Material Witnesses


An itemized casualty list of calamities across multiple nations, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is something of a microcosm of the 2002 Human Rights Watch festival itself. Condensing Christopher Hitchens’s enraged deposition into 80 lucid minutes, directors Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki map out Kissinger’s collusions with Nixon and Ford in the short-circuiting of the ’68 Paris peace talks, secret bombing of Cambodia, upending of democracy in Chile, and savaging of East Timor. The revered elder statesman becomes Machiavellian tyrant-as-apparatchik, driven equally by chillingly abstract realpolitik and panting power lust. Hitchens & co. sometimes press their case too hard (as when they posit Kissinger as the virtual lone gunman who distended the American war in Vietnam by four years) and remain hazy on the logistics of charging him in international court. Quibbles aside, though, Trials is an indispensable primer on U.S. foreign policy—especially during wartime.

The series’s weak fiction lineup includes Ken Loach’s tepid if characteristically heartfelt The Navigators, which examines the effects of privatization on an ensemble of British Rail employees, and Chris Eyre’s follow-up to Smoke Signals, the unwieldy brotherly-love dramedy Skins. For the more robust documentary slate, the theater of war is the main stage. Week two offers several works about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (to be reviewed next issue), and opening night unveils the sequel to last year’s HRW standout Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin. Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati’s Afghanistan Year 1380 (unavailable for preview) returns to Kabul in mid September as the NGO Emergency races to reopen their Taliban-shuttered hospital for wounded civilians.

Two of the strongest movies on view are testimonies from the home front. To record the use of rape as a military strategy, Lilibet Foster’s Operation Fine Girl travels to Sierra Leone to interview young women used as sex slaves during their country’s decade-long conflagration. Good Husband, Dear Son camps out in a village near Sarajevo, where four in five of the male residents were killed during the war in Bosnia. Relatives recall their lost boys and linger over mementos: plastering tools, items of clothing, a gradebook, a handprint. Heddy Honigmann’s doc shares a plangent material specificity—a kind, patient attention to quotidian detail—with the Times‘s Portraits of Grief.

Broken blood ties are traced in Jaime Camino’s The Children of Russia, an oddly static collection of interviews with the now elderly children of anti-fascist warriors sent to live in the Soviet Union during the Spanish Civil War, and in Family Fundamentals (also featured in the New Festival), about the estranged gay children of Biblical literalists. The upheavals in Indonesia at the outset of the post-Suharto reformasi are seen partly through the prism of one voluble family in Leonard Retel Helmrich’s superb verité doc The Eye of the Day, while ferocious mother love is a driving force in Jon Osman and Jonathan Stack’s Justifiable Homicide, in which Giuliani voter Margarita Rosario is reborn as a police-brutality activist following her son’s 1995 death at the hands of the NYPD. The film incorporates choice footage of an installment of the mayor’s radio show: New Yorkers are invited to refresh their pre-9-11 Rudy memories when he berates the dead boy’s mother, tells three discrete lies to his listeners over her protestations, and then disconnects her.

The renowned photographer James Nachtwey is a one-man human rights watch, journeying to the world’s most forsaken corners to produce eidetic mass-market images of cataclysm: genocide in Rwanda, famine in Somalia and Sudan, war in Kosovo and the Palestinian territories. Much of Christian Frei’s War Photographer is given over to watching Nachtwey silently at work while editors, an ex-girlfriend, and Christiane Amanpour (playing Katrin Cartlidge in No Man’s Land) praise his otherworldly calm and steadfast reticence. For his part, Nachtwey speaks of his intentions in bland, humble aphorisms, and hardly at all of his individual experiences.

The photographer’s show-don’t-tell stance is admirable, but it can make him a problematic documentary subject. War Photographer infers the psychological and physical toll of his peripatetic existence, but provides scant insight into his technique—one that often results in incongruously meticulous compositions of human degradation. Nachtwey’s intrepid activist motivations, however, are never in doubt, even if—as he attests—he must constantly ask himself, “Do I make a living from other people’s suffering?”

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