Summer in the city always provides networks and newspapers with abundant local color and snapshot filler, but a photograph that ran recently in Britain’s Guardian will probably never make the cut: It captures a Baghdad teenager bathing in wastewater from a nuclear facility. Because you know, the whole Iraq thing is so over. Saturation coverage of the attack on Saddam Hussein’s tortured nation tended to gloss over—at best—the pain, bereavement, and privation suffered by civilians; security guard Tom Ridge recently called the American war in Vietnam “that blip on the scene that caused some social unrest,” but he might have been summing up the government’s—and therefore the media’s—attitude toward the mushrooming and entirely avoidable humanitarian disaster unfolding in Iraq. If a war-a-go-go media made ravenous by hourly news cycles couldn’t find room to account for the ghastly effects of the noble cause, then what are the chances that other victims of human rights abuses—living outside the American aggro radar—can have their stories told to the world?
Human Rights Watch’s invaluable film festival casts its light on conflicts and calamities that mainstream outlets would choose not to see. (As does its online sister series, Media That Matters: Check out their Web site at mediathatmattersfest.org.) HRW’s 14th annual installment offers several works about far-flung refugees (to be reviewed next issue) and a typical concentration on Israel and the Palestinian territories. A pair of features by Nazareth-born director Hany Abu-Assad depicts the tedium, infuriation, and sour hilarity of life under occupation. Deadlines propel the fictional Rana’s Wedding, in which a Palestinian woman, defying her father’s wishes, races the clock to find her boyfriend and a registrar for a shotgun marriage amid Jerusalem’s obstacle course. Despite Rana’s desperate pace and her volatile context, the film is contemplative, often largely silent (especially in an early, disconcerting series of daybreak scenes), and convincingly bittersweet. The documentary Ford Transit is named for the fleets of white vans—once Israeli police cars, now communal cabs—that colonize the clotted thoroughfares of Jerusalem and Ramallah. Abu-Assad’s roadblock movie gets behind the wheel with a single driver, Rajai, and his rotating band of voluble passengers (including celebrity politician Azmi Bishara), who variously speculate on suicide-bomber psychology, the culture of victimhood, and the American president’s IQ. A fascinating roundtable, the deftly edited Ford Transit manages to infuse its day-in-the-life rhythms with unexpected snatches of lyricism, including an ending worthy of Kiarostami.
While Abu-Assad’s milieu is primarily Palestinian, Ramón Gieling’s Welcome to Hadassah Hospital pinpoints bizarre juxtapositions and unlikely intimacies in a place where injured terrorists are treated under the same roof as their victims, and Israeli doctors work alongside Palestinian nurses. The pithy, superb My Terrorist (opening at Film Forum on June 25) also focuses on an unlikely would-be alliance: Yulie Gerstel, a sixth-generation Israeli injured in an attack on an El Al transport bus in 1978, begins exchanging letters and agitating for the release of the Palestinian hijacker who killed Gerstel’s fellow flight attendant. Never narcissistic, Gerstel’s self-portrait chronicles her path from staunch Zionism to a present profound ambivalence, tested by heartbreaking encounters with the broken, unforgiving mother of a bombing victim.
In My Terrorist, Gerstel speaks at an ad hoc truth-and-reconciliation session that breaks down when protesters tear down the Palestinian flag to cries of “Nazi” and “fascist.” The outdoor tribunals in Anne Aghion’s Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda? are somewhat more successful, though rampant distrust of authorities prevents many villagers from speaking out against the still-young men who butchered their families. (Some simply don’t see the point in ceremony: “All you have to do is confess and you can kill again,” one man concludes.) Moving from present to past in Rwanda, Steven Silver’s The Last Just Man is a day-by-day account of Brigadier General Romeo Dallaire’s 1994 peacekeeping mission, during which 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days despite his repeated requests for UN intervention. Even the staunchest ally of international cooperation may experience a brief flash of understanding for unilateralism.
Any such sympathy is promptly extinguished by Pinochet’s Children. Ranging in age from eight to 16 when a U.S.-backed coup toppled Salvador Allende’s elected Marxist government, the trio in Paula Rodriguez’s documentary lost homes and fathers, then found their calling as student activists in Chile’s insurgent ’80s. Drawing from their journals and a rich store of archival footage, Rodriguez also proves a deft interviewer of her candid, eloquent subjects, whose ferocious commitment to a democratic Chile, purged of Pinochet, dissipated into aimlessness and disengagement once the overwhelming goal had been met.
The dangers posed by the lone righteous gunman are all too apparent in Elaine Epstein’s State of Denial, which (like Samantha Power’s recent article in The New Yorker) details South African president Thabo Mbeki’s blind, suicidal opposition to HIV-fighting drugs in a country grievously beset by AIDS as well as ignorance. (Health workers report that patients eschew condoms and medication, according to what they interpret as the president’s wishes.) Benefiting from extensive experience in the South African public health sector, Epstein pieces together a textured mosaic of people with AIDS and their families. The remarkable recovery of a little girl named Chipho after entering a drug trial might be proof enough, as if any were needed, to change Mbeki’s mind.
“Lost and Bound: Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, Week One” by Jessica Winter