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Photo Ops

Docs about Calcutta slums, 9-11 detainees, and gay marriage evoke the power of images

Forget The Swan—the increasing ease of digital image capture and distribution ensured that the year's most gruesomely riveting reality show is reality itself. Democratizing Iraq hasn't gone well for George and Rummy, but the democratization of technology is burgeoning, filling the blogosphere with torture porn. As Moore's Law (Michael or Gordon, take your pick) declares, what a difference a year makes. Running PR from Doha and sealing the press into tank hulls already seem like quaint control tactics of yesteryear. But the expanded opportunities for image-sharing demand that we look afresh at the boundaries of the digital divide, face new questions about the politics of photography, and re-examine the ethics and expectations of video activism.

This year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival not only features several films dealing with detention and torture, but quite a few evidencing the agility and intimacy of DIY-friendly technology. Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born Into Brothels is one of a handful built around transferring the means of production to subjects. Teaching photography in Calcutta's slums, Briski provides the children of prostitutes with cameras and urges them to document their surroundings. We're introduced to the children through their work, watching these articulate selves find voices through the process of creation. Still, the technology divide is glaring as we follow their photos to exhibitions abroad and wonder if the ability to capture their destitution will be of any solace to the young artists as they enter red-light-district adulthood.

Similarly, Leslie Neale's Juvies begins in a videography class with detention center kids in California waiting to be tried as adults. As arguably incidental perpetrators like Duc, nabbed for being in a car from which shots were fired, are slammed with prison sentences, educational opportunities are stripped away. A look at kids from very different circumstances, Discordia profiles subjects who have the luxury to develop into nascent statespeople. This story of unrest at Montreal's Concordia College after Palestinian students protest a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu acquaints us with three media-savvy student activists on opposite sides of the issue who have in common their political passion and a comfort level in front of the camera.

Born Into Brothels examines the politics of photography.
photo: HRWIFF
Born Into Brothels examines the politics of photography.

Like Danae Elon, director of the recent Tribeca entry Another Road Home, Paradise Lost's Ebtisam Mra'ana is a woman in her twenties sifting through the past to move forward. When she sojourns to London to track down a former rebel girl repeatedly imprisoned for embracing the PLO in the '70s, she finds a broken person who, while providing a helpful vantage on their small town's oppression, is not the mentor she imagined. Another female quasi-memoirist, university-educated Sabiha Sumar weaves personal recollections with the story of Pakistan's increasing Islamism in For a Place Under the Heavens. Her chats with intellectual feminist friends contrast starkly with interviews of two burka'd acquaintances, one who lost a son to jihad and one who coos to her toddler to become a martyr.

In the realm of more traditional activist filmmaking, Persons of Interest's catalog of 9-11 detainees is a must-see despite being hamstrung by director Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse's overly conceptual interview process. On a holding-cell-like set, subjects are asked to hold up name placards while they relate their stories. Periodically, the sound slips into voice-over and the subject is shown simply standing without speaking. Stories this powerful—like that of a Rockland County man who was detained in part because of his son's flight-simulator video game—hardly require such pushy stylization.

Both Deadline and Repatriation explore the agony of long-term imprisonment. The first does a somewhat scattered job of reflecting the process by which Illinois governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all the state's death row inmates, while the second, a decade-spanning epic, chronicles the personal and political effects of South Korea's decision to free and repatriate "unconverted" North Korean Communists who have grown old in South Korean prisons. The project was taken up by documentarian Kim Dong-won when he befriended some released prisoners residing in his village in 1992. The following 10 years are shown to have been an exhausting back-and-forth—both the North and South using the planned repatriation of these unrepentant Communists as a propaganda tool.

Kim is up-front about his own search for political identity through his relationship with his new neighbors, these "grandpas" who become gurus to South Korean leftists as well as by turns revered and reviled symbols of possible reunification. Amid the chaos of propaganda, Kim clings to the act of filming as a way to maintain a grip on a personal sense of order. There's always the hope that a picture can humanize the other, the first step in healing any rift. Exhibiting similar faith, the two protagonists in Saints and Sinners—a gay Manhattan couple seeking marriage in the Catholic Church—place ultimate value on their wedding picture running in the Times. The marriage is made real to the outside world not by the power of the church, but by the weight of one well-placed image.

 
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