September 1, 1998

The 1998 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

From Melvin Van Peebles' <em>Classified X</em>

The opening night gala for this year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival looked more like a Hollywood premiere than any prior festival. Limousines and photogra­phers lined up at Lincoln Center to record the attendance of Isabella Rosellini and Alan Pakula, as well as an internationally-flavored audience benefiting the only film festival in the world devoted exclusively to threats against political and individual freedom.

This ninth year of the festival marked the fourth year since joining forces with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and moving uptown, both in spirit and in fact. In years past, the festival was often split between two or three small, scruffy downtown theaters, often showing as many as 70 films—many of which were works­ in-progress-to an audience composed mostly of students and independent filmmakers. Today, the festival is making some progress in attracting members of the international community to help extend the human rights watch mission abroad.

Director Bruni Burres says that the festival began to grow in 1991—the changes have been enormous, both in submissions and in the quality of the works now available. In particular, Burtes says, there has been an increase in the number of films from Asia and Latin America, truly the work of native filmmakers. Works by and about women have increased and shed light on the growth of feminism world-wide. Some of this is due to year-around travel by the staff, throughout the world, to locate the most powerful films—cinematically and thematically. In the words of Associate Director Heather Harding, "Works about political and human rights issues are now integral to world cinema."

This year's festival, June 12-25, presented 33 works from 19 countries. The documentaries ranged in length from almost three hours down to 5 min.; roughly a third were from foreign lands. The overall quality was extraordinarily high with hardly a celebrity narrator to be found. Subjects reflected global concerns as the 20th century comes to a close. These included historical works about Soviet Russia, World War II and the current status of women. And there were works on current events, including Yugoslavia, Haiti, South Africa and Africa, where human rights are still in jeopardy.

Both the opening and closing nights featured works by major African-American filmmakers speaking out on civil rights in America. Blind Faith, director Ernest Dickerson's courtroom drama, opened the festival; and a documentary, Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X, closed it.

Alan Pakula presented the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award to documentary filmmaker and two-time Academy Award®-winner Barbara Kopple at the opening gala. Also, Director Bruni Burres presented Yuri Khashchevatsky with the 1998 Nestor Almendros Prize for An Ordinary President (Germany/Belarus, 1996, 56 min.), a documentary about White Russia that uses black humor in exposing the totalitarianism of Belarus's President Alexander Llukaschenka. Another documen­tary on Soviet Russia—Boy Hero 001 (England/Russia., 1997, 55 min.), by Pekka Lehto and Beatrix A . Wood—tells the story of a 12-year old farm boy who in 1932 informed on his father for stealing grain; the boy later was murdered by his grandfather. The Soviets turned this 12-year old into a national hero to encourage Russian children to yield their loyalty to the state. Recently, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, people have begun to question whether the boy was a hero or a traitor and, indeed, if he even existed.

Eternal Memory: Voices from the Great Terror by David Pultz (Canada, 1997, 81 min.) continued with Stalinist history as it recounts the wholesale execution of 20 million Ukrainians during the 1930s and '40s, from famine, labor camps and mass executions.

Several documentaries looked at the fallout from World War II. A Letter Without Words, by Lisa Lewenz (U.S., 1997, 62 min.), used the trove of 16mm film from the director's grand mother as "a time capsule of life in Germany from 1912 thorough the start of the war," and recreates a very moving record of an affluent German-Jewish family. Beyond Barbed Wire, by Terri deBono and Steve Rosen (U.S., 1997, 88 min.), celebrates the courage of Japanese-American soldiers from the U.S. Army's 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regiment, units that became the most decorated in the war while absorbing one of the highest casualty rates. Back in America, their families were herded into internment camps—an experience they tearfully recall for the camera, breaking a long silence. The Murmuring, by Byun Young Joo (Korea, 1995, 98 min.), recounts another side of the war and makes a valuable contribution to documenting war crimes against women. The plight of the Comfort Women-Asian girls kidnapped or tricked into Comfort Stations to service the Japanese Army with sex during the war—is ongoing. Joo's film featured a group of Korean women still stranded in China a half century later, where they were deposited by the Japanese near the end of the war. The film ends with a disturbing but beautiful nude shot of a former Comfort Woman now in her 80s—waiting with silent dignity for an acknowledgement of the crimes committed against her.

Sacrifice by Ellen Bruno (U .S., 1998, 50 min.) documents a tragedy of today in the Far East where Burmese girls are sold by their improvished families into slavery and prostitution in Thailand. Paulina by Vicky Funari (U.S., 1997, 88 min.) is the story of family abuse in Mexico. A woman recounts how as a young girl her family traded her to a much older man for land. Returning to her village with the film crew, Paulina listens as the crew records her family's self-interested versions of the event, lending a Rashomon-like narrative to the story.

Rebellion against ancient customs is a theme in two films about Muslim women. In My Father's House by Fatima Jebli Ouazzani (The Netherlands, 1997, 67 min.) set out to explore the myth of the hymen and its connection to Moroccan society. Ouazzani says that Moroccan society is very harsh for women. It is a very closed society and it took her two years to find a young woman who would allow her marriage ceremony to be filmed. The expectation of virginity is so powerful that women living abroad—and there are many—turn to female doctors to repair their hymens surgically so that they can pass as "virgins" and return home for a traditional wedding.

If Moroccan women are still victimized by the past, Egyptian women are challenging it. Four Women of Egypt by Tahani Rached (Canada, 1997, 90 min.) introduces four remarkable women whose long friendship and participation in historical events sets them apart in any society. The film is a fascinating conversation among the four as they move around Cairo—arguing and reminiscing about their struggle for the right to vote, their time in prison together and the various tragedies of their lives and culture. There is little they agree upon—being Christian, Muslim and atheist—and little they won't speak out about­ being teacher, writer, activist and politician—yet their friendship endures. The director set out to ask the question: How do you live together when you don't share ideas, and how do you avoid making the other the devil? These four women of a certain age answered her admirably.

Rezistans by Katherine Kean (U.S., 1997, 156 min.), the longest film of the documentaries, is a fascinating look at the political events in Haiti from 1985 to the election of Haiti's first president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Sadly, the camera "witnesses" the assassination of one of Aristide's most impas­sioned and influential supporters—Antoine Izmery. During the question period after the film, Kean shared the stage with a Haitian gentleman who said he was a voodoo priest who also shoots film for various organizations—including ABC—and supplies them with information on the rapidly changing political climate. More installments are due from Kean's Crowing Rooster Arts, Inc., a media corporation that continues to bear witness to Haiti's struggle for democracy.

Films from other troubled points around the globe included Off Season by Mirjam Quinte and PePe Danquart (Germany, 1997, 126 min.), which examines the very fragile peace of Mostar, Yugoslavia, where the Mafia have moved in to fill the power vacuum created by squabbling Croats and Serbs. Gerrie & Louise by Sturla Gunnarsson (Canada, 1997, 75 min.) is an unlikely love story between a former Colonel in the Apartheid Off Season Government's Anny and a journalist, Louise, who serves now as the chief investigator for the Truth Commission in the Eastern Cape Province where they live. Crossroads (The Netherlands, 1997, 60 min.) is by Hillie Molenaar, who was recently elected to Parliament in The Netherlands; she intends to continue making documentaries. Her film is a unique look at the refugee camp, now a boom town called Benaco, in Tanzania. A half million refugees from the Tutsi-Hutu violence created this unique city where the faces of tragedy are often balanced by the spirit and strength of its revolving citizenry. Business is booming, giving rise to a single insurance man and a matron who rents out a white wedding dress. Distrust is part of the social glue in these remark­ able portraits that mostly demonstrate resilience and enterprise even when the future is in question.

One program defied all categories. That was Inside Bedford­ Stuyvesant—really a glorious rerun, because it was a compilation of sequences from the fast African American television series to air, from 1968 to 1970 on New York's public television station WNET. It was produced, written and hosted by African Americans who bought to it a vitality and originality seldom seen on television. Executive Producer Charles Hobson was on hand to introduce the series and to provide a history of community television programming that developed across the country as a result of the series.

The festival's finale was Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X by Mark Daniels, written and narrated by Van Peebles (France/U.S., 1997, 52 min.). It is a visual encyclopedia for Hollywood's stereotypes of Africian Americans. Van Peebles surveys the history of black images in film from Stepenfetchit to the New Negro to the No Negro eras and proclaims it all "treachery-X-rated movie making messin' with the Black man's mind." We've all seen these images before but not put together with such confidence and purpose. Most of the evidence lands on the portrayal of black men with a quick nod to black women's roles as maids and Aunt Jemima-like characters.

 

MARTHA SANDLIN is an award-winning documentary film­maker; as a guest faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, she teaches a documentary workshop for advanced students.

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