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June 2007 Archives

June 20, 2007

New Visions: Sundance Documentary Film Program 'Work-in-Progress' Screening

The screening of the New Visions program at this year's HRWIFF marks the inauguration of the series showcasing upcoming documentaries that were made in collaboration with the Sundance Documentary Film Program. The interactive program combines both panel discussion and open forum formats for the discussion of the process of collaborative filmmaking, as well as excerpts from the films themselves (each roughly 20 minutes in duration).

The first film preview is A Jihad for Love, by Parvez Sharma who was accompanied by the film's producer, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, the director of the groundbreaking documentary, Trembling Before G_d that explored homosexuality in the Orthodox and Hasidic Jew communities. The collaboration between Sharma and DuBowski seems particularly suited since A Jihad for Love is a companion piece of sorts to DuBowski's film, an intimately told panorama of the gay experience throughout the broad spectrum of Islamic communities around the world, from conservative societies where homosexuality is outlawed such as Egypt and Iran, to secular Islamic societies such as Turkey (where many gay Iranians seek refuge to avoid persecution), to non-Islamic, free societies such as France and South Africa where, despite the protection of civil liberties, people continue to be persecuted, often from within the Islamic community. One of the main narrative arcs presented in the film is the story of a young Egyptian man, shown with his face obscured, who was prosecuted by the government as part of the "Queen Boat 52" (a group of gay men who were arrested on a floating nightclub in Cairo under assorted charges intended for prostitution) and who, before his retrial, escaped to France to avoid prosecution. After years of secrecy and despite the financial hardship of starting over as an immigrant in foreign land, the young man is ready to embrace his newfound liberation, and allows Sharma to photograph his undisguised face as he enters his new apartment.

new_visions.gifThe second film preview is an equally fascinating and illuminating collaborative personal journey, Project Kashmir by long-time friends Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel who, having grown up in the United States, had never had to confront the minefield of deep seated emotions and cultural biases that define everyday life in the disputed region of Kashmir, where the war for control still rages on, and people, in their profound distrust, have stopped talking to each other. Guided by an anonymous telephone informer who is quick to advise the filmmakers not to take anyone's word at face value (and least of all, the press), Kheshgi and Patel attempt to navigate the treacherous maze of occupation, insurgency, unrest, censorship, and religious animosity, slowly pulled apart by their own increasing identification with the opposing factions of the interminable conflict. As a Hindu in an Indian-occupied land, Patel immediately finds herself in a position of privilege, often afforded access to places and information that Muslims are denied. Meanwhile, Kheshgi, a Muslim, excluded from the community that has openly embraced her colleague, naturally gravitates towards the plight of the persecuted Muslim majority. Barely speaking to each other by the end of the film excerpt, Kheshgi and Patel's experience serves as a powerful example of the dehumanizing toll of systematic oppression and injustice, and the importance of open communication and honest dialogue in the path towards moving forward and reconciliation.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

Manufactured Landscapes, 2005

manufactured.gifDuring the Q&A for Manufactured Landscapes, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal indicated that the idea for the film came from photographer Edward Burtynsky's comment that for every building that rises from the ground, there is a corresponding hole somewhere else where the raw materials have been mined for the construction. This idea of an overarching, interconnected, shifting equilibrium that fuels our material consumption echoes throughout Baichwal's organic rumination on the repercussions of globalization. Opening to the extended take, tracking shot of a large appliance factory in China as row upon row of visually undifferentiable materials are fabricated (in a languid traveling shot that bears the imprint of Peter Mettler camerawork, most notably in Gambling, Gods and LSD), assembled, and integrated into larger components before emerging in its immediately recognizable form - the clothes iron - the image of the factory as a metaphor for a closed cycle, seemingly self-fueled microcosmos is reinforced in the subsequent shot of scrap workers sifting through mounds of recycled materials to collect reusable metals for smelting, unearthing a battered triangular metal plate that bears the characteristic steam hole vent pattern of an iron. This theme of closely interrelated cycles of production and consumption is also reflected in a subsequent episode at a ship-breaking yard in Southeast Asia (ironically, a destination that is also featured in Michael Glawogger's ode to the worker at the turn of the century, Workingman's Death) where old commercial freighters that were once used to transport goods throughout the world are themselves recycled, and consequently, re-enter the cycle that feeds the global economy in a different capacity. But perhaps the most emblematic of this self-exploitive cycle of construction through destruction is illustrated in the implementation of Three Gorges Dam project where local residents, soon to be displaced upon completion of the dam, have been hired to demolish the houses that will be submerged by the diverted water - in essence, chipping away towards their own homelessness. This theme of dislocation is subsequently repeated in the story of a defiant elderly resident who refused to be relocated as real estate investors target her community for high-rise development. Inevitably, what emerges from Burtynsky's sublime, yet implicitly ignoble transformed landscapes is an uneasy self-reflection that exposes our own implication in perpetuating these insatiable cycles of consumption and (non)disposal, a reminder that the price of industrialization is not a finite measure, but a fulcrum point in a zero sum ecological balance.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2007 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 19, 2007

Sari's Mother, 2006

sari_mother.gifAs in Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness, James Longley's Sari's Mother, the edited "fourth fragment" from Iraq in Fragments, is a sobering portrait of the pervasive confusion and uncertainty that continues to define everyday life under postwar occupation, and its unseen toll on the weakest and most vulnerable. In this segment, Longley chronicles the travails of a village mother whose ten year-old son, Sari, contracted AIDS as a child from a blood transfusion, and is now slowly wasting away from the ravages of the incurable disease. Debilitated by chronic lethargy which prevents him from attending school, Sari spends his days bed-ridden, rising only briefly to receive his (seemingly arbitrarily) prescribed injections that must be administered by his mother, unable to find appropriate medical personnel who can perform the regular treatments for her son. The travails in obtaining proper medical care for her child prove even more frustrating at the hospital, where overworked doctors, often determining the latest course of treatment from incomplete medical histories and disorganized paperwork, continue to prescribe regimens that have already proved to be ineffective or induce serious reactions. Evoking Moussa Bathily's Le Certificat d'indigence in its harrowing portrayal of the figurative breakdown of a health care system that has lost its sense of purpose under the weight of procedural (in)efficiency and petty bureaucracy, Sari's Mother is an impassioned and potent reminder that, even in its resigned inevitability, dying with dignity is still a fundamental human right.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

Enemies of Happiness, 2007

enemies.gifOne of the clear highlights at this year's festival is the appearance of human rights activist and outspoken political figure, Malalai Joya at the Q&A for Enemies of Happiness, who, until recently, served as one of the few truly democratic voices in an Afghani parliament that is riddled with rampant corruption, collusion, and inaction, where elections were often won through intimidation and bribery by powerful warlords who operated with relative impunity under Hamid Karzai's presidency (and who, in turn, cannot afford to alienate the warlords for fear of destabilizing the country's tenuous unity). The recipient of this year's HRWIFF Nestor Almendros Prize (as well as the Grand Jury World Cinema Prize for Documentary at Sundance Film Festival), Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness is not only a remarkable portrait of Malalai Joya, but also a bracing and illuminating glimpse into the fragile democracy and uncertain peace that now shape everyday life in Afghanistan. Thrust into the political spotlight in 2003 when stood at the microphone at the Loya Jirga she publicly criticized the inclusion of powerful warlords in the formation of the new government (the very warlords whose strident support of the Taliban regime enabled the decimation of the country) and their subsequent efforts to enact a bill that would provide blanket amnesty for Taliban-era crimes (a gesture that, as Joya subsequently contextualizes, is tantamount to criminals pardoning themselves for their willfully committed atrocities), the genial and articulate Joya has become an unlikely controversial figure in Afghani politics, drawing repeated assassination attempts and barbaric threats of violence (including public officials who have publicly called for her rape and killing during parliamentary assemblies). Chronicling Joya's candidacy in the immediate days before the country's first parliamentary elections in 2005, her daily routine seems less that of a well-honed politician looking to extend her popular reach in her native town of Farah, than a social worker, diplomat, negotiator, and advocate seeking to find seemingly impossible resolutions to the everyday grievances and entrenched cultural injustices that continue to plague Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal and class entrenched society. Despite being compelled to wear a burqa while in transit in order to avoid chance detection by political enemies and scuttling from house to house among supporters each evening to thwart predictable patterns, Joya continues to reach out to the people: a young girl who is being forced into marriage by a local warlord, despite her family's refusal, a woman who is seeking a way out of an abusive marriage, but fears losing custody of her children, a sprightly, elderly woman who pays a visit to express her support for Joya's candidacy, fondly recalling (and irrepressibly demonstrating) her acts of insurgency for the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion. Concluding with Joya's historic victory at the polls to become one of the few women who were elected to the first Afghani parliament, what emerges from Mulvad and Al-Erhayem's incisive gaze is a people devastated by a legacy of repressive history, haunted by its own unreconciled demons, torn apart by petty self-interest, and desperate to find a semblance of hope amid the blinding dust of a beloved country struggling to emerge from the rubble.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

The Violin, 2005

violin.gifFrancisco Vargas's admirable first feature film, The Violin deceptively starts on a seemingly tangential, wrong note by opening to an underlit, vérité-styled shot of what has become an all too familiar (and arguably gratuitous) image of military atrocities in the face of guerrilla warfare - the arbitrary round-up and brutalization of civilians in an attempt to extract information, the torture of prisoners, the raping of women. But the obscured, bleak, rough hewn images then subsequently - and unexpectedly - give way to the sunlit, distilled beauty of the rural landscape as an elderly farmer and street musician, Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira), his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) prepare for their trip to town, hitchhiking for rides in the backs of passing trucks, before making their way to the town square, stopping in the doorways of cafeterias and along main streets to play music and solicit charity. An encounter between Genaro and a cheese peddler at lunch time, and subsequently, between Genaro and an attractive, young hitchhiker, reinforces the atmosphere of implicit secrecy and covert resistance that pervades the film (a bracing reality that is established in the film's confrontational opening sequence) - the exchange of objects and information performed tacitly through casual gestures and passing glances. Returning home to the sight of women, children, and the elderly in flight after the military descended on the village in order to root out insurgents, Genaro attempts to gain access to the occupied village in order to retrieve a supply of ammunition that has been stashed away within their property to no avail, chased away by soldiers who spot his surveillance. But Don Plutarco has another idea for gaining access into the farm. Trading a year's worth of crops for a burro and carrying only his violin, Don Plutarco ingratiates himself into the company of the stern, yet genial captain (Dagoberto Gama) by playing his violin. However, as the insurgency rages on, can the idealistic notion of music as a uniting medium truly coexist with the cruelty of war? Shot in stark, elegantly composed black and white images, The Violin tonally evokes Henri-Georges Cluozot's The Wages of Fear in its creation of tension through the performance of the mundane. In hindsight, it is this atmosphere of disarming nothingness that ultimately reconciles the film's oddly incongruous opening sequence - a sobering reminder that the capacity for inhumanity and instinctual survival resides in everyone: silent, ever-present, unabated, and inextinguishable.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2007 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 18, 2007

Strange Culture, 2007

strangeculture.gifDuring the Q&A for Strange Culture, filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson explained that the unorthodox, mixed format approach to the film evolved organically as a result of the Department of Justice's ongoing prosecution of the film's primary subject, SUNY Buffalo arts professor and experimental artist, Steve Kurtz, that continues to limit his ability to fully participate in the film project by rendering him unable to discuss certain matters associated with the case. Ironically, this imbalancing, oddly structured, interweaving patchwork of real-life footage and actor-improvised sequences, documentation and deconstruction, appropriately complements the film's provocative exploration of the uneasy and disturbing broader social implications that have been raised by the federal government's zealous prosecution of Kurtz and co-defendant, University of Pittsburgh genetics professor, Robert Ferrell. Kurtz's neverending nightmare began on May 11, 2004 with a personal tragedy: the sudden death of his wife and creative collaborator Hope from heart failure. Summoning 911 for help after discovering that his wife had stopped breathing, the police conduct a routine survey of their home and immediately find the collection of Petri dishes, bio-organic cultures, assorted unregulated (and non-hazardous) chemicals, and lab ovens that they had been using to create a bio-themed, interactive installation that had been commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, along with an invitation advertisement postcard for their art collective, the Critical Arts Ensemble that had been designed with calligraphic images that appeared to be Arabic writing. Alarmed by the unusual paraphernalia that had been discovered inside the home, the police call in federal agents, seal off the house, and impound Hope's body under suspicion of bioterrorism. However, despite concluding that the suspicious substances were innocuous and not used to build weapons of mass destruction, the government has refused to drop charges and instead, continues to pursue the case against Kurtz and technical adviser, Robert Ferrell, spearheaded in part by assistant district attorney, William Hochul, whose own career was, not surprisingly, fast tracked as a result of his successful prosecution of the Lackawanna Six. Combining elements of documentary, re-enactment, serial comics, and even metafilm, Strange Culture poses the integral question of artistic freedom in an age of aggressive and increasingly emboldened federal government prosecution. At the heart of Kurtz and Ferrell's legal quagmire is the implicit assault on free speech that the case represents, an attempt to intimidate and suppress work deemed critical of government policies (and by extension, policies within its alliances of special interest groups). Having collectively surrendered a measure of individual freedom under a demoralized and vulnerable climate of post 9/11 paranoia and an untenable war on terror, the compounding tragedy of Kurtz and Ferrell's case is a potent and harrowing reminder of the price exacted by our illusive search, not for a sense of security, but for an impossible return to innocence.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

The Railroad All-Stars, 2006

railroad.gifAlternately humorous and heartbreaking in its candid and unflinching portrait of the exploited lives of low rate prostitutes living in the shantytown of La Línea in Guatemala City (an emblematic place of abject poverty built along the marginal buffer zones of railroad tracks that also evokes Ditsi Carolino's Life on the Tracks), Chema Rodriguez's The Railroad All-Stars affectionately, yet soberingly chronicles the adventures of the close knit community of these sex trade workers (including a nearly blind, elderly, retired prostitute who now earns a meager income selling condoms to the new generation of local prostitutes) who, frustrated by police inaction over crimes committed against their fellow workers, public apathy over their desperate economic plight, and marginalization in the justice system in such traumatic, life-altering cases as child custody, rape, and domestic violence, decide to form a soccer team in the hopes of competing in tournaments covered by the local media in order to increase public awareness and humanize the plight of these anonymous, faceless women and bring attention to the rampant discrimination that is endemic in their profession. Seeking to register in a first-round high school competition under the team name of "Las Estrellas de la línea" - The Railroad All-Stars (a name that accurately, albeit euphemistically, represents their station as prostitutes working "the line", that was chosen to conform to the league's naming conventions) - a local reporter senses the potential of the breaking story and sponsors the team for the tournament, a modern-day Cinderella story that abruptly ends after the first game when the opposing team's parents, enraged by their daughters' exposure to the women, demand their expulsion from the league under trumped up charges of vulgar language (an earlier sequence during the team huddle about continuing to play with dignity and remaining positive, even in the sidelines, refutes the baseless accusation) and assorted health violations stemming from their sordid profession (as several parents express outrage over their children's exposure to HIV and AIDS just from coming into contact with the women during the game). Denied from competing in the league but having captured the public's imagination thanks in part to a sympathetic press that has seized on the human interest story, the women begin receiving invitations for exhibition games from around the country - including an unlikely match-up against a policewomen's team - that will soon take the women on an unexpected cross-country journey into the figurative other side of the tracks of Guatemalan resort towns, cultural centers, luxury hotels, and ancient architectures, a reality far removed from the squalid slums that seems, for an all too brief moment, tantalizingly within their reach. Something of a bracing corollary to Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born into Brothels, The Railroad All-Stars is, above all, a thoughtful and poetic tale of self empowerment, as corporate sponsors fall away with the short attention span media coverage (or more appropriately, exploitation) of yesterday's news, and the women inevitably return to the familiar routine of their interrupted lives. It is this sense of spiritual enrichment that is reflected in the elegant image of the elderly peddler staring out the window of her rebuilt home on a quiet morning - a small shack made from wood beams and corrugated metal that had been painstakingly rebuilt by her devoted husband during her absence - a profound desire to linger in these understated moments of fleeting beauty and quotidian grace.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch

June 17, 2007

The City of Photographers, 2006

city_photographers.gifDuring the 1980s, a loose network of politically committed photographers sought to document the atrocities of the Pinochet regime from within the country, establishing a press accredited alliance known as the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI). Capturing the atmosphere of protest and unrest in the streets (most notably, in the daily vigils of women seeking answers for the fate of the desaparecidos, usually husbands and sons who were abducted by government), documenting covert sites of torture and execution, and converging en masse to hot spots of activity in order to effectively chronicle the government's repressive tactics of press intimidation and police brutality as a means of suppressing dissent, their collective body of work inevitably evolved to become the most intimate, highly visible, and incontrovertible testament on the transgressions of the CIA-backed military dictatorship. Often working with members of the foreign press on the distribution of their photographs as a means of drawing attention to the country's struggle, their photographs would become integral to the engagement of international community in exposing the abuses and ultimately discrediting the Pinochet government. But beyond the poignant and reverent tribute to the personal sacrifices and everyday heroism of these dedicated photojournalists and the collective toll of their tireless commitment to document their nation's struggle and raise public awareness for the government's flagrant human rights violations (the filmmaker, Sebastián Moreno Mardones' comments on piecing together second-hand memories of the turbulent period from his father's assembled AFI-era photographs suggests his attempt to insulate his family from the uncertainty of the group's ideological imperative), what makes The City of Photographers particularly contemporary and insightful is revealed in several photojournalists' own ambivalence towards their own increasing complicity in the creation of the images (particularly towards the end of the struggle), often deployed into the pre-arranged sites of social action by the protestors themselves, a duality that reflects their complex role as both observers and embedded insurgents in the resistance, from photographing fellow colleagues' maltreatment and abuse at the hands of police, to a subsequent tragic episode involving the accidental blinding of a child at the hands of the police maltreatments a photographer tells the boy to uncover his face (which he had instinctually covered with his hands at the sight of violence) in order to sensationalize the image of police brutality at the precise moment that an officer swings a baton over the boy's eyes. It is this provocative, self-reflexive inquiry into the implication of the media in the creation and desensitization of violent images that inevitably makes their story continually relevant, a reminder of the need for self-equilibration in maintaining the integrity of the photographers in their complex role as documenters of the sociopolitical reality and stagers of the spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 17, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch