By Andrea Meyer
Everybody’s doc-crazy these days. On the heels of popular nonfiction crowd-pleasers like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Super Size Me” and “March of the Penguins,” it’s become clear that documentaries aren’t just for lefty film geeks in Birkenstocks anymore. If that weren’t enough to start a movement, we find ourselves in a highly politicized climate in which everybody’s fired up about Darfur, global warming, the price of gas, immigration, drilling in the Arctic, Iraq, Iran, bad behavior in the White House…just to name a few of the issues keeping folks up at night.
While many audience members are beginning to appreciate quality documentaries and their serious, issue-oriented narrative counterparts for the smart, informative and engrossing entertainment they can be, many have watched these films for decades. Human Rights Watch is an organization dedicated to protecting human rights through the investigation of human rights violations, advocacy and building awareness around the world. With the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the organization is hosting the 17th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater from June 8-22. With that kind of pedigree, the festival invites the hardest hitting and most artistically accomplished narrative and documentary films that dare to tackle the issues concerning the world today.
The festival opened on June 8 with a benefit screening of Zach Niles and Banker White’s “The Refugee All Stars” about a band created by six Sierra Leonean musicians living in a refugee camp in the Republic of Guinea after being forced to flee their country’s brutal civil war. Infused as much with heartache as it is with music, the film explores the ways that art can bring a sense of hope and purpose even in the most dismal circumstances.
The films in the festival span the world, exposing injustice, devastation and the hope that seems to always endure. Lucian Muntean and Natasa Stankovic’s “Punam” introduces us to a nine-year-old Nepalese girl who takes care of her two younger siblings while her father works ceaselessly to earn enough money to send his children to school. Another nine-year-old girl is the focus of Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s “Rosita,” about a poor Costa Rican family fighting for the right for their daughter, who became pregnant after she was raped, to get an abortion, and finding themselves the focus of a battle involving two governments and the Catholic Church. Spanish director Manel Mayol’s “Switch Off” tells the story of the Pehuenche-Mapuche people who have lived in Chile’s Ralco valley for centuries, until Spain’s hydroelectric company built a dam in 2004, flooding the valley and forcing the people from their homes.
All the films in the festival cover compelling territory, but other standouts include Anthony Giacchino’s “The Camden 28,” about a group of Vietnam protesters who in 1971 broke into draft offices to destroy government records and save men from having to fight, and “Iraq in Fragments,” James Longley’s award-winning triad of stories about ordinary people finding ways to survive in various corners of the war-torn country. Narrative highlights include Adrian Shergold’s “Pierrepoint,” based on the true story of England’s celebrity hangman who hung over 600 people between 1934 and 1956, and director Michael Winterbottom’s latest (co-directed with Mat Whitecross), “The Road to Guantanamo,” another true story about four Muslims who were arrested in Afghanistan and held for two years without formal charges at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.
If all these films seem a bit depressing, the message of “The Refugee All Stars” can be helpful: That the human spirit soars even from the darkest depths, a motto that extends to some of the other films represented here. Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramzon’s “Men on the Edge Fishermen’s Diary” is about a beach on the Gaza/Israel border where Palestinian and Israeli men fished together from 1999 to 2003. Roy Westler’s “Shadya” follows a Muslim girl from a small village in Israel who in spite of family and social pressures becomes a World Champion in karate. And Simone Aaberg Kaern and Magnus Bejmar’s “Smiling in a War Zone” tells Aaberg Kaern’s story. She is a pilot who against all odds and breaking the laws of several nations travels 6000 kilometers from Denmark to Afghanistan in a rinky-dink plane to meet and inspire Farial, a girl she read about who dreams of becoming a pilot.
For more information, visit www.hrw.org/iff.