Human Rights Watch International Film Festival: Media Matters

Events Film

After an incredible run of poignant films from all over the globe, the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival closed on Thursday, June 24, with a screening of Presumed Guilty (2009), a documentary that takes us into the heart of the Mexican justice system. A medley of both documentary and narrative features, the purpose of the film festival is to showcase themes pertaining to human rights and social justice. According to festival director John Biaggi, “The Human Rights Watch Film Festival reflects the condition of the world we live in, including the top news events around the world. No one is immune to the rippling effects when human rights are violated, whether here in our country or far away. It affects us all.”  Thirty films from twenty-eight countries were presented in collaboration with The Film Society of Lincoln Center, at the Walter Reade Theatre.This year’s films touched on three major themes—Accountability and Justice, Development and Migration, and Societies in Conflict: Afghanistan and Iran. Of what I experienced of the festival, each film contributed a unique and powerful perspective. The festival’s goal was to create “a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.” They certainly achieved this ambition.

If you missed the How Democracy Works Now: Twelve Stories (2010), a twelve-part HBO documentary series on the plight of immigration reform advocates over the past nine years, you had the opportunity to catch parts one and twelve at this year’s festival. Unfortunately, I was only able to make the showing of Mountains and Clouds (2010), part two in the series. The story begins a couple days before September 11th, 2001. Filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini have access to the staff of Senators Edward Kennedy and Sam Brownback, as well as seasoned immigration advocates Frank Sharry and Cecilia Muñoz. Days before September 11th, it seemed as if congress would soon pass immigration reform legislation. We watch as national security suddenly hits center stage, and how popular rhetoric soon begins to conflate “immigration” with “terrorism.” Robertson and Camerini give us a glimpse into the tumultuous world of Washington politics. Each with their own agenda, we watch as Senators make and break deals, eventually settling, compromising, or even giving up their dream of reform. 

Esther Olavarría, then counsel to Senator Kennedy on immigration, is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Policy. The filmmakers, along with Olavarría, appeared at the Q&A session after the June 19th New York Premiere. Her presence in Mountains and Clouds adds much depth to the narrative of Washington politics. To the Q&A, she contributed a perspective from that of her new role within the Obama Administration. For many immigration and refugee activists in the audience, her answers left them unsatisfied.  In response to some obvious frustrations, she could only allude to the convoluted political process by assuring them that “we’re working on it.” The last part of the series, Last Best Chance (2010) premiered in New York on June 23rd. This final installment in the series follows Senator Edward Kennedy, and takes us into the Spring of 2007. Yet our story does not end here. Without comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the fight continues into 2010. You can watch the whole series on HBO.  For more information, check out their website.

The festival centerpiece was a feature by Raoul Peck entitled Moloch Tropical (2009). Peck’s film explores the isolation of power and the absurdity of corruption, particularly within the context of Haiti. He admits that the film is an allusion to Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch (1999), a fictional biographical film portraying the humanity of Hitler. The story begins with a stunning pan of the Haitian landscape—over the clouds and lush green mountains, beyond the fortress of the Citadel. The breathtaking Citadelle Laferrière—built by independence fighter Henri Christophe—serves as our setting throughout the film. As a coup erupts on the anniversary of Haitian independence, our protagonist, President Jean de Dieu (Zinedine Soualem), struggles to maintain his legitimacy, continuously citing the democratic nature of his election. De Dieu spouts leftist rhetoric to the cameras while practicing corrupt policies, squelching critique through torture, and mistreating his wife. 

Despite exclamations from Haitian members of the audience that Jean de Dieu represents Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti, Peck claims that his protagonist is an amalgam of various political leaders.  Once a Catholic priest, Aristide’s legacy had been that of revolutionary activist for poor Haitians. Peck remembers Aristide’s inauguration as Haiti’s first democratically elected president as that of great joy and hope. Yet, he eventually became disillusioned with the man he held responsible for the future of Haiti. Moloch Tropical reminds us from where change truly comes—the people. Peck warned the audience, “You cannot rely on one person as a savior.  Democracy is something you have to fight for every day.” Throughout the film, de Dieu appears naked. Peck explained that he had been inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone can see the absurdity and the corruption, but no one has the courage to say so in public. Without critique from the people and from the press, democracy crumbles. As de Dieu tortures his outspoken critics, using tactics also rumored to be those of Aristide—like necklacing, or drenching tires with gasoline, putting them around the necks of dissidents, and then lighting them on fire—he ironically legitimizes his actions by saying he is defending the democratic decision of the people. Peck has cleverly woven his own political critique of democracy and power into this beautifully crafted narrative. Completed before the earthquake in January of 2010, it serves as a reminder of the obstacles impeding the improvement of development and the amelioration of the circumstances of the Haitian people. If you have not yet had the opportunity to see it, I suggest you check it out.   

The third film that I was able to attend was Backyard (2009), a harrowing tale of the murders in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Although a fictional narrative, the film explores the reality of what those have dubbed femicides or femincidios in this border town overlooking El Paso, Texas. According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) article, “since 1993, over 350 women’s bodies have been found sexually abused, mutilated, or dumped.” With each new muerta, or dead woman, the city raises a pink cross. The city is covered in them. Much of Juárez’s population can be attributed to the many maquiladoras, or the factories erected by transnational corporations. In search of cheap labor, transnational corporations have found many young Mexican women willing to work under harsh labor conditions. Once the Bracero Program ended in 1964—the program allowing the free flow of temporary and seasonal Mexican workers to come to the United States—maquiladoras became increasingly popular along the Mexican border towns. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, allowing the free flow of capital between North American borders yet NOT the free flow of people, encouraged the proliferation of maquiladoras in Mexico. While maquiladoras offer young women greater independence through wage earning, many have criticized these transnational corporations as being exploitative to their workers.

Backyard explores the femincidios in a greater context of sexual violence. Director Carlos Carrera tells the story through the eyes of the women of Juárez—from the female police officer, to the social worker, the survivor, and the loved ones. Carrera breaths life into cold statistics, offering us a more intimate look into the reality of violence and terror in Juárez.  Tired of police corruption and incompetency, Officer Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera) seeks answers through unconventional means—at least by Mexican standards. She’s different. She cares. Meanwhile, Juanita Sánchez (Asur Zagada) has come to Juárez in search of independence and greater opportunity in one of the factories. We watch as she transforms from innocent young woman, to strong feminista, eventually becoming a victim of sexual abuse, and then a muerta. Officer Bravo reaches her breaking point once she accepts the apathy of those in power to incite change. She finally takes matters into her own hands. For more information on the situation in Juárez, you can visit the Libertad Latino website

Other films in the line-up this year included Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer’s Out in the Silence (2009), a documentary exploring reactions to gay marriage in a small Pennsylvania town.  From Deepa Bhatia’s Nero’s Guests (2009) about farmer suicides in India, to Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel’s Pushing the Elephant (2010), documenting Congolese immigration to the United States, or Davoud Geramifard’s Iran: Voices of the Unheard (2009), a story about the forgotten voices of Iran’s secularists, each film presented a significant perspective on human rights today. Even if you were unable to attend the festival this year, I hope that you will still be inspired to research some of the films, or the issues they represent.  For more information, please visit the Human Rights Watch website. The festival organizers had hoped to “empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.” They certainly have made a difference to this audience member, and I hope that these films will do the same for you.      


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