I’ve been delinquent in writing some important reviews regarding the Human Rights Watch film festival, or so my editor, The Rabbi, reminds me. Well, it’s true. And what better way to combat my recent bout of pneumonia than to sit through about a dozen or more documentaries about the pain, suffering, war ravaging, and sometimes downright brutal goings on around the globe? While there was certainly a lot of cringe-worthy moments through the various films, more typically, I found myself profoundly moved and inspired. Herein are some of the festival’s highlights.
The Devil Came on Horseback
Dir: Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern
Former U.S. Marine, Brian Steidle, returns to Darfur as an official military observer with the African Union. With camera in hand Steidle documents the atrocities in areas of the war ravaged country that no western journalist would have access to. With that came the inherent dangers of threatening confrontations, being shot at, and having to bear witness to violence on innocent men, women and, most painfully of all, children. To say that the former marine Captain becomes a changed man, is a profound understatement. The documentary successfully conveys his sense of outrage at the complete lack of western intervention. Also interviewed in this powerful documentary are New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff, Luis Campo chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Nobel Peace Prize winning author and professor Elie Wiesel.
Ciudad de los Fotografos (City of Photographers)
Dir: Sebastian Moreno
During the reign of Augusto Pinochet, many thousands of citizens, who the regime considered political extremists, were arrested and, in many cases, never seen from again. As often happens under repressive regimes, demonstrators took to the streets and protests often turned violent. Among those to bear witness were Chilean photojournalists. Using their cameras as weapons of their own, they proceeded to take an incredible trove of photos capturing the entire period. The circle of photojournalists created a very tight community in their day and could often spot a “plant” when they encountered one. And while their film might have been black and white, the stories their photos tell was anything but. Interviewed in this beautiful documentary are most of the surviving photographers who, when looking back to this dark period of Chile’s history, still seem quite heartbroken by the tragedy and the betrayal they documented.
Enemies of Happiness
Dir: Eva Mulvad & Anja Al-Erhayem
I dare you not to fall in love with Malalai Joya! That might seem like a shallow thing to say considering how remarkable a person she is but bear with me. In 2005, Afghanistan held its first parliamentary elections in 35 years and Ms. Joya, a progressive feminist and vocal opponent of the corrupt warlords in the Grand Council, ran for a seat. This thrilling and moving documentary starts by showing her being ousted from a parliamentary meeting after speaking her mind. The film follows her through the final days before the election meeting with many of the local constituents which is, considering the constant attempts on her life and the general extremist population, nothing short of miraculous. Her fortitude will inspire you and further shame us all when we consider our own leadership by comparison.
Dir: Shimon Dotan
With a similar backdrop of an ensuing election, Hot House takes place among the Palestinian population of the Israeli political prison system. What is particularly fascinating is how the Israelis perceive these prisoners as being soulless murderers while the Palestinians think of them as heroes and martyrs. Meanwhile, ironically, it is the relationship between the prisoners and the prison faculty that shows that friendships are indeed possible between the two communities when dealing with each other as human beings instead of as vehicles for ideology. The election in question is between the Fatah and the Hamas for Palestinian leadership. There is a lot at stake for the two groups and the documentary provides a focus group for each side in the jail. Since they are forced to live among each other for their entire lives in most cases, they end up having to figure out how to make their personal loyalties and their personal feelings for each other work out. If only the outside population felt similarly.
The Railroad All-Stars
Dir: Chema Rodriguez
Another documentary about hookers kicking balls? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. This entertaining documentary could almost fall into that cliché movie category of the motley sports team that comes up from behind through sheer will (see everything from The Bad News Bears & The Mighty Ducks to Kingpin). In other words, it’s not the win that counts but the process of coming together as a team and fighting the good fight. In this case, the team is a small group of prostitutes from the mean streets of La Linea, an impoverished railroad town in Guatemala City. With abuse coming from all sides, these women create the soccer team in the hopes that, in doing so, attention might also be shed on their plight. And, similarly to the movies mentioned above, the women have to overcome some serious obstacles and work against all odds to do so. While the film has a fairly light tone throughout, the lives that these women lead are extremely harsh. What is so wonderful about this particular doc is that it shows that there is a lot more to these women than their suffering; and that the spirit to overcome even the harshest of obstacles is universal.
A few other worth mentioning: Everything’s Cool (dir: Daniel B. Gold & Judith Helfand) a somewhat whimsical focus on the conspiracy of global warming deniers, Sari’s Mother (dir: James Longley) is a mercifully short documentary on one Iraqi family’s struggle with AIDS. And Lumo (dir: Bent Jorgen Perlmutt), a documentary which follows a Congolese woman’s difficult recovery from rape.