By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: Left, Miroslaw Dembinski’s “A Lesson of Belarusian”; below, Shimon Dotan’s “Hot House”]
Conspicuously absent at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the subject of the Iraq War has slowly receded as the flashpoint topic of political filmmaking. Whether a matter of over-saturation or simply fatigue at the implacable pace of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East, the war no longer dominates documentary film discourse. And such is the case with the 18th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, being held at New York’s Walter Reade Theater from June 15th to the 28th. Of the 21 films and three shorts being screened, only one takes Iraq as its subject (James Longley’s short “Sari’s Mother”). While it’s not central to the program, the U.S. policies adopted because of the war (and 9/11) haunt the edges of a number of entries, including one of the opening night films, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s formally adventurous “Strange Culture.”
Documenting one of the most egregious breaches of civil liberties in post 9/11 America, Leeson tells the story of University at Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz, suspected bio-terrorist. During one horrific night in 2004, Kurtz’s wife died unexpectedly from heart failure. When the medics arrived, they noticed (legal) bacteria cultures that Kurtz was to use for an art exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They called the FBI, Kurtz was held, and he entered a legal nightmare he hasn’t fully escaped from. With the case still ongoing, Kurtz isn’t allowed to speak on certain issues, so Leeson hired Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan for re-enactments of that material. Eventually the two actors break character, inserting their own commentary and joking with their real life models. There’s a looseness to this structure that allows Kurtz’s nerdy humor and
relentless optimism to shine through, making the film the story of an individual, not merely a trembling victim of incompetent government forces.
While President Bush’s domestic policies failed Kurtz, his broad foreign policy to democratize the Middle East offered a hope to many that has yet to be realized. Two elections fully backed by the U.S., in Afghanistan and Palestine, are investigated in “Enemies of Happiness” and “Hot House,” respectively. In the former, Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad follows Afghani parliamentary candidate Malalai Joya in the run up to the 2005 vote, the first in 35 years. Joya is an extraordinary figure, a 28-year-old firebrand who had gained notoriety for being tossed out of the Grand Council of tribal elders for railing against corrupt warlords. In a country in which women’s rights is a new concept, Joya is hugely divisive, and has to employ a security team to escort her to nearby villages (outlying towns are too dangerous). She had already survived four attempts on her life by the time film picks up her story. As she urges rural women to vote, rescues a teen from marrying an 80-year old opium dealer, and shares tears with a 100-year old (female) veteran of the mujahedeen against the Russians, it seems like grassroots democracy has a chance to succeed. With the recent resurgence of the Taliban and the increasing weakness of the Karzai government, this hopeful sketch now looks like a mirage.
“Hot House” documents the 2006 Palestinian elections from a unique perspective the inside of Israeli prisons. Fourteen Palestinian prisoners were elected to parliament, nine of which were members of Hamas. Director Shimon Dotan gained an incredible level of access to the inmates in the weeks before the election, eavesdropping on their discussions while outlining the martial discipline with which each subgroup runs their lives behind bars. Dotan’s basic premise is that the Israeli prison system politicizes extremists. The prisoners are given a free education from the Hebrew or Open Universities, and since two-thirds of the Palestinian population has been to jail, there’s a tightly knit network of support for any former or current inmate who runs for office. This is the network that helped thrust Hamas into a commanding majority in parliament, and forced the U.S. to withdraw all aid to the territory.
A country where free elections won’t occur anytime soon is Belarus, one of the most repressive governments in the world. “A Lesson of Belarusian” is a shot-on-the-fly account of the elections of March 2006, widely criticized by the U.S. and E.U. as unfair. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka changed the constitution so he could run for a third time and used brutal strong-arm tactics to silence the opposition. The film follows the student movement centered around an outlawed school, the Lyceum. Banned for teaching the Belarusian language and its history (instead of the dominant Russian), the institution goes underground to agitate for the opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich. A stunning indictment of Lukashenka’s regime, “A Lesson of Belarusian”‘s nervous cameras catch the pervasive fear and resentment of the populace, culminating in the massive demonstrations on Election Day and the ruthless beatings that followed. As with Joya, all the buoyant optimism of Election Day has come to naught. Lukashenka’s grip on power is as tight as ever, and the opposition is splintering. Just last month Milinkevich was voted out as leader, to be replaced by a rotating group of four that advocates engaging with the authoritarian government.
The most rigorous film in the series is “Manufactured Landscapes” (opening June 20th at Film Forum in NYC), directed by Jennifer Baichwal. It examines the effect China’s rapid industrialization is having on its landscape, seen through the eyes of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Graced by luminous photography of gutted ships, mountains of recyclable waste, and strip-mined valleys, it forces the viewer to confront the contradictions of globalization: these images of uncanny beauty, the result of great leaps in human intelligence, are also polluting the world that nurtures that same intelligence. The gargantuan scale of China’s modernization is embodied by the Three Gorges Dam, the largest ever planned, which has flooded numerous towns (one of which, Fengjie, is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s latest film, “Still Life”). With its energy needs outpacing its supply, China will do anything for help, including importing oil from the Sudan.
The closing night film, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” focuses on the genocide in Darfur as viewed by Brian Steidle, a Marine who took a job as cease-fire monitor with the African Union. Sadly, the film is in love with souped-up zoom-ins on maps and obviously staged scenes of Steidle popping off rounds. The basics of the conflict are covered adequately, with terrifying footage of a Janjaweed fighter reciting their slogan before an attack: “Kill the slaves.” Steidle became an impassioned advocate of U.S. intervention, and the film threatens to turn him into a hero, with far too much footage of him giving speeches and interviews stateside. When the Sudanese are finally allowed to speak for themselves, their eloquence erases any memory of the previous self-congratulation. For Steidle it’s the Iraq War that keeps the U.S. from stopping the slaughter. That’s a questionable proposition, but one indicative of the symbolic power the war still retains. It’s the open wound that bleeds through all current events.