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Festival Focus: Amnesty International Film Festival

By Darianna Cardilli

From Nadja Drost's Between Midnight and the Rooster's Crow

The Amnesty International Film Festival  is an annual touring program, having played thus far in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC and Salt Lake City, and concluding gigs in Asheville, North Carolina and Seattle in January and February 2006. This year's festival slogan is "Expose," and viewers have indeed been exposed to a veritable panoply of human rights abuses and urgent issues, ranging from child labor to environmental disasters, genocide and ethnic cleansing to globalization, child conscription to the war on terror and workers' rights to unjust imprisonment. The tour, which kicked off in Los Angeles in May, is an evolving program; as certain films obtain distribution, new ones are added.

The festival is clearly not a light-hearted program, but that has not deterred audiences from flocking to see 26 disturbing yet powerful films, made with compassion and intelligence, which delve into issues often ignored by the mainstream media. What started as boutique festival in Seattle in 1992 has evolved into a showcase of films made in 18 countries, including Sudan, Rwanda, Liberia, India, China, Cambodia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Cuba.

Responsible for the excellent and careful selection is Festival Director Alessandra Gallo, who combs through thousands of submissions and scouts suitable films from other festivals. "There are a number of criteria for choosing a film, but I pay great attention to the editing and photography as well as the content," she says. "There are a number of issues that Amnesty International works on, and when I find a documentary that highlights one of them, I try to include it in the festival. Since there are new Amnesty campaigns that come up all the time, that affords me a lot of variety".

Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's The Devil's Miner is a Dickensian tale of child labor in the most dangerous of professions: mining. Two teenage brothers, Basilio and Bernardino, toil away in the dwindling Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosí, Bolivia. They stave off hunger with cocoa leaves, eke out a meager existence to support their widowed mother and baby sister and wait for a day off so they can attend classes at school. The filmmakers show how brotherly love and candid cheerfulness can still blossom in the darkest conditions.

Bhophal: The Search for Justice (Dirs.: Lindalee Tracey and Peter Raymont) revisits the effects of Union Carbide's deadly leak of methyl isocyanate gas, the fastest poison in the world, two decades later. The survivors struggle against government indifference, continued corporate negligence and risible compensation amounts, despite mounting evidence of toxic drinking water and genetic abnormalities in newborns. This beautifully photographed, haunting film follows local journalist Rajkumaar Keswani's fight to bring the issue back to the fore.
The theme of corporate biological terrorism is continued in Between Midnight and the Rooster's Crow, in an incredible debut from Nadja Drost. Debunking the myth of corporate social responsibility, Drost shows how, in the search for oil, buzzwords such as biodiversity and environmental protection are just cant for the activities of the EnCana corporation, an oil and gasoline company, in Ecuador. Despite protests from the indigenous people, a pipeline is built alongside a volcano and across 89 faultlines. This is a brilliant investigative piece, cut to melancholy pan-pipe music, on yet another example of egregious corporatism abroad.

After watching Bukemi Beck's harrowing short On the Frontlines: Child Soldiers in the D.R.C., about the forced recruitment of children in Congo, where minors account for 60 percent of combatants, I was in dire need of cheer. Fortunately Marc Allen's War Games provided it. In parts of southern Sudan the death rate is so high that "vultures cannot fly, hyenas cannot run." But despite lack of running water, threat of military incursions and bombings and the occasional cow on the football field, an effort is made to bring happiness to a region steeped in sadness: the Twic Olympics, where thousands of youngsters come together to compete. With diligence and seriousness the organizers set about to ensure the rules are followed, and in the true spirit of sportsmanship, taking part is what is most important.

But history has the annoying habit of repeating itself, regardless of geography, as I learned in State of Fear. With a deft hand, impressive use of archival footage and interviews, Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kilnoy lay the groundwork for this complex yarn about the bloody and tragic saga of modern Peru. Using the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a departure point, they go back in time and explain the birth of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, the atrocities committed by both the terrorists and the anti-terrorist police, the Tupac Amaru hostage crisis and the demise of the Alberto Fujimori regime. All told, over 70,000 Peruvians died during the years of terror, and countless others were tortured.

Yet what is unique about the Amnesty International Film Festival is that the experience does not end once the credits roll and the lights go up. Amnesty International representatives and speakers from other organizations have participated in Q&As to assist and encourage any viewers spurred by the films to become more actively involved. "It is important not to feel hopeless and helpless at the end of the screening, but empowered that you can actually do something about it," Gallo emphasizes. "The main distinction between us and other festivals is that Amnesty International has two million members to work on actions and follow up, more than doing mere advocacy".

In these days of celebrity worship and presidential falsehoods, the hero-myth has been debunked. But every one of the films had real heroes--be it the filmmaker facing threats and lack of finances in bringing an issue to the fore, or the lonely protagonist of a film, struggling against a corporate Goliath.

For more information, visit The Amnesty International Film Festival accepts submissions on a rolling basis throughout the year.


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor.