Introducing the Human Rights Watch International Film

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

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

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

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


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