The 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival unearths hope and horror from the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, Israeli prisons, Eastern Congo, the slums of Guatemala, the racist South, Pinochet’s Chile, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Darfur, Belarus, Afghanistan, and (surprise, surprise) Iraq. But it is in Austin, Texas, that this fiercely committed festival locates its imaginative epicenter.
Water flows from a 100-million-year-old limestone aquifer into the city of Austin, where it collects in the Barton Springs Pool, a recreational reservoir enjoyed by a population of unusually progressive Texans. Their efforts to save the springs from suburban development provide an initial strata of information in The Unforeseen, an ingeniously scaled, unusually resonant documentary by Laura Dunn.
The immediate subject is the environmental, historical, economic, and personal impact of the booming McNeighborhood business, but Dunn’s achievement is to render this familiar encroachment with geometric clarity. Talking heads and archival footage are the factual foundation above which rises a soaring, intricate lyricism. This is a matter of dreamy, drifting, rather indulgent, high-definition nature imagery, which bears kinship to the work of executive producer Terrence Malick, as well as a carefully engineered poetics of data. The Unforeseen conflates the abstract and the concrete as it moves from little things (rock formations, pools of water, personal anecdotes) to the big picture (topographic maps, helicopter views, political processes), scanning the terrain with X-ray vision rendered through digitally animated information systems (infrastructure schematics, patterns of development, the circulation of blood vessels).
This bravura conception leads to a contemplation of Austin as symbol or glyph of universal utility. Too bad the final passage is besotted with rhapsodic nature imagery verging on the trite. Ditto the face time allotted to Robert Redford, an Austin habitué, suave rhetorician, and—ack—co-producer.
But hey, what’re you going to do? Celebrities make the world go round. At least they’ve taken to making the rounds trumpeting the imminent ecological apocalypse. And why not? The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding, global warming makes for an awesome narrative. From the perspective of our species, it may be the only narrative that counts. From the perspective of politics, where survival of mankind is a secondary concern to the acquisition of power, global warming is the mobilizing master-narrative the Left has been waiting for—our very own Communism or War On Terror, a grand and frightening super-cause around which a complex progressive agenda can be organized.
The hitch, of course, is that while global warming is established fact, the question of whether or not a rise in awareness will outpace the rise in temperature remains unresolved. Enter Everything’s Cool, an investigation into the rhetoric of the global warming “debate.” As indicated by the title, filmmakers Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand like irony. The downside is a habit of slipping into glib, Michael Moore–ish condescension. The upside is a head-on engagement with the public’s tendency to view facts as stupid things, and the consequent necessity of a killer marketing campaign to get any and every point across.
Thus we follow the lessons learnt by Dr. Heidi Cullen as she graduates from soundbite climatologist on the Weather Channel to host of her own show dedicated to global warming, an education not in science or reason but presentation and poise. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of the notorious essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” enflame the debate with their call to reframe ecological activism away from the politics of fear, while the oil industry successfully sabotages scientific consensus with manufactured doubt.
Elsewhere, Manufactured Landscapes takes a cool look at Chinese hell through the lens of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who specializes in large-format panoramas of vast industrial carnage. He’s a poor man’s Andreas Gursky, and the self-consciously grandiose aesthetic of director Jennifer Baichwal recycles moves from Jean-Luc Godard (the endless, implacable tracking shot) and the landscape studies of Chantal Akerman. This high-art horror show is marginally spectacular, slightly pompous, and most engaging when micro-attentive to the fidgety, dread-inducing labors of assembly line workers.
Moving from the planetary to the personal, Sari’s Mother is the masterpiece of the festival. This 21-minute short from James Longley is an unforced triumph of concision, perception, and intuition. Rivaling his celebrated feature Iraq in Fragments as a feat of lyrical reportage, Longley’s compact portrait of an Iraqi woman and her AIDS-infected son speaks volumes at a whisper. His repertoire of effects isn’t simple virtuosity but a sophisticated language of compassion; there’s heartbreak in his ellipses, strength in his frame, empathy in his light.