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UNAFF: Human Rights, Broadly Conceived

By David D'Arcy

The United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) celebrated its 15th anniversary this year at Stanford University. The annual event, founded by journalist and professor Jasmina Bojic, was originally conceived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Over 15 years the range of program has broadened to 70 documentaries this year, and the festival has taken films to local schools and throughout the country on an annual tour. 

Here's a sampling, from a critic whose recent feature documentary film, Portrait of Wally, was also included in the program.

Greedy Lying Bastards, by Craig Rosenbraugh, took the bull by the horns, addressing the loud chorus of climate change deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry and gauging their influence on public opinion. As the news of the approaching hurricane on the East Coast came at the close of the festival, the film's eerie topicality added to its credibility, although climate change had barely gotten a mention from either candidate in the presidential campaign. Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited climate change for his endorsement of Barack Obama.

With a mix of glaring news footage, outrageous political grandstanding by the global warming deniers and science pedagogy made palatable with satirical animation, Greedy Lying Bastards has played and will continue to play in festivals that specialize in environmental themes. Positioning the issue in the context of human rights offered an even broader audience. This time, outside the self-selecting public of doc festivals, it took a hurricane to get people to pay attention again. Enterprising festival programmers are likely to seize the moment.


From Craig Rosenbrugh's Greedy Lying Bastards.


Also on the bill was The Mexican Suitcase, Tricia Ziff's remarkable investigation into a trove of photographs by Robert Capa and others that went missing in the Spanish Civil War. Let's not forget that the Spanish Civil War, a rehearsal for many of the atrocities of World War II, created Europe's greatest refugee crisis before 1939 and dispersed plenty of art in the process. Ziff takes a rigorous expositional approach as she works on an archaeology of images from that war and tracks images that disappeared. Added to the casualties of war was the vanishing of information that told the conflict's story. The Mexican Suitcase is one of the best films about art in recent years. (Note—there's more to the story of the fate of art after the Spanish Civil War. When Francisco Franco remained neutral during the Nazi Era, his friend Adolph Hitler, a crucial player in the deadly bombing of Guernica, persuaded the French collaborationist government in Paris and Vichy to return looted paintings that were taken from Spain during the Napoleonic campaigns. At the same time that the Germans and French were pillaging the property of Jews, they were restituting long-looted paintings to Spain. Now that's a documentary.)


From Tricia Ziff's The Mexican Suitcase


Full disclosure—I have a personal interest in these issues, not because I'm planning a film about reverse restitution of art from France to fascist Spain, but because of my role as co-producer and co-writer of Portrait of Wally, a documentary about Egon Schiele's 1912 painting of his mistress and model that a Nazi seized from a Jewish art dealer in Vienna in 1939. It resurfaced on loan from a Viennese foundation (now a museum) to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in late 1997.

The lender of the painting, the Rudolf Leopold Foundation in Vienna, along with MoMA, opposed the efforts of the art dealer's heirs to recover the painting, and the dispute dragged on for 13 years, with the US Justice Department and the family on one side, and the Leopold Foundation and MoMA on the other. Eventually the Leopold Foundation agreed to pay the heirs of the art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray $19 million in compensation for the painting (which was valued at some $1 million when it was exhibited at MoMA in 1997).  Had the museums not delayed and fought a war of attrition, the case could have been settled rapidly and inexpensively.

Documentaries about stolen art present a challenge to filmmakers. If the film isn't simply going to be a sleuthing expedition that tracks a looted painting into today's marketplace, with the promise of a voyeur's frisson to those who can watch thieves being found and punished, the film needs to provide context. Who were the original owners? What were the circumstances of the painting's acquisition, and its theft? What are the arguments today against returning a painting stolen from Jews during the Holocaust?  History and memory are dimensions of any work of art. As happens with any documentary that explores the hundred-year history of an object, most of the questions during the discussion after the film's screening were about facts that couldn't be included in the documentary.

Consider the assumption behind including Portrait of Wally in a film festival of documentaries devoted to human rights. The theft of Wally was a Holocaust property crime. Should we have a right to know its history? Should it be part of the responsibility of museums as educational institutions to know that history, and to disclose it?

The public's broader right to know was addressed by several films in the UNAFF program. Reportero,  by Bernardo Ruiz of Mexico, a journalist, followed journalists in Tijuana, where the local industry is drug smuggling. Tijuana is also a border town where hundreds of women working in maquiladora plants have been murdered. An even higher proportion of journalists have been killed in recent years. Tragic as the murder of factory employees might be, the factory operators know that there is a near-infinite supply of young women to take available jobs. The drug cartels know that every journalist's corpse is a warning to future reporters about the dangers of the profession. You feel that chill watching Reportero.

Opium Brides looks through a journalist's eyes at another danger-the kidnapping of the children of Afghan opium farmers who fail to pay their debts to drug traffickers. The dilemma is an unintended consequence of the war on drugs in Afghanistan. In most cases, the indebted farmers are families whose crops have been destroyed in official destruction campaigns. Daughters are seized as collateral, or as payment. The practice originated in the taking of girls as wives in exchange for the forgiveness of debt, and extended to the kidnapping of girls for wives or prostitutes. A half-hour version of Opium Brides ran on PBS' Frontline in January. Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi risked his life to give a new perspective on how US dollars are shaping reality of the ground.   


From Najibullah Quraishi's Opium Brides


Herman's House, by Angad Singh Bhalla, twists a number of doc formulas. The through-line of the story is the quest by an artist from New York, Jackie Sumell, to build a dream house for a man who's never likely to live there—Herman Wallace, the prisoner who has served the longest time in solitary confinement of anyone in the US. Yet, he's not alone, at least not in his fate. There are some 80,000 prisoners in solitary in America. This isn't another film about a man who's been wrongly imprisoned. Herman admits that he committed the crime that got him there in the first place. He says he's not guilty of the charge that's put him in solitary, the killing of a prison guard. He's also a Black Panther, which helps America's largest prison justify keeping him in CCR (Closed Cell Restriction), the official term for solitary.

When Herman speaks, it's with a rare composure and wisdom that decades in prison tend not to produce. It's a shame that his parole board is unpersuaded. 

Herman's House is a film about fantasy—the dream of building a home for a man who lives in a six foot by nine foot cell. The fantasy is the contribution that Jackie can make to lessening Herman's pain. By exhibiting her design, she also brings attention to the staggering number of prisoners in solitary. Like many contemporary artists, Jackie talks a lot about what got her to this project. In the course of her journey—a work in progress at the end as much as it is in the beginning—we meet people whose lives have been touched by Herman's case. We also meet the goal of UNAFF: to remind its audience that human rights can be violated in the United States.


From Angad Singh Bhalla's Herman's House


David D’Arcy is a film critic and journalist. He is co-writer and co-producer of Portrait of Wally, a feature documentary about the painting stolen by a Nazi from a Jewish art dealer in Vienna which turned up at the Museum of Modern Art.