A certain documentary tradition, encompassing films as disparate as Land Without Bread, The House Is Black, and ABC Africa, deals primarily with the ethics of distance—particularly that between filmmaker and subject. It’s a tendency well represented by the Latin American entries in this year’s Human Rights Watch film festival. In Mikael Wiström’s Compadre, the Swedish filmmaker returns to a Peruvian village for a follow-up to a 1991 documentary about the family of a man named Daniel Barrientos. The ensuing confrontation between the two men tests a 30-year friendship and forces both to confront the thorny issues raised by a well-to-do Westerner making a film about poor people in a foreign country.
This problem resonates in the series’ other Peruvian documentary. Produced in cooperation with the country’s truth-and-reconciliation commission, State of Fear recounts Peru’s 20-year “war on terror” against Shining Path. Eyewitnesses testify to atrocities committed by both the Mao-inspired terror group and the Peruvian military, whose efforts to suppress it degenerated into indiscriminate slaughter. Transparently designed as a cautionary fable about our own war on terror, State of Fear doesn’t insist on the analogy—Peru’s tragedy is rightly allowed to stand on its own.
The Brazilian Justiça records the day-to-day functioning of the Rio de Janeiro court system. Boldly eschewing interviews and narration, director Maria Ramos lets her camera tell the story: dozens of prisoners packed into a small cell, a judge laughing off a defendant’s complaints of hunger, repeated allegations of police brutality that meet with little reaction. With its resolutely unobtrusive visual style, Justiça works as a parody of documentary objectivity, but the best Latin film of the festival is unapologetically up-close-and-personal. La Sierra tracks three young residents of a Medellín barrio over the course of a year. Run by the Bloque Metro paramilitary, the neighborhood is a combat zone populated by teenage widows and even younger killers. Any ideological explanation for Colombia’s decades-long civil war is purposefully excluded; here, Bloque is just a street gang battling rivals over turf. Even more remarkable than the footage of paramilitary soldiers taking sniper fire and running from police is the trust that co-directors Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez instill in their subjects. A stark, relentlessly deglamorized vision of thug life, La Sierra is essential viewing for anyone who ponied up for the aestheticized amorality of the Brazilian City of God.