Monday, June 13, 2011

2011 Human Rights Watch Film Fest opens in NYC: 19 films, 12 countries, 4 themes

Is there another film festival from which audiences are more likely to depart with their anger level topping out than at the annual HUMAN RIGHT WATCH FILM FESTIVAL? TrustMovies doubts it. While he often determines to see every film at certain fests -- the FSLC's annual French, Italian and Spanish round-ups, and, in fact, the current and easy-to-manage From Britain With Love series -- this HRWFF is another matter. In fact, he suspects that, were he to see every film, thereafter you might have to visit him in an institution, jail or cemetery -- once he'd become so angry that he'd decided to take matters into his own hands. OK: that's a bit of an exaggeration, but only just. Collectively, this series always raises one's temperature like nothing else.

The HRWFF does try to leaven the anger and sorrow with the occasional upbeat film. This year the series' centerpiece is Sing Your Song, said to be a most inspiring look at legendary entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte (shown in his youth in the photo above). Further, as the series includes both documentary and narrative films, there's a good chance that a couple of the narratives (maybe even a documentary or two), will have a happy (or at least bearable) ending. The opening night attraction is the Bosnia-set political thriller The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz (below). When that actress was in town doing PR for the shamefully under-seen Agora, she mentioned this upcoming film and what a powerful story it was. If you miss it here, The Whistleblower will open in August via Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This year's fest is organized around four important themes, with each film fitting somehow into one of the four: truth, justice and accountability; times of conflict and responses to terrorism; human dignity, discrimination and resources; and the rights of migrants and women. You can find complete program information on the festival web site here, as well as on the site of the FSLC (the entire festival is taking place at the Film Society's Walter Reade Theater).

TrustMovies has seen three of the 19 films upcoming (17 of which are making their New York premieres). The first of these -- Marshall Curry's and Sam Cullman's very interesting and thought-provoking exploration of the Earth Liberation Front, the 85-minute IF A TREE FALLS (above) -- will have its theatrical opening on June 22 via Oscilloscope Laboratories, and so I will cover it at length next week. During the HRWFF, the film plays Sunday, June 19, at 6:30 and Monday June 20, at 8:45. A Q&A will follow both performances.

THIS IS MY LAND... HEBRON, the documentary (above) by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, is one of those HRW films guaranteed to raise your blood pressure no matter what side of the Israel/Palestine question you're on. In it, the filmmakers go to Hebron, the West Bank city comprised of mostly Palestinian (some 150,00 - 165,000 residents) and around 500 Israeli "settlers," the latter of whom, with the help of the Israeli military, appear to be making the life of many of those Palestinians hell on earth.

The filmmakers talk to both parties, but whether it is due to the editing process, most Palestinians come off looking like reasonable, put-upon people, while the Jews range from quiet, comprehensible nincompoops like David Wilder (who equates the internationals, who have come here to help with the peace process, with civilians going into a hospital and trying to take the place of qualified physicians) to other settlers who act like rabid nuts who ought to put out of their misery as soon as possible. Early on, one settler compares herself to being a pioneer. Very nice. But what about the raging hag who won't let her Palestinian neighbors leave their house and calls the mother and her young daughters "whores"?  As one Israeli journalist says, "Hebron is really the place of evil: the occupation in its most brutal expression."

Watching the military allow, over and over, rock throwing and vicious name-calling is unsettling enough, but it doesn't hold a candle to the settlers' use of God's will for everything they demand. Why do the military constantly look the other way? As one former member of the Israeli military explains, "Every Israeli commander knows that if he allows his troops to confront the settlers, this will be the end of his military career." Of the knowledge of the majority of the Israeli people regarding what is going on in Hebron, notes Uri Avnery, an ex-Israeli parliament member, "Israeli's don't know because they don't want to know," and he then makes a pointed reference to the kind of German/Austrian behavior that went on during the Holocaust.

There' a lot of name-calling, particularly Nazi references, in the movie --made almost exclusively by the settlers toward their Palestinian neighbors. The worst offense of these people in my estimation is their training their own children, from birth onwards, to hate the Palestinians. "You want to see the end of the Jews!" shrieks Miriam Levenger (one of the earliest settlers in Hebron, and clearly still there), toward the close of the documentary. "No, honey " I couldn't help thinking. "We want to see the end of you and your kind." The Jewish people could hardly have a worse representative. You may very well disagree with me and my assessment, but as I say, this is a film to put your blood pressure over the top.  The film plays Monday, June 27, at 4; Tuesday June 28, at 6:30 and Wednesday, June 29, at 9 -- with a Q@A following all screenings.

The difficulty of coming even close to understanding a foreign culture is demonstrated, perhaps a bit unintentionally, by the documentary LOVE CRIMES OF KABUL (above), in which we visit and get to know a few of the inmates of Afghanistan's Badum Bagh women's prison. Three of these in particular capture our and the filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian's attention, and they have all transgressed (or said to have transgressed) sexually.

We think we know about the lack of women's rights in Muslim countries, but I suspect many of us have not begun to understand what goes on there. And as we learn more and more about these three, their families, and the boys/men with whom they are involved, we are constanrtly brought up short as to what we think and how we feel.  It's bracing, but it's also a little crazy-making, so how crazy must it be for these young women themselves?! One young girl is accused of "wanting" to have sex with her boyfriend, when she was actually having a meal with him. Or so the pair says. And just how does the court prove this "wanting"? Another, clearly abused by her family, takes refuge in the home of a would-be friend, who now stands accused of wanting to sell the girl.  But actually, it seems, she wants him to marry her still-single son.

Dowries, and the price a girl is worth, figure heavily into all this, not least, we discover, in the mind of the girl herself.  When one of our "heroines" upbraids her beau mercilessly for not paying enough for her, all bets are off. When a girl accused of having had sex is found to be a virgin, the charge is changed to sodomy -- which is both harder to prove (and not to prove). "Bad diarrhea can produce the same medical results as anal sex," one laywer explains, adding that sodomy is such an un-Islamic thing -- so bad that it's not even listed as a crime in Islamic law. Shades of Queen Victoria and the love that dare not speak its name. And when one fellow tells another about one of our ladies, "You had the right to kill her for trespassing on your property," we know we've gone right through the looking glass. Little wonder one young woman says she wants to stay in prison. She has brought shame on her family, after all; once she gets out, they will probably have her killed as a matter of course.

Love Crime of Kabul is such a heady, odd concoction that, by its end, you don't quite know how to feel. What initially seems like a broadside against the idiocy of Islamic law slowly begins to look like a recruiting poster for fundamentalism. Sure, women are being terribly abused, but isn't everyone who is living under strictures such as these? This movie makes the Dark Ages look sunny. The film shows Monday, June 20, at 6:30; Tuesday, June 21, at 8:45; and Wednesday, June 21, at 4pm -- with a Q@A following all screenings.

There is so much to see, talk and argue about in this festival -- which begins its annual two-week-long run this Thursday evening, June 16 -- that these three documentaries barely scratch the surface. I'd love to see 'em all (particularly Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (above) by Pamela Yates who earlier gave us When the Mountains Tremble) (if I could stand the anger provoked), but how do you find more time when you really need it?  And how do you keep your blood pressure down?

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