Introducing the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
by Matt KettmannSam Kornell, with Ethan Stewart and
It’s difficult for traditional journalists to admit that film might be a better method than newspapers, magazines, and books for conveying important messages to the modern world’s masses. But this is increasingly true in the fast-paced 21st century, when an hour of documentary-viewing does the job that a week of book-reading might.
In no genre is this new reality more vital than that of human rights: While it would take months for a regular person to understand — via the reading of books and newspapers — the multitude of abuses occurring today on every continent, it only takes a weekend of film-watching to get a decent sense of the world’s long-simmering human-rights tragedies.
So it’s with open arms that we welcome the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival to our town this weekend, which is being co-presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures. With a collection of eight films ranging geographically from the Middle East, Balkans, and Sri Lanka to New Jersey, New Orleans, and Colombia, we can expect a weekend full of insightful documentaries, beginning with Friday night’s opening at the Lobero and continuing all day Saturday at the Victoria Hall Theater. If you consider yourself a positive force or conscious participant in the world, this is a must-see, whether that means picking one to check out, or buying a $30 pass to see ’em all. What follows are reviews of each film to be presented this weekend.
Opening Night Film: Friday, May 19, 7:30pm (6pm reception), Lobero Theatre State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism (Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, and Peter Kinoy, 2005, 94 mins.)
While this film provides an unflinching look at the rise and fall of the Shining Path terror movement in Peru throughout the latter third of the 20th century, it works equally well as a cautionary tale to countries like the United States about the death, deception, and cultural destruction that a “war on terror” can bring. As the narrator suggests in the opening scene, “This story is about Peru, but it really could be about anywhere and any place in this modern age of terrorism.” A seamless and stirring blend of archived photos and video, personal testimony, and history, the movie details the struggles of the Andean nation throughout the bloodshed of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s and how the fear of terror — coupled with a negligent media and a manipulative government — destroyed generations of families and took more than 70,000 lives. There is no doubt that this film deserves to sit next to George Orwell’s novella 1984 as a mandatory study for all world citizens in what a government’s “war on terror” — with all its political spin — truly means for its people. It is a wake-up call — whether you live in a White House in Washington, D.C., a mansion atop the Riviera, or a dorm in Isla Vista — that cannot be ignored. This screening will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Peter Kinoy. — Ethan Stewart
The following films all screen at Victoria Hall Theater on Saturday, May 20. They are listed in order of appearance.
10 a.m.Mardi Gras: Made in China (David Redmon, 2004, 72 mins.) This eye-opening and fun film begins on Bourbon Street, posing to Mardi Gras revelers the question, “Who makes those beads you’re wearing?” No one knows, though one drunk girl, perplexed and curious, urgently asks, “What’s the answer?” China, of course, in a factory ruled over by a totalitarian manager named Roger, who likes “putting punishment” on his less-than-$2-per-day, 95 percent female workers while he rakes in more than $2 million a year. The beads, which are the product of more hand labor than you’d ever imagine, are then shipped to Accent Annex, the world’s bead provider, whose owner makes $15 million a year. They then land on the streets of New Orleans, exchanged for boob shots and French kisses, before winding up in a pile of puke as discarded trash. It’s the frank face of globalism and scaled economies, but also entertaining, especially when the Chinese women see what Americans do with their products. “They’re crazy,” the women opine, and they’re probably right, but apathetic would also describe us — and the workers, to some extent — rather well. — Matt Kettmann
11:30 a.m. La Sierra (Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez, 2004, 84 mins.)
Named after one of many Medellin neighborhoods where paramilitary-versus-guerrilla warfare is the accepted status quo, this film is a stirring, stark, and compelling glimpse at the drug-addled and violence-addicted populace that’s been forged out of the generations-long Colombian civil war. The opening scene of a dead body swarmed by flies, looked at by the whole town and mourned loudly by family members, is a harbinger of bad things to come for our three main characters: Edison, the womanizing leader of a paramilitary outfit called Bloque Metro; Cielo, who lost her baby’s father at age 15 only to fall for more imprisoned roughnecks; and Jesus, a coke-sniffing youngster hooked on guns and warfare who lost his hand while making a grenade. The outlook for these Colombians is grim. — MK
1:30 p.m. The Liberace of Baghdad (Sean McAllister, 2004, 75 mins.)
BBC journalist Sean McAllister went to Iraq in early 2004 to make a film about Saddam Hussein’s trial; instead he came away with this funny and sublime documentary about the “Liberace of Baghdad.” Samir Peter is a faded Don Juan with whiskey-brown teeth and a tobacco-roasted voice. Classically trained in Europe, he achieved minor fame in prewar Iraq with his lounge singer/pianist act. McAllister became friends with Samir after seeing him play in the Hamra, a popular journalist hotel in Baghdad. Together the two roam the streets of Baghdad, providing the viewer with a vivid picture of a ruined city that, Samir reminds us, was once the cradle of civilization. As the insurgency grows, Samir becomes more fatalistic and McAllister more panicked. Visceral, caustically charming, and surprisingly touching. — Sam Kornell
3 p.m. Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005, 83 mins.)
What this film has to do with human rights is anyone’s guess — regardless, it’s a welcome addition to the slate. Directed by Marshall Curry, Street Fight provides a behind-the-scenes account of the nasty 2002 Newark, New Jersey, mayoral election, in which four-time Democratic incumbent Sharpe James battled it out with young Democratic challenger Cory Booker (pictured), a graduate of Stanford, Yale, and Oxford, and member of the Newark City Council. Both men are black, and James used a number of absurdly vile strong-arm tactics — including accusing Booker of being secretly Jewish on The Today Show — in his victorious campaign. Highly entertaining, James comes off like Boss Tweed. (As an interesting update, however, it was Booker who earlier this month won Newark’s 2006 mayoral election.) — SK
4:45 p.m. No More Tears Sister (Helene Klodawsky, 2004, 79 mins.)
Since Sri Lanka’s 1948 independence, war has raged between the majority Singhalese and minority Tamils. Among the 100,000 or so killed to date, one woman stands out: Rajani Thiranagama, a teacher, doctor, and revolutionary-turned-human-rights-activist who was gunned down in 1989 by, most believe, the Tamil Tigers — the cutthroat, cyanide capsule-wearing group she once helped lead. This documentary gives a biography of her life — as well as simultaneous biographies of her sister Nirmala and former husband Dayapala — which culminates in the formation of the University Teachers for Human Rights, a group that publishes eyewitness reports of the war’s abuses. Given that current members of that group must remain underground, this film is a testament to Rajani’s legacy, one that lives on in a state of constant chaos. — MK
7 p.m. Wall/Mur (Simone Bitton, 2004, 100 mins.)
This film is as beautiful and affecting as it is unapologetically political. Its eponymous subject, the 400-mile-long “security fence” that Israel has constructed along the original 1949 UN partition with Palestine, is depicted in a way that artistically confirms what the International Criminal Court at the Hague legally declared two years ago — the wall is a brazen violation of human rights (not to mention incontrovertibly illegal). Directed by a Moroccan-born, Paris-educated Jewish Arab named Simone Bitton, Wall intersperses interviews of Israelis and Palestinians with mute, poetic visuals of the raw human damage caused by the wall. That damage, Bitton makes poignantly clear, extends equally to the Israeli Jews that it shames as to the Palestinian Arabs that it ghettoizes and impoverishes. — SK
9:15 p.m.Videoletters (Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek, 2004/2005, 75 mins.)
It’s easy to forget that what was once Yugoslavia is now a smorgasbord of republics due to the wars of the 1990s. But the region’s sad story is not what happened to the borders — it’s what happened to the people, because due to the nonsensical hatred and violent nationalism, many former friends, neighbors, and colleagues now live far away, and have no contact with their former lives. Videoletters, which is a collection of short episodes shown on European TV, tries to bridge this gap by allowing former comrades to communicate with camcorders in anticipation of a real-life meeting. It’s touching on a personal level, and on a geopolitical level it helps correct those troubling untruths that stem from rumors of war. — MK
4•1•1 The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival kicks off Friday, May 19, with a 6 p.m. reception and 7:30 p.m. screening at the Lobero Theatre. It continues with seven more films on Saturday, May 20, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Victoria Hall Theater. A festival pass for all movies is $30; each individual film is $6. Call 893‑3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.