If you wanted a demonstration of the movies’ ability to capture the difficult truths of average people’s lives, you could do no better than this year’s Human Rights Watch festival. Now in its 10th installment, this two-week-long series offers a strong slate of three dozen shorts, documentaries, and experimental and narrative films, all finding diverse and passionately committed ways to convey the basic facts of the human condition.
The traditional documentary is still the sentimental first choice for filmmakers who want to bring audiences views of the underexposed parts of the world, and the fest’s nonfiction selections affirm one’s faith in that old-school impulse. Xackery Irving’s American Chain Gang is a bracing look at the resurgence of the work detail in prisons, stopping first with sweat-dripping all-male chain gangs straight out of Jim Crow before moving on to innovations like an all-female gang in Arizona, a dubious first in the history of corrections. In A Season of Change, Robert Gervais and Michael Kornish do a similarly upstanding job of doc dot-connection, remembering how Jackie Robinson’s oft-forgotten 1946 season with the Montreal Royals provided a small-market test for his eventual elevation to the Dodgers. Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane’s School Prayer: A Community at War details the fight of one Mississippi mother to keep her children from participating in their public school’s morning benediction. Making incisive use of the case’s Oprah-driven national media footprint and the NATO-like invasion of ACLU lawyers, School Prayer manages to be an unexpectedly fair doc, letting its holy-roller antagonists make legitimate points about how class and region shape debates about “American” values even as they spew noxious brimstone.
Almost all of the screenings will be opened by five-minute shorts—from Youssef Chahine, Mathieu Kassovitz, Volker Schlöndorff, and Bertrand Tavernier, among others, who were commissioned to bring their personal takes on the same international crisis: antipersonnel land mines. In a similarly idiosyncratic vein are the feature-length Regret To Inform and Three Days and Never Again. The Academy Award–nominated Regret follows its director, Barbara Sonneborn, as she travels to Vietnam to the site of her husband’s wartime death. Sonneborn assembles a number of widows from both sides of the war and weaves an elegantly intimate elegy that neither settles for simple keening-of-the-women pathos nor elides the political context that links all the interviewees’ suffering. In contrast Alexander Goutman’s Three Days is a rawly shot documentary freak-out about a Russian mother who goes into debt to see her imprisoned son one last time before he begins a life sentence. (He killed a man who hit on him.) Seductively excessive both in its subject matter and the near constant hysteria the old woman exhibits, Three Days is a bitter, unforgettable meditation on futility and the dogged, inexhaustible love that only a mother could know.
Not to be outdone, the fest’s narrative features offer a number of unexpected change-ups. On the Hollywood tip, this year’s fest is dedicated to the late Alan Pakula and will screen 1974’s The Parallax View, which despite being a film geek reflex-renter provides a classic précis on the possibilities of political (albeit deeply fried and paranoid) feature filmmaking. Argentinean director Fernando Solanas’s lushly eccentric The Cloud is a wry yet high-minded film about an arty theater group grappling with the end of both its state funding and the right-wing leadership so invigorating to oppose. Coming from the same continent but a seemingly different planet is Victor Gaviria’s The Rose Seller, which recasts the Hans Christian Andersen fable as an incredibly tough and graphic nightmare among glue-sniffing teens in Medellín, Colombia.
Goran Paskaljevic offers another tale of big-city life in Cabaret Balkan (formerly known as The Powder Keg), the city in question being Belgrade. The official festival centerpiece, Cabaret is a darkly comic series of almost gag-like encounters involving a small group of Serbs who repeatedly (and literally) run into each other over the course of one night; hilarity, assault, attempted rape, murder, and suicide ensue. Cabaret paints Serbia as a nation of violent, grudge-holding nutcases, and although one gets the impression this is what you’d call “the truth,” the film would likely be accused of propagating ethnic stereotypes had it been made by an outsider. But as with the best political filmmaking, Cabaret Balkan has the temerity to venture into unsettled territory, addressing topical wounds that flow unimpeded by any hint of healing. Given that the Serbs are currently the most demonized nationality on the planet, it’s hard to say what people will think of Cabaret Balkan in 10 years, but credit the Human Rights Watch Film Festival for screening it now, when for good or ill a movie can actually mean something.