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!”