Organize if you can, mourn if you will, but above all take heart. Courage, which conventional movies sell you by the rusty bucketful, springs fresh on all sides in this year's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Here the valiant may wear a modest suit and fuss over samples at a trade show; or tramp through iridescent sludge, to wave a sarcastic arm at a profiteer's villa; or shiver with their children high in the Andes, where a shack's strongest heat source is a woman's indignation. In the condescending phrase of marketing consultants, these pictures would be "scenes of ordinary, everyday heroism." Unglamorous, sure, but ordinary? Not on your life.
Two dozen documentaries and narrative features are screening in this seventeenth edition of the festival, which will travel to forty cities in the United States and Canada after its launch, on June 8, at New York's Walter Reade Theater (co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center). Some selections, notably those about the "war on terror" and the terror of war, are scheduled for theatrical release and so will pass for now without comment. (Watch this space for Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantánamo and James Longley's Iraq in Fragments.) Many others must go unaddressed simply because they're many.
But although a complete festival review might be impossible, a part can still stand for the whole. Here are notes on three of this year's documentaries, and their heroes, as seen in the section on economic globalization.
Switch Off (Apaga y Vámonos) by Manel Mayol is unusual in that it shows you traditional, physical courage: the kind demonstrated in the Andes by women of the Pehuenche-Mapuche people when they jump to their feet and smash every breakable object in the room, while screaming bloody curses at a Chilean government official. The cause of this difference of opinion: The administration of then-President Eduardo Frei had decided to let a Spanish corporation, Endesa, flood Mapuche lands and force villagers into new areas high above the snow line, for the sake of building hydroelectric dams on the Bíobío River.
Switch Off relates this recent history in a highly textured way, using interviews with Mapuche activists like Mireya Figueroa and Alihuen Antileo; quasi-meditative views of the river and mountains; archival provocations (such as a photograph of the head of Endesa, shown in younger days, giving the Fascist salute); and a running gag of the filmmaker phoning the Endesa press office, Michael Moore style, only to be told that the spokesman is once again at lunch. The effect of this mélange is so striking that I began to wish for a little less art and a little more exposition. After the screening, I had to catch up on my reading to learn when the dams were built and what exactly the World Bank had to do with them. That said, I will remember Switch Off for a long time for Mayol's interviews with baffled, angry Mapuche villagers, who were pressured to sign relocation agreements and wound up living in the snow, and for his testimony from opponents of the dam, who found themselves being prosecuted under anti-terrorist statutes, based on the testimony of masked witnesses.
Source, by Martin Marecek and Martin Skalsky, is in some ways even more disjunctive than Switch Off; but then, surrealist effects are unavoidable when you're documenting the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan. While functionaries of the national oil company boast that the environment is pristine, the camera surveys a nightmare landscape of fragmentary concrete, rusted iron and black, viscous sand. While a would-be farmer insists, as if trying to convince himself, that "oil isn't unhealthy," his starved-looking cow grazes beside inky pools. You watch segments of a promotional video, complete with patriotic folk singers, praising life in Baku; after which you see unscripted women cry out to the camera: "Please take us abroad! We don't want to live here!"
Your principal guide through this madness is Mirvari Gahramanli, a dissident heroine who identifies for you the beneficiaries of Azerbaijan's oil economy (the reigning Aliyev clan; British Petroleum) and the victims (workers whose uniforms, like their pay envelopes, are threadbare; journalists who may be committing suicide when they allege that all is not well; radioactive children; cows). More than once, Gahramanli and her fellow hotheads observe that the United States pressed for regime change next door in Georgia--but, of course, Georgia doesn't have oil. A brief animated sequence makes the connection for you: From the tick-tocking silhouettes of oil rigs, set amid grazing cartoon cows, a black line representing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline runs leftward across the screen toward a Western city, where little stick-figure men putter about in puffing cars.
But for a deep, wide-ranging account of today's global relationships--from the misery within enclaves of production to the slightly smoggy good times in the lands of consumption--you will need to watch Marc and Nick Francis's remarkable Black Gold, one of the strongest documentaries I've seen in the Human Rights Watch Festival, or for that matter outside it. Its hero is Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union in Ethiopia: an umbrella organization for some 70,000 coffee growers, who have watched the price of their crop plummet while international demand soars.
Black Gold brings together both parts of this story. On the side of production, the film takes you from the processing plant and warehouses in Addis Ababa--where women hand-sort the good beans from the bad for 50 cents a day--down to Ethiopia's southern mountains, where Meskela meets with coffee growers whose richest aspiration is for clean drinking water and a school for their children. On the side of circulation and consumption, the film goes onto the floor of the New York Commodities Exchange (where world coffee prices are set), into the Illy packing factory (where the CEO speaks almost mystically of the perfection of coffee), over to the World Barista Championship in Seattle (where great coffee is celebrated by fist-pumping and hoots). The contrasts are sometimes ironic and sometimes heartbreaking. A cheery scene shot at the original Starbucks is followed by views of the Therapeutic Feeding Center in Sidama--the region that supplies Starbucks's Ethiopian beans--where low coffee prices have left growers desperate, and their children malnourished or worse.
That's the feel-bad part of Black Gold. The feel-good part is Meskela's indefatigable quest to circumvent the commodities market and make direct, fair-trade deals with specialty distributors. Maybe this doesn't sound to you like a pulse-quickening enterprise (especially if you're full of Starbucks); but to 70,000 Ethiopian farmers, Meskela's handshakes are hope itself.
The festival continues through June 22. For information, phone (212) 875-5600 or visit www.filmlinc.com. As a sidebar, the festival this year presents an installation of videos from The Media That Matters Film Festival: a touring and online selection of sixteen shorts by independent--extremely independent--young people and activists. For more information: www.mediathatmattersfest.org.