A Greek Bearing Gifts
But enough of endings. How does Eternity and a Day begin? It starts in memory or dream, with Alexandre as a boy of about the same age as the refugee. Back at the seaside house, which is shuttered at dawn, he too is about to go on a voyage: a child's adventure, which he imagines will take him to a magical place where time has stopped.
A boy and a boy; a voyage and a voyage; a beginning and, at the end (though time never stops), another beginning. Eternity and a Day is ultimately that simple. If it takes a while to own up to this poverty of spirit, circling slowly toward the confession, that's perhaps because the film itself resembles a humbled old man. It speaks when it's become too full for silence--and only for the sake of children who are mostly beyond its help.
Would Eternity and a Day qualify as a human rights film? The question occurs to me because of the eclecticism of the tenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which will run June 11-24 at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. This year, the series presents thirty-three films. Some inform; some prompt the conscience; some entertain, while having more than jollification in mind. But what might be the functional meaning of "human rights," if the term can be applied to all these pictures? And what about them, as a lot, could possibly be festive?
Judged on the basis of subject matter, the program might better be called a Film Wake. Here, for example, is a series of brief pictures, none longer than five minutes, titled Spotlights on a Massacre: 10 Films Against 100 Million Anti-personnel Land Mines. Made by an international roster of directors--Youssef Chahine, Jaco Van Dormael, Mathieu Kassovitz, Pavel Lounguine and Volker Schlöndorff, among others--the films have been co-produced by Handicap International and Bertrand Tavernier's Little Bear Productions, bringing art-house star power to an urgent cause.
The films in Spotlights on a Massacre will be dropped like bomblets among the features on the program. Perhaps the lightest of these--and a film that's close to my heart--is The Cloud, a wryly expressionistic new picture by the Argentine master Fernando Solanas. Here, he makes literal the metaphor of a political climate. Although "the flood"--that is, the dirty war--ended years ago, a skywide cloud continues to hang over Buenos Aires, where it's rained for 1,600 days straight. People feel heavy, soggy, glum--even the old-style, carnivalesque lefties of the Mirror Theater, whose building is about to be bulldozed to make way for a mixed-use development.
Other notable dramatic features in the series include Goran Paskaljevic's The Powder Keg (to be released this summer), a comedy of dangerously ricocheting characters set in almost-present-day Belgrade; David Riker's The City, an anthology of stories of Latin American immigrants in New York; a revival of Robert Wise's 1959 bank-heist noir, Odds Against Tomorrow, with star Harry Belafonte and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky scheduled to attend; and a special presentation of Sergei Eisenstein's Strike, featuring live musical accompaniment by the maestros of sproing-and-chunk grandeur, the Alloy Orchestra.
As for the documentaries: You can catch Xackery Irving on the recent revival of the American chain gang; Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane on School Prayer: A Community at War; Maria Fuglevaag Warsinski on the Srebrenica slaughter; Greta Schiller on Cecil Williams, a gay white theater director from South Africa who was arrested in 1962 for driving in a car with Nelson Mandela; Shui-Bo Wang on his own life from the Cultural Revolution through the Tiananmen Square massacre; and Barbara Sonneborn on the widows, herself included, on both sides of the Vietnam War.
If all of these pictures can come together under the heading of "human rights," it's perhaps because the term was born in vagueness. As Michael Ignatieff argued in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood that it would fail to produce a document if it tried to describe existing conditions, specify remedies or even explain the legal and philosophical bases on which people might be said to have inherent rights. These matters were too divisive. And so "the Declaration's vaunted universality is as much a testament to what the drafters kept out of it as to what they put in."
But films, by their nature, are heaps of details. They unavoidably put into "human rights" the specifics that the Declaration's drafters had to keep out. So despair if you must over the inability of an artwork to fill empty stomachs or pull people out of jail. The pictures in the Human Rights Watch series are all useful in that they give flesh to a grand abstraction. And they're festive to the degree that they live up to an ambition expressed in The Cloud. As that film's carnivalesque lefties sing at the end of their show, "The theater teaches you to say no."