There’s much worth seeing at this year’s Human Rights Watch fest. Two of the fest’s strongest narratives concern crusading reformers crashing against entrenched forces in Latin America: Claudia Paz y Paz, elected attorney general of Guatemala in 2010, and Antanas Mockus, the Bogotá mayor whose anti-corruption, anti-violence campaign for the presidency of Colombia inspired chants of “We are pacifists, and we are united!” before ending in heartbreak and probable vote-theft. In Joey Boink’s Burden of Peace, we see Paz y Paz at work, laying down the law for police departments that have never once prosecuted a murder, and in unguarded moments: She marvels at the beauty of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” as she faces a political impeachment and the fizzling of her case against the old military government’s architects of genocide.
Andreas Dalsgaard’s Life Is Sacred, meanwhile, is half campaign doc — get ready to gape at the dirty politics of Mockus’s opponent, who has hired J.J. Rendón, the Karl Rove of Latin America — and half philosophical postmortem. Mockus couldn’t win, but he also felt he couldn’t charge the system’s riggers with cheating, as that would too deeply damage Colombians’ trust in their system. Both films are intimate, enraging, but also stirring — perhaps the reformers’ courage is seizing more hearts.
More crowd-pleasing are the films centered on music, but no one guarantees happy endings. Hajooj Kuka’s Beats of the Antonov opens with the bombing of a Sudanese village and wraps up with a call for the citizens of the Sudan to build together and reject war. In between is glorious music, played in dusty villages, and a people determined to live in spite of violence. François Verster’s culture-straddling essay-film The Dream of Shahrazad examines the roles of music and storytelling in resistance to oppression, focusing on an Istanbul youth orchestra’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite, and — among other artists — a theater troupe in Cairo that gives voice to mothers who have lost their children to violence. (Says one: “I will never get used to the burning inside of me.”)
The most heartening musical film is Ayat Najafi’s No Land’s Song, a narrative doc about singer Sara Najafi’s efforts to stage a concert of female soloists in Iran. She surreptitiously tapes her meetings with Ministry of Culture bureaucrats, who can’t approve such a venture: She’s told adding “one man would be enough if you introduce him as the soloist and add the women as background singers.” Najafi perseveres, assembling a storied group of international performers, and we’re privy to rehearsals and strategy sessions — it’s high drama, high art, and ultimately triumphant.
You won’t find uplift in the films about American life — just complex truths exposed with rare frankness and bravery. The most suspenseful is Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR. It’s also the funniest, in its sad way: Former Black Panther Saeed “Shariff” Torres has been pressed into service as an FBI informant, tasked with cozying up to American Muslims the Bureau finds suspicious — and then doing what he can to confirm his overseers’ assumptions. This time, he’s investigating Khalif al-Akili, a Pittsburgh convert Torres doesn’t believe is a threat: “That dude ain’t gonna bust a grape.” But Torres tries to get close, clumsily, creeping out his target so much that Akili announces on Facebook that the feds are trying to entrap him. Eventually, the filmmakers start interviewing Akili, without telling Torres, who hasn’t told the FBI that he’s being filmed — and then this tense comedy dips into tragedy, with our fearful intelligence agencies getting everything wrong.
Also tense and unforgettable: Laurent Bécue-Renard’s wrenching Of Men and War, a vital doc that lets us sit in on the therapy sessions of young vets living with PTSD. Rarely will you see so many all-American men getting so real, so tearful, about what they’ve been through, what they feel, and what they’ve done wrong: One says, “I’ve come to realize I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman and marry a man that’s twice your size and lethal and in the military — and who then takes his fucking rage out on you.” The others nod: They’ve had to come to realize it, too.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center