In its 17th year as one of the city’s oldest continuously running film festivals, and certainly the most thematically vital, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is also a traditional repository for progressive features without much of a marketplace hope—which can be a sign that their ethical ducks are set in a row. Not since the Reagan-era rape of Central America has the fest had quite so much grist to mill, and naturally the docket concerned with Iraq, Muslim life, and U.S. neo-imperialism is well stocked. (Western doc crews must now be as common a sight on Mideast city streets as fruit vendors and cabbies.) Appropriately, the focus is always on the besieged, not the invader.
Javier Corcuera’s Winter in Baghdad tracks the everyday negotiations of a group of Iraqi teens, for whom the achievement of maintaining an ordinary life of school, work, and friendship is almost herculean under the chaotic circumstances. Likewise, Roy Westler’s Shadya presents an Israeli Arab girl who, despite the social taboos, maintains a world championship career in karate, while Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon’s Men on the Edge—Fishermen’s Diary details, rather gushily, the cooperation and tension between Palestinian and Israeli seamen on the edge of Gaza. Still, the film sings, because the protagonists aren’t victims or ideologues or monolithic “peoples,” but workingmen with their humor intact, their faces weathered by experience, and their love for the sea obvious to the eye.
Nonfiction-ness is mutable elsewhere: In Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo—co-directed with ex- assistant Mat Whitecross—the very real experiences of four Brit youths of Pakistani descent, after they were arrested in Kabul and tortured by U.S. forces, are delivered like right hooks via interviews and throat-grabbing re-enactments. James Longley’s celebrated Iraq in Fragments is another story: Extraordinarily beautiful footage of life in three Iraqi regions is edited within an inch of Disney’s Living Desert horseshit; hardly a minute of Longley’s film goes by without a cheap narrative-building suture between two mutually exclusive moments, destroying his movie’s sense of veracity in the process. (That it strategically climaxes with Kurds singing the praises of the occupying army is another thorn in the eye.) So of course it won three prizes at Sundance, where audiences are yet learning about cinematic syntax versus the possibility of truthfulness.
Our relationship with Mexican and Central American citizenry—otherwise known in talking-point lingo as “the immigration problem”—gets a going-over with Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini’s My American Dream: How Democracy Works Now, an epic nonfiction “telenovela” of apparently indeterminate length (shown here as a work in progress) that autopsies the misadventures of 24 individuals in various states as they navigate the U.S. system. On native ground, the trials are even hairier, from the ordeal of railroaded Chilean Indians facing the juggernaut of Pinochet-era development (Manel Mayol’s righteous but dull Switch Off) to the astonishing public tale, in Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s fastidious Rosita, of a raped nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl whose pregnancy became a 2003 subcontinental cause célébre. Her illiterate coffee-bean-picker parents were determined to procure an abortion, while the state powers of the area moved in to prevent it, and the media, government-controlled and otherwise, cut loose in a cataract of moral combat.
Commodities and their attendant market warfare—the crux of so much progressive politics—are only glancingly analyzed, leaping from the Starbucks-reamed coffee growers of Ethiopia (Nick and Marc Francis’s Black Gold) to oil, which has precipitated a landmark U.S. lawsuit brought by 15 Burmese peasants against oil companies (including Unocal) for a legacy of murder, rape, slavery, and destruction. Best of these is Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky’s Source, a rather krazy Czech doc about the usurious, sloppy oil industry of Azerbaijan, which has left the landscape a septic ruin, the underpaid workers mordantly bitter, and the populace of Baku street-rioting against the corrupt Aliev regimes. (“Georgia does not have oil and we do,” one activist kvetches. “Therefore, they will have democracy and we will not.”) Employing funky animation, archival propaganda footage, and a witty visual palette (which includes poisoned cows and bin Laden matrioshka dolls), Source isn’t just correct, it’s incisively witty, and possibly the fest’s only semi-satire.
However galvanic the present seems for moviemakers, history brings out the best in documentaries (if not liberal fictions like Michael Caton-Jones’s sanitized, clumsy Shooting Dogs, exactly the kind of white-centric Rwanda genocide drama we don’t need). So it’s easy to be seduced by Anthony Giacchino’s The Camden 28, which takes us step-by-step through the now forgotten ‘Nam-era civil disobedience case that involved a draft-office burglary, several arrested priests, an FBI mole, and an epic trial arriving at the legal assertion that felonies committed against an immoral war aren’t felonies at all. For aging rads, it’s something of a gift; for the under-30 conscientious, it could be an inspiration. Still, Rex Bloomstein’s KZ is the fest’s most unforgettable film, a survey of Holocaust tourist culture by way of a stroll through Mauthausen today—its obsessive scholars, saturnine tour guides, traumatized high schoolers, crematorium photo ops, reminiscent SS widows, McDonald’s franchises, and Nazi-beloved beer halls. For these Austrians (and global visitors) as well as the film itself, the past ain’t past by a long shot.