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June 2005 Archives

June 20, 2005

The Boys of Baraka, 2005

baraka.gifOn a typical summer night in inner city Baltimore, a children's game of cops and robbers shootout plays against the morbid backdrop - undoubtedly in familiar imitation - of a real-life police arrest of a teenager on a neighborhood street. A single statistic posted on black screen provides a sobering context to the children's "art imitating life", role-playing games: that 76% of all African American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. A dedicated middle-school school counselor and program recruiter named Mavis Jackson seeks to remedy this grim statistic by assembling some of the city's greatest "at risk" boys into a school auditorium in order to confront the reality of their situation, explaining that that by the age of 18, as an African American young man in Baltimore, their futures can take on three paths: an orange jumpsuit and a pair of Department of Corrections "bracelets", a black suit and a brown wooden box, or a black cap and gown and a diploma that can also serve to open up opportunities for them. Handing out an information package and application form for a two-year boarding school in Laikipia, Kenya called The Baraka School, Jackson encourages the children to give serious consideration to the educational opportunity, citing that graduation in The Baraka School offers them entry into the city's most competitive schools where most then go on to graduate high school. An introverted, musically inclined (and emotionally closed) boy named Devon who lives with his doting grandmother (and away from his financially unstable, drug-addicted mother) dreams of becoming a preacher. An argumentative boy with a natural aptitude for mathematics named Montrey aspires for a career in science. An academically struggling student named Richard and his thoughtful younger brother Romesh are encouraged by their supportive, strong-willed mother to undertake the journey, realizing that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to change the direction of their future (Asked what would happen if only one of her sons had been accepted into the program, she immediately answers that one would become a king, the other, a killer). Far from the distraction of their desperate surroundings and impersonal institution of the public school system, the boys begin to academically (and emotionally) thrive in the challenges of their new environment, returning home for summer vacation with a newfound sense of maturity, deliberativeness, and character. However, when heightened terrorist concerns and global politics intervene and threaten the future of The Baraka School program at a critical stage in the boys' development, their learned life lessons are soon put to the test. Following the real-time progress of the Baraka boys throughout their formative years (since their recruitment to the school in 2002), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture the depth of intimacy, conflict, poverty, and desolation experienced, not only by the children, but also by their well-intentioned families and guardians who realize the weight of their children's demoralizing environment but feel powerless and financially unable to easily change their circumstances - a sentiment articulated by a concerned father who debates the issue of safety to a program official after hearing the heightened security warnings for the school by commenting that his son has a greater chance of being killed on his own neighborhood street in Baltimore than he does by becoming a victim of a terrorist attack in Africa. In presenting an equally bittersweet, tragic, and affirming portrait of the boys' bifurcated trajectories since their Baraka School experience, the film presents a haunting and complex portrait of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement that defies socially expedient trivializations of human worth, ability, perseverance, and destiny.

*Screened at AFI Silverdocs 2005. The film will premiere in NYC at the HRWIFF on June 23, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2005 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 18, 2005

The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

education.jpgIn an incisive encounter in The Education of Shelby Knox, (then) high-school student Shelby from Lubbock - a devout, abstinent, southern Baptist, child of conservative Republicans, and fierce advocate for comprehensive sex education in the classroom as a means of curtailing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, stemming off widespread health misinformation, and promoting important life (and life-saving) skills - turns to her charismatic, spiky-haired youth pastor, Ed Ainsworth for advice in a moment of spiritual crisis. Recognizing the inherent failure of the George W. Bush-backed, faith-based initiative, "abstinence only" program that teaches only marital relations and fails to address the concerns of - and effectively excludes - the gay population who cannot marry, young Shelby (an amusingly typical, hyper-romantic teenager who still envisions the man of her dreams in grandiose, operatic gestures as someone who could play the role of the Phantom to her Christine in The Phantom of the Opera) has become an unlikely ally in the school's gay student movement towards equal rights and representation. Struggling to reconcile her religious beliefs with social reality and her innate compassion for the marginalized, she muses that "God could not have made all these people just so He could send them to Hell." Nodding with the (apparent) gesture of an understanding heart, Ainsworth then embarks on a bafflingly open-ended (if not condescending), veiled allusion to Shelby's "questionable" faith by remarking that Christians have had a traditionally long history of intolerance and that, when he listens to her articulate her inner turmoil, what he is hearing from her is "tolerance" (and yes, the audience let out a collective sigh upon hearing this comment). Remarkably capturing Shelby's infectious effervescence, fearlessness, sense of egalitarian justice, and unwavering integrity of faith, filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt have created a whimsical, yet potent, inspiring, and affirming portrait of the true meaning of moral activism and spiritual service.

The film will premiere on PBS' P.O.V. series on June 21, 2005.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 17, 2005

State of Fear, 2005

state_fear.gifOne of the festival highpoints (and certainly one of my personal favorites) from this year's slate of films from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is filmmakers Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy's exhaustive (and inspired) documentary, State of Fear: a sobering, trenchant, and disturbingly relevant dissection of Peru's contemporary history through the socio-political framework of a protracted (and seemingly interminable) decades-long war on terror that had contributed to a demoralized culture of tolerated erosion of human rights, systematic military abuse, mass killings, torture, and fear-mongering political opportunism. The film traces the rise and fall of an underground, insurgent Maoist organization known as Shining Path that, under the direction of radical intellectual, Abimael Guzmán, seized on the desperate poverty and marginalization of the Andean indigenous people (living predominantly in rural areas) as an ideological rallying cry for social revolution and began to mobilize the peasants into a terror campaign with a strategy of violent revolution and scorched earth policy in order to (coercively) convert the rural countryside to their cause towards the greater path of encircling - and eventually capturing - the city of Lima. Unable to effectively identify Shining Path operatives - the faceless, anonymous enemy embedded from within the grassroots level - and weed out the real terrorists from ordinary civilians, the government empowered the military with broad, unchallenged authority to take any necessary action (at the expense of civil liberties) in order to stem the tide of domestic terrorism. In an incisive (and deeply unsettling) interview, a tribal elder recalls the incalculable devastation inflicted by the crisis on her people as Shining Path radicals first attempted to forcibly conscript some of the villagers, including children, to their bloody cause (and execute those who opposed them) then, after the group's departure, were visited by the military who subsequently armed and recruited them into forming a civilian militia empowered to gather intelligence, torture, and execute terrorists, resulting in a gruesome and devastating (and unreined) tribal infighting that would nearly exterminate the entire village. Nevertheless, despite suffering through years of rural atrocities, domestic terrorism continued relatively unabated until Guzmán decided to accelerate the revolution and bring the war to Lima by initiating a campaign of random bombings throughout the city. It is within this atmosphere of desperation and chaos - a constant "state of fear" - that political outsider Alberto Fujimori ran a successful presidential campaign under the platform of waging a strong-armed war against terrorism. To this end, Fujimori suspended the national congress under a heightened - and indeterminate - state of emergency and concentrated power to the presidency. A Truth Commission member appropriately comments, "We traded our liberty for security." Perhaps the most incisive and insidious aspect of Peru's recent history lies in Fujimori's calculated ability to maintain his continued grip on the centralized and corrupted power of the presidency even after Guzmán's arrest by continuing to raise the specter of an unspecific terrorist threat despite the effective decapitation - and subsequent disintegration - of the Shining Path movement. Alternately harrowing, engaging, illuminating, and inciting, State of Fear is not only remarkable account of opportunism, inhumanity, and corruption, but also a cathartic, hopeful tale of humility and enlightened transformation (as in the case of privileged, upper middle-class Lima-based lawyer and Truth Commission member, Beatriz Alva-Hart who emotionally breaks down upon the conclusion of the testimony hearings and expresses her profound apologies to all the victims for not realizing earlier the extent of the atrocities occurring within her own country).

Posted by acquarello on Jun 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 16, 2005

Occupation: Dreamland, 2005

dreamland.gifDuring the spring of 2004, as the Iraqi city of Falluja slowly metamorphosed from secondary, wartime infrastructure target to the emerging epicenter of an escalating (and increasingly emboldened) Iraqi insurgency, soldiers from a squadron of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the volatile city struggle to adjust to their amorphous, undefined, and intrinsically irreconcilable roles as law enforcers, occupiers, and goodwill ambassadors in a foreign land. For a few hours each week, the young soldiers are directed by their superior officers to go out into the streets in full body armor for mandatory, pre-scheduled "public relations" where they canvas as many streets as possible in order to psychologically reinforce their presence and visibility in the city, initiate contact with the townspeople (usually through an interpreter) in an often fruitless attempt to gain their trust and gather information, and, with alarming frequency, play reflexive games of survival as militants seize the opportunity to take pot shots and launch last-minute offensives in their direction. The dangerous, frustrating, and often surreal encounters experienced by the soldiers underscore the seeming futility of their reluctant role as a peacekeeping (rather than combat) force in the openly hostile, war-ravaged town. Unfamiliar with the language and local customs, the soldiers' relationship with the town has become palpably acrimonious (especially following the death of a fellow soldier from their squadron): distrustful glances from the Iraqis are often retaliated with verbal hostility and profanity (in English) by the disrespected soldiers; a soldier is reproached by several village men at a public square for committing a cultural faux pas a few days earlier by publicly detaining (and later releasing) an unaccompanied Iraqi woman to headquarters for routine interrogation; another soldier attempts to engage the townspeople in friendly conversation, but then hurriedly truncates the uncomfortable dialogue after receiving a blunt earful of how bad the standard of life really has become for the average Iraqi civilian since the invasion. Returning to the barracks, the soldiers receive little respite from their ambivalent roles and conflicted sense of duty as superior officers conduct periodic "pep talk" debriefings in order to encourage their re-enlistment and continued service, often raising the specter of their troubled youth, reinforcing their insecurity over their level of maturity and responsibility (and accomplishment) and preparedness for civilian life, or appealing to their economic reality with the promise of a college education and a life-long career. Filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds were embedded with the soldiers for the duration of the filming of Occupation: Dreamland, and the result is immediately apparent in the sense of intimacy, conflict, disorientation, and pervasive sense of danger and uncertainty captured by the film. Far from a concrete, immediately identifiable characterizations of good and evil, victim and transgressor, what is revealed in these irreconcilable quotidian images is a complex cross-cultural, postwar portrait of human desolation and moral ambiguity that festers within the vacuum of compassion, communication, social order, and authority.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 16, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 15, 2005

Seoul Train, 2005

seoul.gifA smuggled video footage of a communal market in North Korea provides a profoundly sobering context to the grave, protracted, man-made humanitarian crisis caused by the government's systematic diversion of international food aid to party loyalists at the expense of ordinary citizens (often from the rural provinces) as children scour the mud for occasional morsels of food (mostly grain biproducts). Despite the Chinese government's knowledge that North Korean defectors will face torture and certain death if captured, the government has instituted a policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans found within their sovereignty, irrespective of formal appeals for asylum. For these desperate people, the only hope for survival lies in making a dangerous cross-country journey into China undetected with the goal of reaching a third country (often Mongolia) by any means necessary, aided along the way by a loose alliance of well-intentioned ordinary citizens operating in a multinational, underground railroad system between the northern border of North Korea and China. Composed of several breathtaking (and heart-rending) actual footage along their flight to freedom and interviews from several covert operatives - including an outspoken humanitarian named Chun Ki-won (dubbed by human rights activists as the "Schindler of Asia") - as they plot their escape, rehearse their strategy for formally seeking asylum, initiate contact with their host families (often South Korean relatives), and finally attempt, often in vain, their one chance at freedom (as in the case of the MoFA Seven who delivered a formal, written plea to the Chinese government for asylum and were immediately arrested and deported), Seoul Train is an intensely visceral, illuminating, and deeply moving document of inspired activism against a seemingly unconquerable tide of moral apathy, bureaucratic inertia, and inhuman politics.

For more information on the film and the issues presented in the film, please visit www.seoultrain.com.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Mardi Gras: Made in China, 2005

mardi_gras.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, filmmaker David Redmon explained that the initial concept for Mardi Gras: Made in China revolved around the idea of exploring the interconnection between pop culture, ritual, and globalization. To this end, the idea of tracing the origin of a disposable commodity - Mardi Gras beads - seemed ideally suited in linking the economies and social cultures of the U.S. and China. Contrasting the inebriated chaos of revelers at the Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarters of New Orleans for which the beads represent a figurative (if transitory) capital - and therefore, power - that can be traded for pleasure (women exposing themselves in exchange for the trinkets) with an insightful profile of the child workers earning the equivalent of ten cents an hour (mostly adolescent girls who, as the owner explains, are more obedient and manageable) at China's largest bead manufacturing factory, the film presents a sobering portrait of crass consumerism (as appropiately articulated by a truck driver on holiday who dismisses the plight of the Chinese workers by shouting the idiotic mantra "Don't know and don't care. Beads for boobs!"). Conducting a series of interviews with a group of girls living in the communal dormitories on factory grounds, what emerges is a familiar pattern of rural poverty, undereducation, and familial obligation to provide financial support. In the end, what is revealed between the two seemingly disparate cultures is the commonality of human commodification and exploitation, and the delusive ephemerality of material happiness.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 15, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 14, 2005

Omagh, 2004

omagh.gifShot in vérité-styled camerawork and natural lighting, Omagh is a hauntingly powerful, illuminating, and uncompromisingly rendered account of the August 15, 1998 car bombing of a high-traffic market square in the peacefully integrated Northern Ireland community that massacred 29 civilians and injured over 200 others. Shot from the perspective of Michael Gallagher and his family, an automobile repair shop owner who lost his son and business partner, Aidan, the film is a taut and indicting account of the surviving families' frustrated quest for truth and justice for the atrocity. Engineered by radical separatist groups (most notably the breakway faction calling itself "Real" IRA) at the height of delicate, politically sensitive negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British government as a desperate means to undermine the Good Friday Peace Accords, what emerges from filmmaker Pete Travis' scathing, but sensitively realized portrait is a disturbing tale of ordinary people repeatedly entangled - first, in a protracted war for sovereignty and subsequently in a high-stakes game of diplomacy - in a compromised (and perhaps, irreparably doomed) investigation mired by national security intelligence failures, bureaucratic incompetence, and, most insidiously, a systematic pattern of stonewalling from all levels of public authority in the sacrificial name of national and political expediency to protect government informants and covert operatives within the radical organizations from exposure, prevent the collapse of the brokered cease fire, and continued push to move the peace process forward. In the end, what emerges from the families' commitment to the memory of their lost loved ones is the resilient voice of human solidarity that refuses to be silenced, victimized, or reduced to political pawns.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Una de dos, 2004

una_de_dos.gifUna de dos is set against the rural backdrop of Argentina in 2002 as a protracted recession and a government-instituted, desperate measure austerity plan to rescue the national economy from insolvency through the devaluation of its currency and announced default on its foreign debt has led to widespread rioting and worker strikes in the cities that has effectively crippled the country's economic backbone. A low-level mob courier trafficking in counterfeit currency, Martin, is directed to discontinue operations and maintain a low profile until contacted. Inevitably, Martin's return home to the rural province that is seemingly removed from the chaos and socio-political instability of the urban areas (an abandoned train platform and overlooking tracks reinforces this appearance of isolation) illustrates the far-reaching repercussions of the economic crisis as neighborhood shop owners are forced to turn away friends and family by refusing to operate on credit, workers struggle to devise ways to subsidize their wage shortfall (often in vain), local businesses are shuttered indefinitely (in an incisive sequence of the three young women strolling through the empty market streets that is seemingly only inhabited by stray dogs (a scenario that recalls the running motif of Béla Tarr's Damnation), and a sense of moral desolation has taken root, manifesting in increased acts of recklessness (implied in Pilar's story of her abducted, hitchhiking cousin) and chemical dependency. Following in the vein of contemporary Argentinean cinema in which the narrative is subtly explored through minute observations of the quotidian, Alejo Hernán Taube creates a competent and insightful portrait of sentimental inertia borne of economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, the film strays from its focus through the inclusion of tangential sex scenes that are neither motivated by money (which would have reinforced the idea of human commodification) nor by emotional desperation (which would have served as a broader comment on the demoralized social psyche), creating disposable episodes that serve only to showcase the physical appeal of the handsome lead actor, and diluting the film's more potent images of aimless, instinctual survival.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 14, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 12, 2005

Wall, 2004

wall.gifFavorably recalling the rigorous imagery, desolation, and despiritualized landscapes of Chantal Akerman (most notably, in the opening sequences of the U.S.-Mexican border wall and off-camera interviews of From the Other Side), Wall is an evocatively shot, visually understated, and meditatively paced exposition on the social, political, economic, and psychological repercussions of the Israeli government's long-term funding of a work-in-progress, multi-phase construction project to erect a high-security separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian communities as a part of an envisioned first-line defense against terrorist infiltration. From the opening long shot sequence of the slow assembly of massive concrete barriers that bisect - and ultimately obstruct - the view of the horizon, filmmaker Simone Bitton creates a powerful metaphor for the defiance of nature through the creation of self-isolating, man-made barriers. Interweaving hyperextended sequences of the oppressive, formidable wall with interviews of people from both communities as they articulate the worthlessness, superficiality, and social insensitivity of the artificial obstruction as a deterrent tool for national security (and perhaps, overt disenfranchisement), Bitton creates a compelling portrait of the inutility of politically instituted, delusive panaceas in the absence of true communication and the brokering of a just peace: an Iraqi-native migrant laborer is grateful for the work provided by the massive construction project in the economically depressed region even as he longs to return to his homeland and rebuild his life (and country) after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian farmer expresses his concern that the placement of the wall is only the start of a strategic plan to annex his land under the premise of upholding security, an Israeli father wistfully comments on the children's instilled fear of playing outdoors and offers his home to the leaders of both nations as a neutral ground for launching peace talks, a Jewish man whose elders survived the imprisonment of concentration camps underscores the irony of the country's decision to imprison itself.

Perhaps the most reflective of this cross-cultural sentiment of helplessness and inutility towards the wall is encapsulated in the sentiment of an Israeli community leader who had moved to the open spaces of the country only to find that he was forbidden to cross the border and visit his Palestinian neighbors. In 2000, seizing on the national headline news of an Arab boy who had drowned while saving two Israeli boys on the beach in order to initiate a goodwill gesture between the two communities, he soon found his olive branch efforts stalled by bureaucracy before being effectively cancelled by the advent of the second intifada. Addressing the neighboring city's mayor and his colleagues, he expresses his continued dedication towards meeting them and working towards the realization of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation wthin his lifetime.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

Still Life, 2004

Shot in the occupied territories (in particular, East Jerusalem and the southern Gaza strip), and composed of a series of landscape shots of unidentifiable rubble and twisted rebar from razed Palestinian homes, bulldozed agricultural fields, and separation walls against a repetitive, dispassionate speaker articulating a series of open-ended questions on the meaning of the images (Who's responsible? Would you live here? Who's paying for this?...), Still Life is compact, incendiary, and effective exposition on the cycle of tragedy, violence, and disenfranchisement caused by the occupation. Inasmuch as the filmmaker's near monotonic delivery of provocative questions had the overall effect of creating auditory abstraction from the power of the disturbing visuals (an overlaid sequence of typed questions set against the cacophany of tearing, friction, and rupture would have better served to concentrate the viewer's focus on the images), I greatly admired Cynthia Mandansky's patience, strength, and courage of conviction in addressing all the (sometimes loaded) questions raised during the Q&A despite some overt hostility (and soapbox grandstanding) from a few members of the audience who strongly disagreed with her point of view (mostly in a similar finger-pointing vein of laying blame and demands to show "both sides" of the story that has been lobbed at other filmmakers confronting this issue from a counterpoint perspective). Articulating a similar comment that I had attempted to convey in an article on Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land to demystify the notion that a documentary should present a balanced and impartial account of its subject (particularly in situations were readily accessible media coverage of the issues has revealed a systematic pattern of journalistic bias and dispoportionality), Madansky makes a compelling argument for the role of the filmmaker to provoke and challenge coventional wisdom, status quo, social perception, and accepted reality.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

The Liberace of Baghdad, 2004

liberace.gifCharming, humorous, and endearing, it is easy to see why BBC journalist Sean McAllister decided to chronicle the life of flamboyant, irrepressibly outspoken, and widely popular entertainer (and notoriously unapologetic womanizer) Samir Peter who, in his heyday, was once dubbed the Liberace of Baghdad, and who, since the Iraqi War, now bides his time playing the piano in the near empty lounge of a heavily fortified hotel housing Western workers (mostly journalists and privately contracted security forces) stationed in the region as he waits for the approval of his visa in order to immigrate to the United States and join his two daughters and estranged wife. Filmed over an eighth month period in the power vacuum of a post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq under the increasingly volatile and escalating climate of frontier lawlessness, terrrorism, armed resistance, and kidnapping of foreign workers, The Liberace of Baghdad is an insightful first-hand portrait of the conflicted and demoralizing climate of everyday life in postwar Iraq as the ideals of liberation and freedom become increasingly obscured in the psychological prison of social insecurity. However, despite Peter's unparalleled ability to provide a compelling, provocative, engaging, and intimate account of the erosive toll of occupation and insurgency on ordinary civilians, I cannot help but question the integrity of the filmmaker who, either through colossal naïvete or sheer recklessness, seemed to willingly (and deliberately) continue to put his publicly high-profile subject in harm's way in order to get "the story", even after discovering first-hand in several close-call episodes the brutality of the retaliation by insurgents on those whom they perceive to be collaborating with Westerners (most notably, a neighbor's assassination in front of her child for her employment with a Western contractor, and in Peter's U.S. immigrant daughter and her family who have returned to Iraq to visit her remaining siblings.) Beyond the filmmaker's inept camerawork (including a nausea-inducing extended sequence of repeated quick pans capturing Peter's conversation with his daughter) and tangential, egocentric diversions away from his subject (including a remarkably unoriginal interstitial shot of him filming himself in a mirror), it is this moral conduct that ultimate undermines the integrity of the film as McAllister seems to have lost sight of the fact that by possessing a British passport, he is allowed to leave at anytime (and in fact, does) while the people whom he has filmed must live with the consequences of - and risk retribution or perhaps even death for - his exploitive, self-aggrandizing exposé.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch

June 1, 2005

Living Rights, 2004

living.gifA compendium of self-contained multicultural stories featuring ethnically, economically, and existentially diverse children, each at the cusp of a pivotal turning point in their young lives, Living Rights examines the contemporary relevance - and often divergence - between the humanitarian statement crafted by 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that sought to define and uphold the fundamental living rights of children, and the reality of the lives of these children whom the charter seeks to protect. Article 29, which espouses the "development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential", provides the ideological framework for the film's first case study: a 16-year-old boy named Yoshi, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism in which the person possesses normal intelligence, but has cognitive difficulty in interpreting non-verbal communication or understanding non-literal syntax) who has been placed into a special school for the mentally disabled. Juxtaposing Yoshi's candid, confessional-styled, direct address to the camera on why he should be allowed to transfer to a traditional high school with quotidian episodes culled from his personal life, the film (and Yoshi) makes an insightful and compelling argument on inclusion and otherness, and in the process, challenges - and more importantly, inculcates - society's own preconceived ideas of what it truly means to be "normal": his frustrating experiences at school in which he complains of his lack of intellectual challenge (Yoshi has been placed in a class in which some of his classmates exhibit more severe forms of mental disability) and of being over-praised for performing the most mundane tasks; his bouts of melancholia that reveal his low self-esteem (being teased by other children, his feelings of exclusion, his self-consciousness over his imperfections); his articulateness and creativity (particularly in drawing and painting) in expressing his ideas.

An equally compelling second case study involves a 14-year-old Maasai girl named Toti who, at the age of 11, had run away from home after her father promised her in marriage to a wealthy, older tribesman in exchange for a herd of cattle that their growing family needs in order to sustain their livelihood. Now living in a boarding school for runaway children who also fled their villages under similar circumstances of conscience, Toti is eager to reconnect with her family, especially her twin sister who was married off as the tribesman's fourth wife in her place. Filmmaker Duco Tellegen's inspired selection of featuring identical twins provides an incisive dynamic into the ideological gulf that now separates the two sisters. On the one hand is her sister's traditionally-minded arguments on the social role of women, familial (and tribal) obligation, and the meaning of enrichment (most notably, in questioning Toti's motivation for going to school, arguing that one day, she will inherit property once her husband dies, serving as proof that one does not need an education to become wealthy). On the other hand is Toti's own determination to continue with her education in the hopes that she can return to the Maasais and help bring about fundamental, humanitarian cultural change to her native community by being able to effectively communicate (and argue) with tribal elders - especially her own father - against deeply entrenched, inhumane customs (most notably, on the continued practices of female circumcision and arranged child marriages). Contrasting Toti's own seemingly limitless future with her sister's resigned, but contented fate, Toti's story is a thoughtful and inspiring account of cultural pride and human enlightenment - a profound transformation enabled by mutual respect, education, open-mindedness, and the singular courage to question.

The third case study centers on an eleven-year-old girl from Chernobyl named Lena who, in the aftermath of the large-scale, uncontained nuclear accident, was forced to leave her hometown for health and safety reasons after the radiation levels were found to be dangerously high for continued residential occupancy. Separated from her biological mother, she is cared for by her doting aunt, Galah who, despite financial hardship, is able to provide a decent life for her even as continues to be plagued by health problems. One day, a health worker informs Galah that an Italian couple who had once sponsored Lena during a recent international medical visit has expressed their desire to adopt her, and Galah becomes privately torn with wanting Lena to have access to the best health care to treat her condition and an opportunity for a better life, and her own desire to continue to nurture the emotional bond that has developed between them. Rather than imposing her own will on Lena, Galah sets aside her own personal dilemma and steps back from Lena's decision-making process in order to allow her to make up her own mind. Given the inherent limitation of Lena's refusal to discuss matters relating to her personal experience during the Chernobyl disaster as well as her resulting prolonged illness on camera, it is not surprising that the segment is the most clinical, distanced, and emotionally estranged installment of the film. However, while Lena's reticence has unwittingly re-adjusted the thematic focus of the segment from the young girl to her caretaker Gala, what emerges is still the film's underlying core of a child's fundamental - and inalienable - human rights: the right to live in a safe environment, the right to health care, and perhaps most importantly, the right to determine one's own destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch