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Tales Of Struggle And Strengh: Human Rights Watch Fest Marks 20 Years

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'Snow' is a Human Rights Festival highlight

In 2009, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary, although this year’s festival is not very different from that of any other year: The 21 documentary and narrative features, and 11 shorts, are the novel work of indefatigable filmmakers. As in the past, their subjects this year are the disenfranchised, and those who exploit others for profit or power. Stories revolve around war, and the unchanging, unrepentant and frighteningly eternal twin Gorgons of unbridled corporate expansion and government corruption. Justice continues to be elusive and human misery undeniable, yet what emerges from these films—and from the filmmakers—are refreshing expressions of humanity. It is that optimism, and an unshakable belief in the transformative power of cinema, that inspires every Human Rights Watch Festival.

Female filmmakers and women characters—victims, survivors and heroes—always figure prominently in the festival’s feature-length documentaries and narrative films. In Snow, the finest narrative feature this year, six women, a boy and his grandfather, survivors of genocide, are relatives and neighbors in the village of Slavno. It’s 1997, a few years after the Bosnian War, and the bodies of their friends and family are still missing. In a visual style reminiscent of the films of Ingmar Bergman, Bosnian filmmaker Aida Begic crafts a story of astounding sensitivity and simplicity from the point of view of Alma, a young widow who cares for her ailing mother-in-law, Safija. The neighbors are all landowners, but Safija, the doyenne, owns the largest parcel; it’s her fruit and vegetables which the women bottle for the coming winter.

A tenuous solidarity prevails among the grieving neighbors until the arrival of a real estate developer who offers to buy the town. Safija refuses to sell despite threats of government support for the developer’s plans. Then the boy, silent since witnessing the death of his father, sees the developer’s henchman, a local man, and reveals a surprising link to the past which they all share. Soon the land, with its many painful memories, is transformed; the bereaved characters rediscover life in the lingering shadow of genocide. With touches of magic realism, an excellent cast, and the young filmmaker’s perspicacious portrait of the many faces of loss, Snow is an absorbing depiction of the aftermath of war.

In Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, a feature-length documentary, American filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater chronicle an unprecedented plea for asylum made by a Malian woman on behalf of her daughter. Mrs. Goundo, the victim of female genital mutilation, seeks U.S. citizenship based on the fact that if she is extradited, her daughter would be forcibly subjected to mutilation. The filmmakers skillfully interweave the legal case, interviews with “excisers” in Mali, and candid discussions with Mrs. Goundo and her Malian girlfriends, some of whom suffer the lifelong physical and psychological effects of their compulsory FGM. The feature is preceded by an animated short, Sanctuary, which follows an African woman seeking asylum in the U.K. Also focusing on the plight of African women are Spanish filmmakers Gabriela and Sally Guiterrez Dewar, whose feature-length documentary Tapologo tells the story of female sex workers and caregivers in a South African squatter settlement.

The festival’s opening-night screening on June 12 in New York City was The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, one among several films this year that considers the impediments to seeking justice for the victims of crimes against humanity. Closing night, on June 25, features The Yes Men Fix the World, a comedic documentary about the filmmakers’ efforts to embarrass the leaders of corporations that have profited from environmental disasters. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Human Rights Watch Festival is including in this year’s program a retrospective of past winners of the Nestor Almendros Award. The films are: Born into Brothels (Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman); Ford Transit (Hany Abu-Assad); Iraq in Fragments (James Longley); Jung: In the Land of the Mujaheddin (Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti); and Regret to Inform (Barbara Sonneborn).

While the Almendros Award, named for the founder of the festival, recognizes one filmmaker’s exceptional commitment to human rights, many other worthy films in the 20-year history of the Human Rights Watch Festival stand out for their artistic merit, the extraordinary passion which the filmmakers bring to their subject, or for the comprehensive picture they offer of environmental disasters, war and all the other obstacles we must overcome to create a just world. Often, a filmmaker’s careful crafting of a story forms, in our mind, an archetype of every battle waged in the struggle for human rights. Then there are the films that lead us to rethink fundamental issues: the nature of villainy, the necessity of war, our interpretation of heroism, and our definition of justice. It is the latter genre of human-rights films that inspired the best documentary features this year—appropriately, perhaps, given the reassessment of values we are all undergoing in the face of the world’s economic downturn.

The 2009 Nestor Almendros Award went to French-American filmmaker Anne Aghion for My Neighbor, My Killer, structured around the Gacaca trials in Rwanda—although the documentary’s subtext is a rumination on the nature of justice in a society which experienced, in Aghion’s words, “intimate violence.” Aghion, and other filmmakers whose movies we especially appreciated this year, spoke to us about their work, and their ongoing efforts to highlight the lives of people the corporate media largely ignores.

Anne Aghion
In an umbrageous corner of the Rwandan village of Gafumba, a few dozen people seated on the ground are listening intently to Abraham Rwamfizi, a Gafumba resident recently released from prison. Rwamfizi looks at the gathered crowd, his Hutu and Tutsi neighbors, and then turns his gaze on those empowered to judge him officially. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Rwamfizi was the head of a local militia who slaughtered the families of these townspeople, some of whom were their own distant relatives. Not far from the hillside where the bodies remain undiscovered, the neighbors become Rwamfizi’s accusers in a government-sponsored Gacaca trial, designed to resemble a traditional African method for resolving disputes.

The open-air trial, after which Rwamfizi may be compelled to serve more jail time, is the setting for Anne Aghion’s fascinating investigation into the nature of justice in a country where people are being asked to forgive those who murdered their loved ones and, in some cases, allow the convicted killers to return to their villages. The filmmaker wrote and directed two broadcast documentaries before making My Neighbor, My Killer, which she calls the third film in a trilogy. Aghion and her cinematographers compiled 150 hours of Gacaca trial footage in Gafumba, a village well off the main road where Hutus and Tutsis often intermarry. In addition to the dramatic trial scenes, Aghion interviews the townspeople individually, mostly the unforgettable female survivors Félicité Nyirasangthwa and Euphrasie Mukarwernera, to craft a film reminiscent of a classic Greek tragedy.

Aghion discovered her story serendipitously after meeting Rwandan officials touring the U.S., and then spent the next ten years traveling to Rwanda from New York and Paris to make her documentaries. “My Neighbor, My Killer is about issues of justice, and about how you live together, how you survive after this horrific thing that happened,” Aghion says. “The one truth that stays with me now is the pain of these women.” Aghion, who is white, was not immediately accepted in Gafumba and had to earn the trust of the villagers. At one point, a woman responds with annoyance to Aghion’s question about how the townspeople feel having men like Rwamfizi living among them again. It’s a stupid question, the woman observes.

No doubt Aghion’s presence changed the villagers’ perspective of the Gacaca trials, but reflecting on whether her questions also altered their view of what happened to them during the genocide, she says: “Asking the questions we asked made them think about things differently. It made them reflect. The questions I asked were not necessarily questions they would have thought of, or maybe they would have thought them but dared not asked them.” Sometimes, Aghion’s queries were met with silence. “One of the things I try to do in this film is have people express themselves—or not, as when they didn’t feel like talking,” the filmmaker ruminates. “Also, I wanted to leave space for the viewer, space for them to think about what they’re seeing.”

Joe Berlinger
A friend introduced Joe Berlinger (My Brother’s Keeper) to attorney Steven Donziger, who then invited the filmmaker to spend a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Berlinger may have dreamed of getting a glimpse of paradise, but he instead witnessed the environmental disaster that inspired Crude, which First Run Features will release theatrically in September. “Steven is a big, charismatic guy, and I’m a little guy,” Berlinger jokes, remembering his first meeting with Donziger. “So, he was very impressive. He told me about the story of what Chevron-Texaco did down there, and there was something about him that was very captivating.”

Berlinger, who is known for his cinema-vérité approach—the Maysles were his mentors—remained unconvinced that the suit brought by indigenous groups against Chevron-Texaco was a story he wanted to film. “For one thing,” Berlinger recalls, “the legal case had been going on for ten years before I got there.” The filmmaker, on the “toxi-tour” for nearly a week, finally came upon a scene that unmasked the human-rights issue at the core of the case against the oil company. “We pulled up a canoe to that Cofàn village you see in the movie,” Berlinger recalls, “where there were five or six people sitting around a fire.” The Cofàn, an indigenous group, live in Ecuador and Colombia. “There were villagers eating canned tuna out of whatever the Ecuadorian equivalent of Cosco would be. They had the cheapest, biggest vat of the nastiest canned fish, deep in the heart of the Amazon, next to a river that used to provide them fish. That image just seared me more than anything.”

Donziger, the aggressive consultant-publicity hound for Aguinda v. Chevron-Texaco (named for the first plaintiff, Maria Aguinda), features prominently in Crude, but Berlinger’s hero is undoubtedly the lead attorney and human-rights activist Pablo Fajardo. Fajardo, a 2008 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize (with Luis Yanza, who also appears in the film), is a formidable opponent for Chevron-Texaco: He once worked in their oil fields. “Ultimately, this film is about the plight of the indigenous people,” the filmmaker says. “That’s why I don’t take a position in the legal case.” What Berlinger provides is a comprehensive picture of a riparian way of life destroyed by pollution, the result of a pact between a corrupt Ecuadorian government and a morally deficient American corporation. (Look for Maria Garcia’s full profile of Joe Berlinger in FJI’s September 2009 issue.)

Fabrizio Lazzaretti & Paolo Santolini
Back Home Tomorrow is about two boys whose physical and psychological wounds provided Italian filmmakers Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Paolo Santolini with a pair of eloquent arguments against war. Murtaza, a seven-year-old Afghan, loses his left hand while playing with a landmine, and Yagoub, a 15-year-old refugee from Darfur, will die if he does not undergo surgery for his injured heart, the result of an untreated bout with rheumatic fever. With the exception of a few brief interviews, this beautifully photographed and scored documentary unfolds from the point of view of the children, the world over the most assailable victims of armed conflict.

In an e-mail exchange with Santolini, the filmmaker explains that he and Lazzaretti found their subjects in hospitals run by the Italian aid organization Emergencia, whose work inspired Lazzaretti’s Jung: In the Land of the Mujaheddin (made with Alberto Vendemmiati). “The stories of Murtaza and Yagoub,” Santolini writes, “make us perceive the surprising force that these two boys deploy in order to walk through life. It’s exactly through their vitality that we were able to understand the madness of war. The filming of Murtaza and Yagoub represents the possibility to name the tragedy lived by many people in war zones, as well as a possibility to challenge our capacity as Westerners to take a stand against the war industry which our countries are endlessly fostering.”

In heart-rending detail, Lazzaretti and Santolini follow Murtaza and Yagoub from their initial admission into hospitals in Kabul and Khartoum, respectively, to their release months later. Through a gifted therapist who gives his disabled patients kites in an effort to have them regain their physical prowess, Murtaza finds his way back to the boy he was before his accident. Yagoub, who does not emerge from surgery unscathed, is nevertheless encouraged by his mother and the other displaced people of the camp who donate blood for his operation, as well as a young woman who helps him overcome his fear of the operation. “Of course they were wondering what the film was meant for and most of all they loved to play with the camcorder,” Santolini says of the boys. “In a way, the filming became a game which allowed us to spend hours, days and weeks together.”

As the stories of Murtaza and Yagoub are recounted, we realize how much war insinuates itself into every aspect of children’s lives, how it makes unavoidable the violence and disease that transformed these two boys and all their friends and loved ones. “Kids seem not to perceive war as adults do,” Santolini observes. “The war is a normal part of their life. The war becomes a game. For them there is no perception of danger until the very moment they become the victims of war. Then, history repeats itself. Our parents told us plenty of stories of young kids who became victims of war during World War II, just by playing like Murtaza did.”

Jawad Metni
The ceasefire declared in the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon had a three-day delay attached to it, days in which Israel hurled hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions into South Lebanon. The estimated four million bomblets packed into each munition, which Human Rights Watch reported as having an exponentially higher than normal dud rate—“duds” are unexploded until stepped upon or run over—continue to maim the Lebanese. It is the removal of the remaining bomblets by de-miners in South Lebanon that Jawad Metni explores in his documentary feature Remnants of War.

Metni, a Lebanese-American, had visited Lebanon many times before making his film, but it was while watching the 2006 war at home in New York that he found the story he had been searching for. “I got everything together and went,” he says. “It wasn’t a time to raise money. I just had to go and start shooting on my own.” Metni, who has extended family in Lebanon, decries the role America played in the destruction of his ancestral land. “We have a cluster munitions ban supported by 100 countries, but the biggest producers and stockpilers have not signed on, like the United States, China, Russia and Israel,” the filmmaker points out. “They need to be shamed into understanding that the general moral consensus of the world is that these weapons should be banned immediately, not ten years from now or five years from now.”

In the documentary, Metni follows several de-miners employed by NGOs in South Lebanon, among them an orange grower, a divorced Shia woman, and a young couple deferring their dream of getting married. Remnants of War is not a political film; in fact, Metni is even reluctant to discuss politics except to explain the excessive violence of that three-day period in the summer of 2006. “Each side went at each other as hard as they could so that they could appear strong,” Metni observes. “Hezbollah knew if they kept launching rockets at the Israelis, they would have this perceived victory and they could use that to political advantage later, to gain seats in Parliament. That’s when Israel launched the cluster munitions.”

With his insider view, Metni is able to explain the complicated economic and social meltdown of Lebanese society through the travails of the de-miners. For instance, Neamat, the Shia woman, is working because her father was injured in a car accident and she’s supporting her parents and siblings on the US$750 she earns a month. “There is a lot of stigma for a woman like that, divorced and doing that kind of work,” Metni says. “She’s with men, out in the field. She has to put up with a lot.” It’s a good wage, the filmmaker explains, but hardly enough to support a family—as Mariam and Ali, the young couple, also illustrate. Through them, Metni reveals the uncertain future of a Lebanon where the generation that should be running the country is struggling to survive. “There’s some hopelessness that all this will happen again,” Metni observes, “but there’s a resilience as well. They all want to live.”

SOURCE: Film Jourmal International

AUTHOR: Maria Garcia

URL: Click here

DATE: 17/06/2009

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