War and its aftermath are always major preoccupations of Human Rights Watch’s annual global film sampler; the 16th installment of this invaluable series is no exception, and the first able to address the war in Iraq, with several documentaries. In the superb Occupation: Dreamland, directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds demonstrate the advantages so rarely derived from embedded reportage. In Falluja in the early months of 2004, Scott and Olds bunk down with an army regiment stationed at “Dreamland,” an abandoned Baathist resort adopted as a military base, where soldiers express with startling candor their varying degrees of enthusiasm, cynicism, and frustration toward their vaguely defined purpose in Iraq, all the while stoking the ire of the harassed and forcibly idle locals. Without resorting to the steroid-pumped aggro flash of Gunner Palace, Occupation: Dreamland reinforces the impression that the American rodeo in Iraq has become a murderously pointless self-security op, leaving one officer to wonder aloud, “So what are we protecting? I don’t know.”
One might ask the same question about the remarkably permeable barrier in the stark Wall, the sole feature film in the 2005 edition about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often a major focus point of the festival. Director Simone Bitton seeks out voices on both sides of the under-construction Israeli security wall, a gerrymandering hybrid of concrete, electronic fence, and barbed wire. A young Israeli father whose backyard is partly demarcated by the fence offers his house as host site to a peace conference, while a Palestinian farmer notes bitterly that the wall—built, ironically, by many job-poor Palestinians—is a Machiavellian means to expropriate his fertile land.
Sectarian violence propels several of the strongest films in the lineup. Pete Travis’s Omagh, which recounts the 1998 bombing in the titular Northern Irish town by IRA dissidents opposed to the Good Friday Accords, approaches a harrowing, immersive verisimilitude to rival co-writer Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday (2002), though it necessarily lacks the earlier film’s breadth of historical perspective. The long view is not a problem in Helene Klodawsky’s No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, a biographical tribute to slain Sri Lankan human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama that doubles as a compact history of Sinhalese-Tamil hostilities. The pain of reckoning with senseless calamity is laid open like a wound in Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek’s Videoletters, in which friends and family members estranged by the wars of secession in Yugoslavia begin to reconnect through videotaped correspondence.
Displacement is a pedagogical strategy in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s closing-night feature, The Boys of Baraka. Twenty at-risk African American boys are whisked away from Baltimore public schools to a two-year intensive program in rural Kenya, but their remote schoolhouse is soon improbably rumbled by geopolitical strife: Following the 2002 hotel bombing in Mombasa and the closing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the Baraka School’s activities are suspended, though one distressed mother comments that her son is far more likely to be killed on the streets of Baltimore.
The Baraka School representative tells her recruits that, by age 18, they’ll have chosen among a high school diploma, a jail cell, and a coffin; for the teenage laborers of Mardi Gras: Made in China, future alternatives seem even narrower. Their hands blistered and bloodied, the girls and women who staff the Tai Kuen factory in Fuzhou start as early as age 14, working 12 to 20 hours per day for 10 cents an hour, their dreadful pay routinely slashed when they don’t meet their impossible quotas—and all to produce the gaudy bead necklaces flung around during Mardi Gras celebrations. Director David Redmon shows his trump card when he screens footage of the New Orleans party people to the Chinese workers and vice versa; the laborers are mostly amused that anyone would wear such ugly baubles, but back on Bourbon Street, the images from Tai Kuen push the needle off the record and turn the house lights on the party. “It’s not fun,” understates a suddenly sober reveler. Also featuring the sanguine realpolitik of the tyrannical factory boss and his American outsourcer, Redmon’s sly, engrossing documentary is an expert riposte to smug proponents of globalization. Thomas Friedman and your fellow flat-earthers! Watch this movie!