Waco, Ruanda, the CIA and Domestic Violence: These and More at the 1997 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival—the only festival devoted exclusively to human rights issues—held its eighth annual event at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (co-presenter), in New York City, June 6-19. With screenings at the Walter Reade Theatre, fourteen of the twenty-one features were documentaries, culled from 600 titles submitted for the festival's consideration. In the screenings,13 foreign countries and the U.S. were represented; for many films, the director and other production personnel joined human rights specialists for Q&A sessions and panels afterward.
For the fourth year, highlights from the festival will tour internationally: London, Bogota, Port-au-Prince, along with Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities. Festival director Bruni Burres and assistant director Heather Harding announced that the 1998 Festival would expand the outreach programs from this year, in which high school students visited Lincoln Center for special screenings.
Opening night festivities featured Francesco Rosi's new The Truce, starring JohnTuturro, about the return of an Auschwicz survivor to his native Italy after World War II: the fictional feature was based on Primo Levi's autobiographical novel. The opening evening also saw director Alan Pakula receiving the third annual Irene Diamond Lifetime Award, presented by actor Harrison Ford.
Films at the Human Rights Watch fest always deliver an impassioned portrayal of topics rarely seen on screen. Stories of Honor and Shame (Palestine, 56 min., 1996) is director Antonia Caccia's inquiry into the Palestine dispossession. (Her debut film in 1970 exposed life in the black townships of South Africa.) For Stories, she selected a few of the 50 Palestinian women who volunteered for on-camera interviews. The film was shot in Gaza at "The Big Prison," so-called because it is cut-off, isolated, difficult to enter or exit, a barren place where "the men are prisoners and the women are the prisoners' prisoners." Defying a lifetime of repression, these Gaza women frankly describe abductions into marriage at the age of 12, annual pregnancies, dreams of education and careers smashed. They must wean their newborn daughters early, to conceive a coveted boychild. A husband may have several wives and yet call himself a "feminist." If women dare to go out unveiled, acid is thrown in their faces. "When you are confronted with the detailed stories of women's lives, it's always so much worse than anything one had imagined," states Caccia. "I used to think, how can they bear it?"
Ricardo, Miriam and Fidel, by Christian Frei (Switzerland, 90 mi n.,1996), explores the unresolved situation in Cuba. Now that Fidel Castro's revolution is creaking like Havana's ancient taxis, what about his former guerrilla compadres of the Sierra Maestre, now elderly? Having risked their lives, the veterans ask: have our ideals been realized? is Cuba improving? or deteriorating? has the regime delivered on 37 years of Marxist rhetoric and promises? The widespread doubts are personalized as old vet Ricardo witnesses the defection of his daughter Miriam: sick of fidelity to Fidel, and a frequent listener to Radio Marti from Miami, Miriam is finally granted an exit permit; we soon see her shopping with her husband and son, in Miami, while back in Havana old Ricardo clings to his threadbare faith in Fidel.
Chronicle of a Genocide Foretold (Canada, 164 min., 1996), co-directed by Daniele Lacourse and Yvan Patry, deals unsparingly with the Ruanda massacre in April 1994 of more than 500,000 minority Tutsi children, women and men, usually killed at close range with machetes and long knives by the majority Hutus, often neighbors of their victims. Signs were there earlier that the massacre was coming, thus the "foretold" of the title. A Christian land, Ruanda's church is portrayed as weak and often accomplice in the genocide; the international community and the United Nations are seen as turning a blind eye. In three parts, Chronicle traces the roots of the ethnic strife, the gathering of hatred (and weapons), with explicit news footage and stills to supplement testimony from survivors, human rights activists, journalists and a few peacekeepers.
Fifteen Children, by Maria Oliveira and Marta Nehring (Brazil,18 min.,1996), was the one short film in the festival. Fifteen adults, including the two filmmakers, tell it like it was, as children of parents who were political dissidents and student activists, and were killed, imprisoned or simply "disappeared" during round-ups by Brazil's military dictatorship. "How can there be an ending when there's no corpse, only a passport photo?" The film has won numerous awards, including Best Video at the Rio Cine Festival.
Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, from Laura Angelica Simon (U.S., 53 min., 1996), was later broadcast on P.O.V. Born in Mexico, Simon crossed the border illegally at the age of six with her parents. She has high praise for the American school system, having graduated from college and traveled extensively abroad; but she also suffered alienation from her parents and the Mexican culture. Wanting to heal that breach, she began teaching Mexican children who spoke only Spanish, in a Los Angeles elementary school. "I made this film for one simple reason: I didn't want to see my students get kicked out of school," says Simon, in response to California's Proposition 187, the tough new anti-immigrant bill that includes the denial of school and health services to the children of illegals. The abstractions of the crisis are personalized in the film by scenes with fellow teachers, one a rigid Anglo, and with immigrant counselors, families and-most-importantly the children.
Education from another vantage point becomes the subject for New School Order (U.S., 57 min., 1997), Gini Reticker's film whose title perhaps plays on the compilation of speeches following Hitler's Mein Kampf—entitled "New Order." But this film is not about Germany: instead, it is an investigation of the movement to elect members of the Christian Right onto local school boards. As Ralph Reed, recent head of the Christian Coalition, so succinctly stated: "The future of the country is decided in the principal's office, not the Oval Office. I'd rather elect l,000 school board members than the President of the United States."
The Betrayed, by Clive Gordon (U.K., 78 min., 1995), in both Russian and Chechen, documents Russia's bungled campaign against secessionist Chechnya. The brainless slaughter began in December 1994 as Russia dumped 3,500 untrained and under-equipped conscripts into Chechnya with orders to take the city of Grozny. Before long, Russian mothers are mourning: "Should I try to find his grave? Dig it up to see if it's my son ?" Other mothers come to Chechnya, hoping in vain that their sons will be exchanged as prisoners. A film of moonscape destruction and mass graves, bureaucratic and military evasions of responsibility, official cover-ups, Betrayed reconstructs this most recent stage of a 300-year conflict. The film won the Prix Italia, Prix Europa, the Royal TV Society Best Documentary and three British Academy Awards.
Bye-Bye Babushka, by Rebecca Feig (U.S., 75 min.,1996), introduces us to Russian grandmothers—maybe even greatgrandmothers, as the oldest is 90, born during Czar Nicky 's final years, before WW l and the Bolshevik Revolution: a collective farm laborer, a fan of Lenin and a passionate CP member, a history professor whose indiscretions netted her four years in Siberia. Another bent old soul peddles newspapers in the street. Another hides some simple foods in a box under her bed, prepared to survive a famine. These and other babushkas display a surprising durability despite adversity, proud each in her own way, of their survival and of the continued use of their hands and minds.
Devils Don't Dream!, by Andreas Hoessli (Switzerland, 90 min., 1996), documents the CIA shenanigans that toppled Guatemala's popular democratic leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Describing CIA operations in deadpan is none other than Howard Hunt, he of the Watergate break-in fame who was in Guatemala as part of the overthrow. It seemed that Arbenz as president was setting unfortunate precedents, being called "the Juan Peron of Guatemala," and there was even the rumor that he was redistributing land to the peasants. An inconvenient example, at best, and not at all in the interest of the United Fruit Company and their aversion to workers' unions. Arbenz and his ideals simply had to go, and he better take his militant reform-minded wife with him. A quick military coup was the decided remedy, and Arbenz was forced into exile—but not before he was strip-searched at the airport. Like the eloquent resolution to most American adventure (film)s, U.S. hegemony in Central America is maintained-except that a civil war has raged in Guatemala since the departure and death of Arbenz, with many thousands of Indians systematically exterminated.
Martin Sheen narrates An Act of Conscience, directed by Robbie Leppzer (U.S., 90 min., 1997), about an idealistic couple in Massachusetts who decline to pay income taxes as their protest against war and military spending. Because of their activism, the IRS singles them out to set an example: their house is confiscated to satisfy the unpaid tax bill. After the house is sold at auction, the new owners arrive to find the former owners still in residence: they refuse to move, supported by their live-in protest companions. What a scenario for a Hollywood comedy! Maybe cast some of the real-life characters who appear in this documentary, like Father Daniel Berrigan, Pete Seeger, a Buddhist monk and that bemused IRS bureaucrat, plus all those colorful neighbors. A T.V. sit-com shouldn't be far off. Except, this nonsense is from the painful life experience of real human beings and not from the fertile imagination of a Seinfeld staffer.
Raising all sorts of questions about privacy, informed consent and the role of the documentarian, It Ain't Love, by Susan Todd and Andrew Young (U.S., 58 min., 1997), portrays one possible solution to the problem of domestic violence: create a theatre environment within which youngsters can dramatize their experiences as witnesses and participants in violence. Combining acting as a training discipline with therapy, FACES is an edgy New York improv theatre company, now in its fifth year, involving 15-24 year olds, mostly Hispanic or African-American, in skits demonstrating how quarrels can escalate into violence, in the home and on the street comer. Funding is from the Department of Justice and other sources. Working from core assignments, the youngsters are encouraged to re-live family abuse. And, as cultures deny a male's capacity for tender love and intimacy—all of that is considered "weak"—the young people learn through their improvised (then rehearsed) skits just how to clarify their feelings and liberate them. Under scrutiny are love, jealousy, machismo, domination, aggression, submission, infidelity: a psychodrama teacher guides the youths through the enactments to the social expectations and norms of their peers, their class, their everyday companions and family members, as they examine themselves to challenge their customary attitudes. An experiment with potentially positive results.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement, by William Gazecki and Dan Gifford (U.S., 135 min., 1996), was screened at Sundance and has received mention here before. We all know about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, their armed compound near Waco, Texas, their shoot-out with the FBI (killing four), and months later the second assault by the U .S. government on April 19, 1993, killing Koresh and everyone with him in the compound. Waco re-examines all that, using news footage, Congressional hearings, home videos of the Branch Davidians, footage also of FBI agents clowning atop a tank and-most-damning to the government's insistence that no shots were fired from their side during the 51 day siege-infrared videos shot from a helicopter flying overhead, showing strange flashes that according to technical experts almost certainly indicate government automatic gunfire directed at the compound. Also of great interest is the recording of telephone exchanges between Koresh inside and an officer outside, the FBI finally admitting that the helicopters overhead are armed. The film bravely neutral despite temptations to editorialize, makes no claim that the 27 who died in the conflagration were victims of government weapons. With all the contradictions and mysteries in this strange example of apparently irrational planning and execution, Waco commendably maintains a steady course of neutrality through choppy seas.
Blacks and Jews, another P.O .V. selection, by Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and Bari Scott (U.S., 85 min., 1996), is a balanced discussion of an inflammatory topic: the deterioration of relations and respect between American Jews and African-Americans. Since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the once-close alliance has broken down: in its place have come distrust, ignorance, prejudice, misconceptions, dogmatic claims-a tone and a language of exclusion and not inclusion. Yet the heritage of the two groups have so much in common—how did the breakdown occur? More importantly, what to do about it? With TV footage and testimony from participants, Blacks and Jews deals with specific events: the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn, when a car driven by a Hasidic Jew killed an African-American boy—in the ensuing riot, a Jewish student from abroad was stabbed to death, another Jew was badly beaten, only to be rescued by an African-American. The film reunites these individuals to demonstrate the human capacity to "help thy neighbor" ... sometimes. Also, we witness the behavior of African-American students on Martin Luther King Day, visiting a local theater to laugh at the killings in Schindler's List. Other sequences in Blacks and Jews deal with Louis Farrakhan's contemptuous references to Judaism, and a Jewish-Black alliance to prevent a blockbusting real estate scam. Persistent in the film (and in audience questions and comments after the screening) was the debate on comparative suffering: the rhetoric was hot, and along the "My people suffered more than your people!" line.
For this viewer, it was gratifying to witness the power of the documentary to open up communication between estranged people,even if the onslaught has to be posturing. Consider the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the ongoing massacres in Ruanda, Cambodia with a million murdered, China where 30 million starved to death due to Beijing inaction, the exterminations of indigenous tribes throughout Latin America, the white man's own genocide against our Native Americans- and on and on. Some say education is the key, where we can teach that-as Alain Resnais's narration in Night and Fog so succinctly suggested—today's victims are tomorrow's victimizers. An endless cycle: unless we watch and learn and change. This is the mission of the Human Rights Watch lnternational Film Festival, a small contribution, perhaps, but a step.
GORDON R. HITCHENS is Contributing Editor for International Documentary. He was founding editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a stringer for Variety, he has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/ Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world.