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Human Rights Festival Scores Big in New York

By Gordon Hitchens

From Stephen Olsson's <em>Our House in Havana</em>.

The eleventh annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, in its sixth collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, took place in June. It is perhaps the only festival in the world solely addressing human rights—although such topics are common as part of the regular programming of many other festivals.

This year HRWIFF screened 31 titles, most of them documentaries longer than sixty minutes. Screenings for 16 days enabled the festival to repeat each title twice. Most films were followed immediately by press conferences with the producers, many having come from foreign nations. On some occasions a dozen persons were on stage describing their work and answering audience questions. Director of the festival is Bruni Burres, her Associate is John Anderson.

The Opening Night Benefit Gala, a buffet and screening in Alice Tully Hall, featured Twilight: Los Angeles 85 mins., a docu-dramatic monologue written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, and directed by Marc Levin. A film is an adaptation of the Smith stageplay, based upon her extensive in-person research within Los Angeles, following the riots triggered by the acquittal in 1992 of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. The gala included the presentation of the HRWIFF's fifth annual Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award to Frederick Wiseman for his lifelong commitment to the human rights documentary.

A half-dozen titles emphasized human rights associated with women: I Was Born A Black Woman (Nasci Mulher Negra) by Maisa Mendoça and Vicente Franco, Brazil, 44 mins., is a bio-tribute to Benedita da Silva, who rose from the squalid conditions of the Rio favelas—a domestic worker, mother, organizer, poet, finally politician, the first Afro-Brazilian woman elected to Brazil's Senate. She introduced legislation for the rights of domestics, in regard to wages, hours, conditions, health, pensions. Aiming also to help Brazil's seven million homeless children, Benedita works to give the children housing and education. Within the favelas, families are mother-centered, paternity is fuzzy, men drift in and out, leaving a matriarchy to manage for themselves. A born-again Christian, Benedita has become a force and an inspiration in Brazil.

Our House in Havana, by Stephen Olsson, U. S., 59 mins., similarly concerns a dynamic older woman, Silvia Morini, from the once wealthy and powerful Cuban aristocracy, displaced by Castro 38 years ago. After 30 years of privilege as a Cuban expatriate in the US, she suddenly returns to Cuba, impelled by nostalgia, but more—a belated and long-repressed longing for country and Cuban culture and language. She undergoes a strange transformation—though not a convert to Castro, she becomes a Cuban patriot. In her press conference, Silvia declared that commercial, diplomatic and cultural ties with Cuba must be restored, and now. Her epiphany occurred on the ramp as she boarded her plane for the return flight to the U. S.—she was leaving her true country, Cuba. But she'll return there.

Daring To Resist, Martha Lubell and Barbara Attie, US, 58 mins., profiles three extraordinary women who as teenagers during World War II refused to remain passive as the Nazi genocide ravaged Europe. Separately in Holland, Hungary and Poland, without family support, the three dared to resist by underground work and by joining armed resistance groups. Resist was programmed with Zyklon Portrait, by Elida Schogt, Canada, 13 mins. Zyklon is the crystal that produces the deadly gas used by the Nazis in their gas chambers. The film is an impressionistic essay, using home movies and family photos, on how science can be used for evil purposes.

900 Women, by Laleh Khadivi, US, 73 mins., depicts the Louisiana Correctional Institute, built in 1970 in the swamps of southern Louisiana—a cold, austere, modernistic women-only prison for particularly dangerous convicts. 75% are mothers, 25% face sentences of 15 years or more, many are killers, drug convictions are common. Cells are single-occupancy, lock-up is 23 hours per day. Physical intimacy is forbidden. Khadivi emphasizes 6 women for in-depth revelation—one on death row, waiting; one grandmother; one mother; one pregnant; one a prison guard; one a recovering heroin addict. Producer is Oscar-nominee Jonathan Stack, whose "The Farm" dealt with an all-male prison.

Spoils of War/Botin de Guerra David Blaustein, Argentina and Spain, 116 mins. is a heartbreaking tale covering a quarter-century. Stars are grandmothers, elderly ladies, those still alive, whose 500 grandchildren "disappeared" during the six-year reign of terror, Argentina's military dictatorship of 1976/1982. Liberals, radicals, "dangerous subversives" were then being rounded-up by army death squads: the men and women were tortured for information, then slain, and their children were given new names and pedigrees for placement with military officer's families. All records were then destroyed. Created in 1977, during The Terror, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo meet each Sunday to walk in silent circles around the Plaza, their continuing protest that even this new democratic government is withholding full facts. But some success has occurred: 64 reunions so far, 4 this year, of 500 children abducted. We see re-united brothers, and others. But some refuse to be filmed, as those adoptions were "in good faith," and those children maintain allegiance with both sets of relatives. Small satisfaction, as the military cover-up continues today. One brutal recital will suffice—a pregnant young woman, seized by uniformed killers, gives birth in chains, and pleads with her captors—don't cut us apart, don't cut the umbilical cord, keep us together! urviving grandmothers even today continue their rounds in the Plaza de Mayo.

Showdown in Seattle: Five Days That Shook The WTO, by a media collective, U. S., 60 mins., uses in its title an echo of John Reed's epic on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World. But Seattle is not in that league, despite the heady idealism of the many protestors in the streets, young people largely, their video rigs everywhere. There are charges and counter-charges, as the police in Darth Vader costume advance with three-feet wooden prods, ripping off the gasmasks of the young demonstrators, using pepper-spray, then the police subside and withdraw. There are charges and counter-charges, in the sense of accusations of riotous misbehavior by the police as well as by the demonstrators. As we all know, the WTO closed down, temporarily, but will re-surface elsewhere. One expects the police, at that next WTO meeting-place, to be better prepared for their task of keeping order; similarly, the protestors will have learned new tactics for keeping disorder. Meanwhile, this Showdown is an interlude, history of a sort, also good theater.

Invisible Revolution, U. S., Beverly Peterson, 57 mins., turns over an American rock and finds strange slimy bugs and ugly ideas crawling around: these are pro-white Nazi skinheads, Klansmen and teen-age Klansboys, some with their docile girls. There's a Nazi wedding; the bride is sixteen. Also, we see torch-light ceremonies at night, fires, banners, Nazi regalia and Nazi patriotic speeches and loyalty oaths. Just as the WTO is feared by liberals as an instrument of the new internationalist economic fascism, so domestically we have here our own homegrown variety of fascism, complete with solemn phalanxes of Nazi robots. Some weapons are visible; doubtlessly others are in the closet, waiting.

The young Fuehrer we see in this film can barely keep his eyes open, he's squinting, his affectation of what menace looks like, as he predicts dire consequences for opponents, they're forcing him to exterminate them. He's playing a role, of course, doubtlessly he's been practicing before a mirror. But he's dangerous. Indeed, one of the kids we meet here later goes on a shooting spree, kills and is killed, we see the TV news report.

In opposition, we have the ARA—Anti-Racist Action, also young idealists, but with opposing ideals. Two ARA men are murdered in Nevada. Curiously, both the Nazis and the ARA soldiers are from middle and upper-middle suburban mainstream Americana, the middle states, we seen the neat houses and barbered lawns. Nice folks live there, you think. But behind the doors trouble brews. We meet a father, close to weeping, as he reads aloud a Father's Day card from his estranged Nazi son. His son, 21-years old, on-camera states: "We are two separate groups. There's always going to be racism. There's always going to be hate. We're going to do whatever it takes to get the other one out of the way...."

La Boda, Hannah Weyer, U. S., 53 mins. is a loving film, Elizabeth marries Antonio, la boda, the wedding. They are Mexicans with green cards, enabling them to work as grape-pickers on both sides of the border. They are comfortable, also with their families. There are little tensions, family squabbles, money is never over-abundant. They follow the crops, the seasons. Their future has uncertainties, but Elizabeth and Antonio will make it.

Homeland, Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Goverson, U. S., 60 mins. The title is ironic, as the homeland of these Native-Americans, Lakota Indians, is plagued by alcoholism, extreme unemployment, scarce housing. Living on a South Dakota reservation is monotonous, without promise. The film is built on the personal stories of four people: a spiritual leader, a grandmother, a community activist, an artist. They face the seemingly permanent problem of how to build a better life within the reservation.

Harmed Forces, Irit Gal, Israel, 56 mins. During WW I, the term for mentally damaged U. S. soldiers was "shell-shocked." For WW II, it became "combat fatigue." Now that we're more sophisticated, it's "post-traumatic stress disorder." We meet two such damaged ex-paratroopers, Israeli soldiers, who fought in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, euphemized as "Operation Peace For The Galilee." The enemy was primarily civilians. Without much detail, the two allude to having "brutal memories," they've committed atrocities. They must visit the psycho re-hab clinic even today, two decades later. They have nightmares, they're troubled by drinking. Family and work relations are strained. Israel is ashamed of them, although they had fought for Israel.

Borders, Eran Riklis and Nurit Kadir, Israel, 58 mins. Borders are arbitrary lines drawn for expediency. They often are unjust and illogical. Israel has lots of borders, and frequently they're revised, per war and negotiation and, seemingly, by whim. Israel's borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, don't forget Egypt, are permanently temporary. Meanwhile, the borders cause, or contribute to, decades of neurotic tension, smuggling, bribery, profiteering, war, also the heartbreak of "the shouting fence," as separated families must stand behind the barbed-wire and yell out messages to their relatives in yonder valley.

Three films take a closer look: Children of Shatila by Mai Masri, Lebanon, 50 mins. Fifty years, half a century after their grandparents were expelled from Palestine, the children of the Shatila camp still play and have hope, as children do. Shatila has survived massacres, sieges and starvation. But now they have hope, a gift of two video cameras to document their daily lives and express their feelings. The Jahalin by Talya Ezrahi and Lewie Kerr, UK, 29 mins., documents the hardships of Bedouin families who have lived for generations in the desert hills around Jerusalem. But now Jewish settlements intrude. Land and autonomy must be re-arranged. Massive evictions of the Bedouin take place—with their animals they are re-located by the military to a site bordering on Jerusalem's largest garbage dump. This ancient people is treated like disposable trash. Naim And Wadee'a by Najwa Najjar, Palestine, 20 mins. uses beautiful archival footage of Yaffa from the 1930's and 1940's to document the former lives of an upper-middle class Palestinian family. They were evicted from their home in 1948 by the newly created Israeli state. Today, the three daughters provide the film's soundtrack.

The Job, Johan Eriksson, U. K., 26 mins. A TV journalist is assigned to document the slaughter in Kosovo, before the NATO bombings began. Powerful eyewitness interviews combine with film footage to re-construct the systematic Serbian genocide. A man escorts the journalist to the gravesite of his family: all 22 of his family were recently massacred, including children, and their bodies are buried in rows on the family's farm.

The Punishment, Goran Rebic, Austria, 90 mins. The scene: Belgrade after the NATO bombings. A cinematic essay of ruined buildings, downed bridges, general destruction, also ineffectual dissidence, apathy, barely suppressed fury against the government, combined with the witness of schoolchildren, human rights activists, workers, philosophers. The film gathers subjective responses of combatants rarely seen on TV.

Live Free Or Die, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, U. S., 70 mins. The title is the motto of New Hampshire and suggests the film's theme: personal liberty must be protected, despite the risks. Dr. Wayne Goldner, an OB-GYN, has delivered 2,500 babies within his New England community, but also he has a minority practice as an abortionist. Further, he teaches a sex-education class to young teens at a local junior high school. Young and popular, intelligent and amusing, Dr. Goldner becomes deep in controversy, is menaced by picketers, and worries about the safety of his family. When his hospital effects a merger with a Catholic hospital that forbids 10. abortions, Dr. Goldner objects. Also, his sex-education class for teeners becomes an issue. What to do?—the school-board debates the problem and finds the only solution: fire Dr. Goldner.

Public Enemy, Jens Meurer, France/Germany, 88 mins., is a fascinating re-visit with the Black Panthers and four of the ex-leaders, who today are tamed clawless pussycats, but who state that the vast improvements among American Blacks today is due to the militant daring of the Panthers long ago. Still theatrical and quick-witted, Bobby Seale derives joy from reciting, word for word, from his passionate speeches of yea long ago. Also seen: Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor; Jamal Joseph, imprisoned for nine years for Panther activities; Nile Rodgers, Panther who later founded the 80's rock group Chic. Film's discussion of the self-image of Blacks, advancements per voter registration, jobs, participation within government on high levels, prominence of Blacks in media—all that derives significantly, in part, from the leadership and risk-taking of the Panthers and others. Several former Panthers attended the press screenings. "Nyorican" is a recently coined word combining Puerto Rican and New York, a handy term to suggest a segment of the New York melting-pot, a Latino culture, perhaps a way of life.

Nyorican Dream, Laurie Collyer, U. S., 97 mins., is a Sundance celebrity, entrant at dozens of festivals, and slated for HBO's Cinemax Reel Life series. The film traces the turbulent life of one family, three generations, where crime, 11. prison, drug addiction, poverty and despair are the norm. Only one person has survived the horrors: young intelligent Robert, college-educated, who has left the Nyorican neighbourhood for Greenwich Village and self-preservation. Asked at the press conference how he escaped and thrived, he replied, "Well, I was this gay kid, and that made a difference." His younger brother, not yet 30, has spent half his life in prison and hasn't a clue how to change his life. His two sisters are drug addicts. And as for their several small children—we see the garbage-littered yard next door where they play. Late in the film, the matriarch and sole support of the family, Marta Gutierrez, elderly and in bad health, breaks down and weeps on Robert's chest—he is the only hope for this disintegrating family, he is so kind, so patient, so understanding. Her strangled sobs are devastating, she can't let go of him. When she dies, what will happen to the others? They are dependent upon her for everything. What will happen to the children?

Abandoned—The Betrayal of America's Immigrants, David Belle and Nicholas Wrathall, U. S., 55 mins. is a close look at the troubled Immigration Service, which has the messy job of sorting out which asylum seeker or immigrant will be deported and who may remain. This is often a problematic call, as the revised law of 1996 threatens countless legal permanent residents, some picked up for detention and deportation for petty crimes of long ago. Detained immigrants being adjudicated must be housed, thus new construction is called for, expensive 12. buildings, part of our billion-dollar prison industry. Awaiting one's hearing, one's fate, many in detention cells are overwhelmed with despair.

ICC: A Call For Justice, EVC's Youth Organizers Television, or YO TV, U. S., 15 mins. is a look at the International Criminal Court. What are ICC's functions? Who benefits? Why will the U. S. not ratify the treaty? Through archival footage and interviews with survivors of torture, ICC advocates explore questions about the ICC, its powers and duties.

Finally, perhaps the best film of the festival, concerning human rights violations of ancient pedigree: Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But The Mountains, Kevin McKiernan, U. S., 70 mins. You won't find Kurdistan on the map, as it's not yet formalized as a nation, and may never be, despite a claim for autonomy dating back for millennia. Kurdistan is a composite of adjacent hunks of five nations: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, plus a bit of Russia. Wars in those areas are endemic; indeed, on occasion Kurds fight Kurds. State Department policy, at this moment, has "good Kurds" in Iraq, whom we want to help; "bad Kurds" are those fighting our ally, Turkey, which is armed by the U. S.. Veteran journalist McKiernan explored the entire area and its issues and its contradictions, for this valuable and comprehensive investigative documentary. "Kurds" is shot by the famous Hollywood cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. McKiernan's film is a natural for festivals and for regional diplomatic congresses dealing with the Near and Middle East.


Gordon Hitchens serves as consultant to numerous film festivals around the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.