The Political Is Personal at the Human Rights Watch Fest


The body count at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival rivals any in Hollywood’s summer shoot-’em-ups: 400,000 killed in Laos; 250,000 slaughtered in Chechnya; 40,000 murdered in Chad; 3,000 Chileans disappeared under Pinochet; 1,000 Lebanese felled by Israeli bombs. Now add Iraq to the equation—some 90,000 violent civilian deaths and counting, according to—and you have a serious accounting of carnage, both past and present, reflected at this year’s 19th annual event.

Notwithstanding the vital reality check the fest provides, the event’s greatest achievement is putting human faces on such numbers. Indeed, this year’s highlights expose the bonds and rifts between parents and their children as much as political atrocity. Perhaps appropriately, the program features an unprecedented 20 films by women.

Twenty-three years in the making, cinematographer Ellen Kuras’s The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), co-directed by its subject, Thavisouk Phrasavath, movingly chronicles the escape of his Laotian family to the U.S.—or, as it is later referred to by Thavi’s mother, “hell on earth.” Fluidly edited and exquisitely photographed, and alternating between the golden-hued light of Laos and the claustrophobic chaos of ’80s Brooklyn, the film elegantly gathers greater intimacy as it unfolds: from the political turmoil of Laos following the withdrawal of U.S. forces on the ground to a story of immigrant disenfranchisement and wrenching family drama.

Similarly heartbreaking without sentimentality, China’s Stolen Children follows two young rural parents searching for their kidnapped four-and-a-half-year-old son. Part mystery, part exposé of China’s one-child policy—which forces the poor to give up their second babies to avoid steep fines, thereby fueling child trafficking—the film powerfully conveys the anguish of losing (or giving up) your baby. British director Jezza Neumann quietly lets her camera capture moments of bracing emotion involving the distraught couple, the devastated grandmother, the detective they hire, and the amoral Wang Li, a veteran trader of young women and children, who talks about the prices of newborns as if he were selling meat.

Lost young people are also the subject of Maria Ramos’s brilliantly restrained and artfully composed Behave, which follows minors through Rio de Janeiro’s juvenile-detention system. The bulk of the film takes place in a single court interrogation room, as the feisty, eye-rolling female judge doles out justice to teen offenders. Brazilian law forbids minors from appearing on camera, so in a tricky directorial move, the alleged criminals are played in close-up by nonprofessional actors, who Ramos seamlessly intercuts with the real proceedings. Surprisingly, this doesn’t undermine the commentary, but rather expands it: If the kids cast from the favelas aren’t the actual delinquents, they very well could be.

One of the festival’s few narrative films, Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi’s melodrama Under the Bombs, captures the anguish of losing a child to the indiscriminate machinery of war. Filmed in southern Lebanon 2006 with Medium Cool–like immediacy, Aractingi follows a young woman in search of her missing son across the ravaged urban landscape, meeting real-life mourners along the way. The result effectively, if not subtly, humanizes the victims of the Israeli bombings that the U.S. Senate unanimously backed.

The U.S. has a tacit hand in many of the injustices on display, including the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende and the subsequent military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which is addressed in two personal docs. Carmen Castillo’s more astute political and personal excavation, Calle Sante Fe, follows the filmmaker’s return to the street where her husband, a leftist leader, was killed by Pinochet’s secret police. And the festival launcher, A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, looks at the events from the point of view of the Death and the Maiden author, whose impassioned left-wing beliefs may be genuine—but whose nostalgic return is sentimental and bourgeois. The festival closes on June 26 with a double dose of contemporary political persecution. Letter to Anna, an absorbing portrait and murder mystery, examines the life and death of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who survived poisoning only to be gunned down on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, October 7, two years ago. (Russian authorities named the suspected assassin and several accomplices last month, though they offered no insight into who ultimately backed the murder.)

Just as tragic, USA vs. Al-Arian chronicles the U.S. government’s systematic harassment of Palestinian activist and University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who was cleared of all major Ashcroft-concocted terrorism- related charges after a 2005 trial, but then forced to make a plea bargain on a lesser offense. No matter: In Bush’s America, Al-Arian was sent to prison anyway and, though slated for release in April, still remains in a Virginia jail.