorientation, and pervasive sense of danger and uncertainty captured by the film. Far from a concrete, immediately identifiable characterizations of good and evil, victim and transgressor, what is revealed in these irreconcilable quotidian images is a complex cross-cultural, postwar portrait of human desolation and moral ambiguity that festers within the vacuum of compassion, communication, social order, and authority.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 16, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 15, 2005

Seoul Train, 2005

seoul.gifA smuggled video footage of a communal market in North Korea provides a profoundly sobering context to the grave, protracted, man-made humanitarian crisis caused by the government's systematic diversion of international food aid to party loyalists at the expense of ordinary citizens (often from the rural provinces) as children scour the mud for occasional morsels of food (mostly grain biproducts). Despite the Chinese government's knowledge that North Korean defectors will face torture and certain death if captured, the government has instituted a policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans found within their sovereignty, irrespective of formal appeals for asylum. For these desperate people, the only hope for survival lies in making a dangerous cross-country journey into China undetected with the goal of reaching a third country (often Mongolia) by any means necessary, aided along the way by a loose alliance of well-intentioned ordinary citizens operating in a multinational, underground railroad system between the northern border of North Korea and China. Composed of several breathtaking (and heart-rending) actual footage along their flight to freedom and interviews from several covert operatives - including an outspoken humanitarian named Chun Ki-won (dubbed by human rights activists as the "Schindler of Asia") - as they plot their escape, rehearse their strategy for formally seeking asylum, initiate contact with their host families (often South Korean relatives), and finally attempt, often in vain, their one chance at freedom (as in the case of the MoFA Seven who delivered a formal, written plea to the Chinese government for asylum and were immediately arrested and deported), Seoul Train is an intensely visceral, illuminating, and deeply moving document of inspired activism against a seemingly unconquerable tide of moral apathy, bureaucratic inertia, and inhuman politics.

For more information on the film and the issues presented in the film, please visit www.seoultrain.com.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Mardi Gras: Made in China, 2005

mardi_gras.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, filmmaker David Redmon explained that the initial concept for Mardi Gras: Made in China revolved around the idea of exploring the interconnection between pop culture, ritual, and globalization. To this end, the idea of tracing the origin of a disposable commodity - Mardi Gras beads - seemed ideally suited in linking the economies and social cultures of the U.S. and China. Contrasting the inebriated chaos of revelers at the Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarters of New Orleans for which the beads represent a figurative (if transitory) capital - and therefore, power - that can be traded for pleasure (women exposing themselves in exchange for the trinkets) with an insightful profile of the child workers earning the equivalent of ten cents an hour (mostly adolescent girls who, as the owner explains, are more obedient and manageable) at China's largest bead manufacturing factory, the film presents a sobering portrait of crass consumerism (as appropiately articulated by a truck driver on holiday who dismisses the plight of the Chinese workers by shouting the idiotic mantra "Don't know and don't care. Beads for boobs!"). Conducting a series of interviews with a group of girls living in the communal dormitories on factory grounds, what emerges is a familiar pattern of rural poverty, undereducation, and familial obligation to provide financial support. In the end, what is revealed between the two seemingly disparate cultures is the commonality of human commodification and exploitation, and the delusive ephemerality of material happiness.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 14, 2005

Omagh, 2004

omagh.gifShot in vérité-styled camerawork and natural lighting, Omagh is a hauntingly powerful, illuminating, and uncompromisingly rendered account of the August 15, 1998 car bombing of a high-traffic market square in the peacefully integrated Northern Ireland community that massacred 29 civilians and injured over 200 others. Shot from the perspective of Michael Gallagher and his family, an automobile repair shop owner who lost his son and business partner, Aidan, the film is a taut and indicting account of the surviving families' frustrated quest for truth and justice for the atrocity. Engineered by radical separatist groups (most notably the breakway faction calling itself "Real" IRA) at the height of delicate, politically sensitive negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British government as a desperate means to undermine the Good Friday Peace Accords, what emerges from filmmaker Pete Travis' scathing, but sensitively realized portrait is a disturbing tale of ordinary people repeatedly entangled - first, in a protracted war for sovereignty and subsequently in a high-stakes game of diplomacy - in a compromised (and perhaps, irreparably doomed) investigation mired by national security intelligence failures, bureaucratic incompetence, and, most insidiously, a systematic pattern of stonewalling from all levels of public authority in the sacrificial name of national and political expediency to protect government informants and covert operatives within the radical organizations from exposure, prevent the collapse of the brokered cease fire, and continued push to move the peace process forward. In the end, what emerges from the families' commitment to the memory of their lost loved ones is the resilient voice of human solidarity that refuses to be silenced, victimized, or reduced to political pawns.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Una de dos, 2004

una_de_dos.gifUna de dos is set against the rural backdrop of Argentina in 2002 as a protracted recession and a government-instituted, desperate measure austerity plan to rescue the national economy from insolvency through the devaluation of its currency and announced default on its foreign debt has led to widespread rioting and worker strikes in the cities that has effectively crippled the country's economic backbone. A low-level mob courier trafficking in counterfeit currency, Martin, is directed to discontinue operations and maintain a low profile until contacted. Inevitably, Martin's return home to the rural province that is seemingly removed from the chaos and socio-political instability of the urban areas (an abandoned train platform and overlooking tracks reinforces this appearance of isolation) illustrates the far-reaching repercussions of the economic crisis as neighborhood shop owners are forced to turn away friends and family by refusing to operate on credit, workers struggle to devise ways to subsidize their wage shortfall (often in vain), local businesses are shuttered indefinitely (in an incisive sequence of the three young women strolling through the empty market streets that is seemingly only inhabited by stray dogs (a scenario that recalls the running motif of Béla Tarr's Damnation), and a sense of moral desolation has taken root, manifesting in increased acts of recklessness (implied in Pilar's story of her abducted, hitchhiking cousin) and chemical dependency. Following in the vein of contemporary Argentinean cinema in which the narrative is subtly explored through minute observations of the quotidian, Alejo Hernán Taube creates a competent and insightful portrait of sentimental inertia borne of economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, the film strays from its focus through the inclusion of tangential sex scenes that are neither motivated by money (which would have reinforced the idea of human commodification) nor by emotional desperation (which would have served as a broader comment on the demoralized social psyche), creating disposable episodes that serve only to showcase the physical appeal of the handsome lead actor, and diluting the film's more potent images of aimless, instinctual survival.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 12, 2005

Wall, 2004

wall.gifFavorably recalling the rigorous imagery, desolation, and despiritualized landscapes of Chantal Akerman (most notably, in the opening sequences of the U.S.-Mexican border wall and off-camera interviews of From the Other Side), Wall is an evocatively shot, visually understated, and meditatively paced exposition on the social, political, economic, and psychological repercussions of the Israeli government's long-term funding of a work-in-progress, multi-phase construction project to erect a high-security separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian communities as a part of an envisioned first-line defense against terrorist infiltration. From the opening long shot sequence of the slow assembly of massive concrete barriers that bisect - and ultimately obstruct - the view of the horizon, filmmaker Simone Bitton creates a powerful metaphor for the defiance of nature through the creation of self-isolating, man-made barriers. Interweaving hyperextended sequences of the oppressive, formidable wall with interviews of people from both communities as they articulate the worthlessness, superficiality, and social insensitivity of the artificial obstruction as a deterrent tool for national security (and perhaps, overt disenfranchisement), Bitton creates a compelling portrait of the inutility of politically instituted, delusive panaceas in the absence of true communication and the brokering of a just peace: an Iraqi-native migrant laborer is grateful for the work provided by the massive construction project in the economically depressed region even as he longs to return to his homeland and rebuild his life (and country) after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian farmer expresses his concern that the placement of the wall is only the start of a strategic plan to annex his land under the premise of upholding security, an Israeli father wistfully comments on the children's instilled fear of playing outdoors and offers his home to the leaders of both nations as a neutral ground for launching peace talks, a Jewish man whose elders survived the imprisonment of concentration camps underscores the irony of the country's decision to imprison itself.

Perhaps the most reflective of this cross-cultural sentiment of helplessness and inutility towards the wall is encapsulated in the sentiment of an Israeli community leader who had moved to the open spaces of the country only to find that he was forbidden to cross the border and visit his Palestinian neighbors. In 2000, seizing on the national headline news of an Arab boy who had drowned while saving two Israeli boys on the beach in order to initiate a goodwill gesture between the two communities, he soon found his olive branch efforts stalled by bureaucracy before being effectively cancelled by the advent of the second intifada. Addressing the neighboring city's mayor and his colleagues, he expresses his continued dedication towards meeting them and working towards the realization of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation wthin his lifetime.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Still Life, 2004

Shot in the occupied territories (in particular, East Jerusalem and the southern Gaza strip), and composed of a series of landscape shots of unidentifiable rubble and twisted rebar from razed Palestinian homes, bulldozed agricultural fields, and separation walls against a repetitive, dispassionate speaker articulating a series of open-ended questions on the meaning of the images (Who's responsible? Would you live here? Who's paying for this?...), Still Life is compact, incendiary, and effective exposition on the cycle of tragedy, violence, and disenfranchisement caused by the occupation. Inasmuch as the filmmaker's near monotonic delivery of provocative questions had the overall effect of creating auditory abstraction from the power of the disturbing visuals (an overlaid sequence of typed questions set against the cacophany of tearing, friction, and rupture would have better served to concentrate the viewer's focus on the images), I greatly admired Cynthia Mandansky's patience, strength, and courage of conviction in addressing all the (sometimes loaded) questions raised during the Q&A despite some overt hostility (and soapbox grandstanding) from a few members of the audience who strongly disagreed with her point of view (mostly in a similar finger-pointing vein of laying blame and demands to show "both sides" of the story that has been lobbed at other filmmakers confronting this issue from a counterpoint perspective). Articulating a similar comment that I had attempted to convey in an article on Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land to demystify the notion that a documentary should present a balanced and impartial account of its subject (particularly in situations were readily accessible media coverage of the issues has revealed a systematic pattern of journalistic bias and dispoportionality), Madansky makes a compelling argument for the role of the filmmaker to provoke and challenge coventional wisdom, status quo, social perception, and accepted reality.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

The Liberace of Baghdad, 2004

liberace.gifCharming, humorous, and endearing, it is easy to see why BBC journalist Sean McAllister decided to chronicle the life of flamboyant, irrepressibly outspoken, and widely popular entertainer (and notoriously unapologetic womanizer) Samir Peter who, in his heyday, was once dubbed the Liberace of Baghdad, and who, since the Iraqi War, now bides his time playing the piano in the near empty lounge of a heavily fortified hotel housing Western workers (mostly journalists and privately contracted security forces) stationed in the region as he waits for the approval of his visa in order to immigrate to the United States and join his two daughters and estranged wife. Filmed over an eighth month period in the power vacuum of a post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq under the increasingly volatile and escalating climate of frontier lawlessness, terrrorism, armed resistance, and kidnapping of foreign workers, The Liberace of Baghdad is an insightful first-hand portrait of the conflicted and demoralizing climate of everyday life in postwar Iraq as the ideals of liberation and freedom become increasingly obscured in the psychological prison of social insecurity. However, despite Peter's unparalleled ability to provide a compelling, provocative, engaging, and intimate account of the erosive toll of occupation and insurgency on ordinary civilians, I cannot help but question the integrity of the filmmaker who, either through colossal naïvete or sheer recklessness, seemed to willingly (and deliberately) continue to put his publicly high-profile subject in harm's way in order to get "the story", even after discovering first-hand in several close-call episodes the brutality of the retaliation by insurgents on those whom they perceive to be collaborating with Westerners (most notably, a neighbor's assassination in front of her child for her employment with a Western contractor, and in Peter's U.S. immigrant daughter and her family who have returned to Iraq to visit her remaining siblings.) Beyond the filmmaker's inept camerawork (including a nausea-inducing extended sequence of repeated quick pans capturing Peter's conversation with his daughter) and tangential, egocentric diversions away from his subject (including a remarkably unoriginal interstitial shot of him filming himself in a mirror), it is this moral conduct that ultimate undermines the integrity of the film as McAllister seems to have lost sight of the fact that by possessing a British passport, he is allowed to leave at anytime (and in fact, does) while the people whom he has filmed must live with the consequences of - and risk retribution or perhaps even death for - his exploitive, self-aggrandizing exposé.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 1, 2005

Living Rights, 2004

living.gifA compendium of self-contained multicultural stories featuring ethnically, economically, and existentially diverse children, each at the cusp of a pivotal turning point in their young lives, Living Rights examines the contemporary relevance - and often divergence - between the humanitarian statement crafted by 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that sought to define and uphold the fundamental living rights of children, and the reality of the lives of these children whom the charter seeks to protect. Article 29, which espouses the "development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential", provides the ideological framework for the film's first case study: a 16-year-old boy named Yoshi, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism in which the person possesses normal intelligence, but has cognitive difficulty in interpreting non-verbal communication or understanding non-literal syntax) who has been placed into a special school for the mentally disabled. Juxtaposing Yoshi's candid, confessional-styled, direct address to the camera on why he should be allowed to transfer to a traditional high school with quotidian episodes culled from his personal life, the film (and Yoshi) makes an insightful and compelling argument on inclusion and otherness, and in the process, challenges - and more importantly, inculcates - society's own preconceived ideas of what it truly means to be "normal": his frustrating experiences at school in which he complains of his lack of intellectual challenge (Yoshi has been placed in a class in which some of his classmates exhibit more severe forms of mental disability) and of being over-praised for performing the most mundane tasks; his bouts of melancholia that reveal his low self-esteem (being teased by other children, his feelings of exclusion, his self-consciousness over his imperfections); his articulateness and creativity (particularly in drawing and painting) in expressing his ideas.

An equally compelling second case study involves a 14-year-old Maasai girl named Toti who, at the age of 11, had run away from home after her father promised her in marriage to a wealthy, older tribesman in exchange for a herd of cattle that their growing family needs in order to sustain their livelihood. Now living in a boarding school for runaway children who also fled their villages under similar circumstances of conscience, Toti is eager to reconnect with her family, especially her twin sister who was married off as the tribesman's fourth wife in her place. Filmmaker Duco Tellegen's inspired selection of featuring identical twins provides an incisive dynamic into the ideological gulf that now separates the two sisters. On the one hand is her sister's traditionally-minded arguments on the social role of women, familial (and tribal) obligation, and the meaning of enrichment (most notably, in questioning Toti's motivation for going to school, arguing that one day, she will inherit property once her husband dies, serving as proof that one does not need an education to become wealthy). On the other hand is Toti's own determination to continue with her education in the hopes that she can return to the Maasais and help bring about fundamental, humanitarian cultural change to her native community by being able to effectively communicate (and argue) with tribal elders - especially her own father - against deeply entrenched, inhumane customs (most notably, on the continued practices of female circumcision and arranged child marriages). Contrasting Toti's own seemingly limitless future with her sister's resigned, but contented fate, Toti's story is a thoughtful and inspiring account of cultural pride and human enlightenment - a profound transformation enabled by mutual respect, education, open-mindedness, and the singular courage to question.

The third case study centers on an eleven-year-old girl from Chernobyl named Lena who, in the aftermath of the large-scale, uncontained nuclear accident, was forced to leave her hometown for health and safety reasons after the radiation levels were found to be dangerously high for continued residential occupancy. Separated from her biological mother, she is cared for by her doting aunt, Galah who, despite financial hardship, is able to provide a decent life for her even as continues to be plagued by health problems. One day, a health worker informs Galah that an Italian couple who had once sponsored Lena during a recent international medical visit has expressed their desire to adopt her, and Galah becomes privately torn with wanting Lena to have access to the best health care to treat her condition and an opportunity for a better life, and her own desire to continue to nurture the emotional bond that has developed between them. Rather than imposing her own will on Lena, Galah sets aside her own personal dilemma and steps back from Lena's decision-making process in order to allow her to make up her own mind. Given the inherent limitation of Lena's refusal to discuss matters relating to her personal experience during the Chernobyl disaster as well as her resulting prolonged illness on camera, it is not surprising that the segment is the most clinical, distanced, and emotionally estranged installment of the film. However, while Lena's reticence has unwittingly re-adjusted the thematic focus of the segment from the young girl to her caretaker Gala, what emerges is still the film's underlying core of a child's fundamental - and inalienable - human rights: the right to live in a safe environment, the right to health care, and perhaps most importantly, the right to determine one's own destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 31, 2005

Compadre, 2004

compadre.gifAt the 2003 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing an unassuming, underseen film shot in cinéma vérité style by Ditsi Carolino entitled Life on the Tracks (a film that quickly made my short list of favorite films for the year) on a family from the province who had come to the metropolitan city of Manila in order to seek a better life, only to end up living as squatters on derelict shantytowns built alongside the railroad tracks. In watching Mikael Wiström's equally penetrating, indelible, and deeply affecting portrait of inseparable familial (and fraternal) bonds against a demoralizing existence of crushing poverty, the moment of epiphany - the thematic parallel between the lives of the Renomeron family in the Philippine slum and the Barrientos family in a Peruvian slum - occurs in a scene when the Barrientos patriarch, Daniel, now working as a motorcycle cab driver, expresses his sadness and frustration to his western-born, filmmaking compadre over his continued (perceived) menial social status since their initial encounter decades earlier: a self-effacing moment that serves to underscore the delusive, illusory nature of Eddie's dream to own a tricycle pedicab as the ephemeral panacea to achieving financial solvency in the Carolino film.

Thirty years earlier, in 1974, Swedish photojournalist Wiström traveled to Peru to chronicle the lives of the poor and disenfranchised who eked out a meager living by scavenging through garbage dumps and, during the course of filming, befriended a genial, ruggedly handsome, polio-stricken indigenous young man named Daniel Barrientos who had approached him with a ghastly, almost surreal tale of his daughter's near death when she was attacked by hungry wild boars. Although economic conditions have since modestly improved for the Barrientos family through the now middle-aged Daniel's self-employment and his devoted wife Nati's work as a maid and nanny - a resourcefulness that has been able to provide food, clothing, shelter, and a modest education for their children - the idea of a "normal life" still largely remains an illusion. His younger daughter, Judith's conflicted sentiment over a failing romantic relationship with a gainfully employed disc jockey provides an illuminating, emotional truth that lies at the core of this illusive search: allowing him to devotedly provide for her even as she remains unwilling to make a commitment, she dreams of leading a financially independent life away from him, but considers herself above accepting certain occupations, remarking that she finds the idea of wearing a nanny's uniform in public, as her mother does, mortifying. Her married sister (and Wiström's goddaughter), Sandra, works in the family's pottery business and is less self-conscious (and selective) in her quest for financial relief, but feels - along with her husband - that the gateway to true economic opportunity and a better life lies elsewhere, beyond the bounds (and deeply entrenched class structures) of their homeland and into the neighboring country of Brazil, where they can, perhaps eventually, make their way towards Argentina. With Daniel and his children figuratively standing at their own personal crossroads, he decides to take them on a soul-searching journey to return to his ancestral roots by visiting his indigenous village in the remote Andes mountains - a region that he had once vowed in his childhood to never return - and where his relatives continue their struggle to survive, abandoned by the rest of the Spanish-speaking country, living in inhumane conditions and abject poverty. Filmed with unflinching intimacy, Compadre is a profoundly humbling (and innately sobering) ethnographic portrait of the widespread poverty, displacement, and marginalization faced by indigenous people in contemporary society as they struggle to assimilate - often as second-class citizens - into the adopted culture and society of their native country. Capturing a fusion of reverent, wide-eyed observation of the human condition with the filmmaker's own emotionally conflicted sentiment of overwhelming social futility, the film metaphorically (and exquisitely) converges with its own introductory images of the cloud-capped Andes mountains - figuratively bringing the Barrientos family full circle to the meaning and legacy of their cultural heritage - and in the process, traces their collective transcendence through a renewed sense of identity, moral center, and paradise lost.

Posted by acquarello on May 31, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 29, 2005

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, 2004

tears_sister.gifOn an unassuming afternoon in September 1989, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a 35 year-old physician, medical university professor, and human rights activist, was riding home on her bicycle after having finished grading the final examinations from her Anatomy class when she was gunned down on an anonymous street in her native city of Jaffna by unknown (or at least, publicly undisclosed) assailants. Over fifteen years later, the still-unsolved murder continues to reveal the trauma and underlying senseless tragedy of her assassination on her family - her two young daughters, her estranged husband, her parents, her younger sisters - and especially, her older sister, Nirmala, who blames herself for initiating Rajani into the ethnic struggle that would ultimately claim her life. Virtually inseparable during their privileged, upper middle-class, westernized Christian childhood, Nirmala and Rajani's seemingly disparate ideological trajectories - Nirmala in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement and Rajani in the Marxist movement of the 1970s - would converge towards their homeland's post-colonial struggle for national identity as the Tamil minority (who were perceived to have been favored by the British and subsequently, were systematically marginalized under the government of the newly formed country) and Singhalese majority engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Nirmala, then a member of the Tamil tigers fighting for an independent state, had repeatedly sought assistance from her sister to secretly treat the wounds of injured guerillas - an act that, from the LTTE's perspective, can be construed as a validation of her allegiance to the organization. However, Rajani's political motivation would not be so easily defined. Championing instead the cause of the silent, innocent victims of the devastating, multi-pronged conflict among nationalists, Tamil separatists, Marxists (People's Liberation Army), government forces, and even Indian peace-keeping forces, Rajani defied the role of partisan revolutionary and instead, focused her energies on creating some semblance of normalcy and rebuilding a future for the people of Jaffra by helping to re-open the region's bomb-damaged university and forming the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who sought to chronicle the human rights violations perpetrated on the people of Jaffra irrespective of factional responsibility. Even Rajana's husband Dayapala acknowledges his own (then) limited view of the significance of his wife's activities during this period, commenting to Nirmala that his concept of political activism had been of armed struggle and not humanitarianism, commenting "We didn't consider human rights as politics." However, as Rajana became more outspoken and internationally recognized in her group's efforts to document the atrocities, culminating in the publication of the manuscript, The Broken Palmyra, insurgents began to view her activities as undermining their cause - a perception that is widely believed to have contributed to her death. Through filmmaker Helene Klodawsky's evocatively interwoven composition of nostalgically rendered re-enactments, archival footage, spiritual hymn performances, and dislocated personal interviews, No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal transcends the immediate political specificity of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka to create a broader portrait of the human toll of colonialism, civil war, and ethnic conflict that contribute to a population of victims. Contrasting Rajani's ill-fated plight in returning to her native land in order to work towards breaking the cycle of violence with the guilt and demoralized melancholia of her exiled family, what emerges is a tragic, cautionary tale of idealism without action, nationalism without inclusion, and revolution without conscience.

Posted by acquarello on May 29, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 26, 2005

Justice, 2004

justice.gifIn the subtly insightful opening sequence of the film, a disabled parking attendant is brought before a judge in a Rio de Janeiro criminal courtroom for a preliminary hearing stemming from a police arrest on a burglary charge. The defendant begins to provide an explanation for the circumstances of how he came to be at a particular location when the police, having chased a group of burglars into the street and subsequently lost their trail in the vicinity (perhaps after the defendant interfered - whether intentionally or not - in their pursuit of the suspects), instead decided to apprehend him for the home invasion despite being visibly confined to a wheelchair. In the midst of struggling to explain his side of the story, the judge truncates the accused man's long-winded, rambling informal testimony and begins to rephrase the defendant's responses into a terser, clinical, and more compact (and also less descriptive and comprehensibly nuanced) dictation to the court reporter for entry into the official trial documents. The judge's insinuated dilution of the semantic context of the defendant's elaborate response - his appropriation of the role of speaker on behalf of the defendant in order to expedite the fact-finding process and proceed to trial - reflects the inherent, (albeit, perhaps unconscious) pattern of silencing the poor and undereducated in the dispensation of social justice. In a subsequent court proceeding, a young, impoverished bake shop assistant and expectant father named Carlos Eduardo is charged with the repeat offense of car theft (after borrowing a stolen automobile from an acquaintance - a known drug dealer - and accidentally crashing the vehicle into a lamppost) and expresses his concern over who will provide for his family if he is denied bail before his trial. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Maria Ramos' approach is her ability to capture the underlying socio-economic landscape that emerges from her refusal to paint a broad stroke, caricatured portrait of the upholders of justice as insensitive, self-serving mouthpieces for monolithic institutions: a genial judge and law professor engages his class in a thoughtful discussion on the difficulty of determining criminal intent when the act is taken outside of its context; a prosecuting attorney assigned to the trial of an orphaned boy accused of being an accessory to drug trafficking takes a curiously laid-back and unaggressive approach to the defendant's cross-examination, perhaps to keep from exacerbating the boy's punishment sentence if he were to be found guilty; a sympathetic and dedicated defense attorney carefully crafts her strategy in such a way as to minimize the implication of her client's admitted transgressions while emphasizing his socially beneficial capacity (and suitability) for reform. Favorably recalling the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, Justice is similarly filmed with an absence of expository narration and leading (and implicitly biased) interviews, using the subjects' own quotidian experiences and vernacular to chronicle the travails of the underprivileged as they attempt to navigate through a daunting and impersonal justice system. Paradoxically deriving poignancy and intimacy through the objective distance of a stationary, unobtrusive camera, Ramos' figurative act of fading into the background becomes, in itself, a defiant act of self-erasure that parallels the marginalization of her characters: validating the unheard voices of the underprivileged by allowing them to articulate in their own faltering, heartfelt words - unmodulated by societal filters - the elusiveness of true justice.

Posted by acquarello on May 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

May 24, 2005

Videoletters, 2005

videoletters.gifIn one of several, equally heart-rending and inspiring segments in Videoletters entitled Vlada and Ivica, Vlada and his father Zoran, a Serbian, finishes recording his videotaped message and begins to reflect pensively on their family's inevitable estrangement from the intended videoletter recipient, Vlada's childhood friend Ivica and his father Zeljko Krilcici, a colleague and long-time friend from Croatia with whom they had lost contact during the turmoil of the civil war that culminated in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Years earlier, Zoran had written a guilt-racked, soul-baring letter to Zeljko expressing his profound apology, sorrow, and shame for his country's military action in Croatia during the war - a letter that Zeljko had never responded to. In a wistful attempt at levity, Zoran admits his reluctance to attempt contact with the Krilcici family after all that has happened: "Now we can still say: 'We have friends in Zagreb.' But if you pick up the phone, you run the risk of having to admit: 'I don't have friends in Zagreb anymore.' Now I can still avoid the truth, saying 'We don't see each other but we are still friends." But Zeljko has a simpler (and non ethnically motivated) explanation for his silence towards his old friend's heartfelt missive, remarking that Zoran was not responsibility for the war and did not have any reason to apologize at all. Nevertheless, a deeper - and more poignant - underlying reason soon surfaces behind Zeljko's (and the family's) absence of communication: the knowledge of Zoran's post-retirement activity in workers unions and eventually, in national politics. Fearing that opponents will exploit their friendship for political fodder in order to attack Zoran's patriotism (or worse, accuse him of treason), Zeljko has consciously avoided pursuing contact with him. The long overdue moment of the revelation, enabled through a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned determination, is revealed in Zeljko's characteristically straightforward videoletter postscript, offering Zoran and his family, not only a sense of closure from their reluctant fate, but also a renewed optimism for humanity in the face of seeming hopelessness, rage, distrust, and exile: "We do not think that you're guilty or that all Serbs are guilty. You are good people, good family...We still love you, there are no problems."

Conceived for broadcast on the ten-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords throughout the now-independent countries of the former republic of Yugoslavia, the underlying premise of the project is deceptively simple: a person from one war-town Balkan nation records a videotaped message to be hand delivered by filmmakers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek to their personally selected, intended recipient in another war-town nation and who, in turn, will record a response to be sent back to the originator. Composed of a series of self-contained, half-hour episodes depicting intimate, emotionally candid first-hand testaments of ordinary people - often childhood friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even passing acquaintances whose relationships were rended by war (such as the unexpectedly uplifting segment, Mujesira and Joviša, in which a former interned prisoner attempts to establish contact with a camp guard in order to enlist his aid in finding the remains of her children who were killed during the ethnic cleansing of her village) - as they recount their personal experiences during the war and express their sincere hopes for reciprocated contact, the film is a thoughtful, impassioned, and profoundly affirming portrait of communication, reconciliation, and closure in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. In the end, the recurring shots of the filmmakers' numerous road trips throughout the former Yugoslavia - emerging from dark tunnels, traversing difficult and often impassable terrain, and recording the irreconcilability of landscape between intact cities and abandoned village ruins - converges to reinforce the metaphoric image of the Balkan region as a fractured, human mosaic of complex, tragic history, multi-faceted identity, and intrinsic, unerasable beauty.

Posted by acquarello on May 24, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch