The motto of the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival might have been spoken by Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier, when he appeared in one of this year’s most devastating selections, the documentary This Is My Land… Hebron. Not everyone can dedicate his or her life to a cause, Shaul says toward the end of the film, nor is everyone called to be an activist. But “everyone is obligated to stop being silent.”
The imperative sounds simple enough, coming from this soft-spoken, teddy-bearish young man. The proof of its difficulty lies in the best films in the series, whose every utterance has manifestly come at a cost. Although the 2011 festival has concluded its run (after screenings in Toronto, London, Chicago and New York), many of its selections will continue to break the silence as they make their way into theaters, lecture halls and living rooms across the country. Here are a few films you might watch for.
Directed by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, This Is My Land… Hebron puts you in the center of the ancient West Bank city, where 600 or so well-armed Israeli settlers live safeguarded by 2,000 soldiers, who have (in a telling phrase) “sterilized” entire streets by removing the Palestinians. You get to meet some of the remaining residents face to face and hear about how they’re hanging on. More alarming, you confront the faces of the settlers, which as often as not are contorted in rage. From the fact that these people do not hesitate to lash out in front of the camera, you understand that they think it normal to hurl curses, threats and stones at the Palestinians, whose besieged homes have in some cases been enclosed by the soldiers in a kind of chain-link cage. Amati and Natanson have done everything possible to present a fair account of this situation; they interview people on both sides and take care to film the settlers’ official spokespeople in dignified settings, letting them present their case at length. But fair is not the same as impartial. Like Yehuda Shaul, the filmmakers look on with communicable horror.
And what might happen when the horror ends? Will anyone of significance be held accountable? Two films from Colombia honor the courage of people who have demanded that the truth about official violence in their country be officially recognized. I was dismayed to see how little justice they have received.
This outcome is summed up in the title of Juan José Lozano and Hollman Morris’s documentary Impunity. A view into the proceedings Colombia began in 2005 under its Justice and Peace Law, Impunity shows what happened when the country’s paramilitary forces were allowed to surrender and receive reduced penalties for the massacres they had committed, on condition that they testify in truth-and-reconciliation hearings. The result, as you see, was a televisual nightmare for the families and friends of the victims, who were not permitted to confront the killers. They merely got to question them over a live feed while watching the proceedings on an offsite screen. In most cases, the prospect of justice turned out to be as remote as the location. Only one paramilitary leader, Commander H.H., refused to hedge his confession, electrifying the survivors by explaining the instrumental relationship between the death squads and certain big business interests. (Not the cocaine traffickers but Colombia’s industrialists of bananas, sugar and cattle.) His case ended somewhat abruptly.
By contrast, the case of a certain Col. Plazas Vega dragged on and on, as you learn from Angus Gibson and Miguel Salazar’s La Toma (The Siege). In 1985, when a band of M-19 guerrillas invaded Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and took hostages, Plazas Vega was the tank commander who “upheld the institutions of democracy” by literally blasting apart the judicial system. Hair-raising archival images show the attack and the rubble that it left; but when Plazas Vega was at last put on trial, more than two decades later, this wanton destruction was not the substance of the charge against him. His case focused instead on a number of the ministry’s cafeteria workers who had vanished during the siege, and whose families never stopped asserting that Plazas Vega, in his antiguerrilla enthusiasm, had had these people spirited away, tortured and killed. La Toma is at heart the story of the tenacious survivors, of the astonishingly brave women who served as prosecutor and judge at the protracted trial, and of the surprising verdict that was finally handed down in 2010—only to be undone.
Tributes to the valor of ordinary citizens, and amazing images captured on the street, are also elements of Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave, an account of the sudden outpouring of democratic spirit in Iran during the 2009 election and its equally sudden suppression. The more imaginative aspects of the film make a good argument for literal-mindedness; Ahadi brings history to life, or something, by translating protesters’ blog posts into animations, with drawings good enough for any supermarket flier and voiceover performances suitable for selling auto insurance on the radio. No matter. The Green Wave still should be seen, for the urgency of its subject matter and the rawness of its assemblage of on-the-spot cellphone videos.
Straightforward and affecting, Tanaz Eshaghian’s Love Crimes of Kabul examines the constraints on women in Afghanistan by delving into Badam Bagh women’s prison, where hardened killers mix with women jailed for violations of sexual propriety. The film follows the pending cases of three of the latter group: Kareema, who was arrested for having sex with her fiancé and was determined to marry him, since it was the only way to get them both out of jail; Aleema, brashly defiant, whose crime was to have left her abusive home for refuge with a relative (who promptly tried to sell her); and 18-year-old Sabereh, who looked all of 13, facing hard time for having been discovered alone with her boyfriend, both fully clothed. HBO will broadcast the film on July 11.
And in the fall, PBS will broadcast Better This World, by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, one of this year’s festival selections to focus on the United States. Iran, you see, is not the only place where police forces clamp down on dissent, nor is Colombia alone in jiggering the outcome of trials. In 2008 two dewy-eyed young activists from Midland, Texas, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, traveled to the Republican National Convention to raise a ruckus. They had come under the influence of Brandon Darby, a glamorous hard-ass who, according to the film, continually dared them to step up to revolutionary violence. All along, Darby had been working for the FBI. Thanks to his efforts, the bureau got a win for its broad-based surveillance program, and a pair of kids who committed no actual violence got terms in federal prison.
Better This World suffers from the tendency of too many of these films to overscore the soundtrack (you’d think the protagonists kept a lite-rock station playing at all times), and its seamless reconstructions of scenes and events are skillful almost to the point of mendacity. But this is strong work overall, and necessary. I had not known of the case of McKay and Crowder. I am grateful to Better This World for refusing to be silent about it.
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Civilian moviegoers keep asking me about Woody Allen’s new film, Midnight in Paris, and I keep telling them it’s perfectly OK. The June release that really made me laugh, intrigued me with its imagination and finally offered a moment of sweet sorrow for human folly was Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.
Much as Laurence Sterne followed Tristram Shandy with A Sentimental Journey, so has Winterbottom devised a discontinuous continuation of his own excellent Shandy in The Trip, with the leads of the earlier film, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, again playing versions of themselves. The first is a vain, semi-dissolute movie actor stung to realize he’s not a big star; the second, an ingenuous television comic who is perfectly content with his life, so long as he can live it in the voices of other people (primarily Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Al Pacino and, yes, Woody Allen).
These relentless imitations are crucial to the meaning of The Trip. Coogan, you see, has been hired by a newspaper to take a gastronomic tour of the Lake District, reviewing its fanciest restaurants in the company of his current companion. But she’s left him for America, and nobody else will travel with him, so he’s reduced to asking Brydon to join him for the week. In brief, The Trip is about sensual pleasures that were to have been experienced with a lover, shared instead with a not-quite-friend who is a funhouse image of oneself. The illusion of spontaneous interplay between Coogan and Brydon is faultless; the progression of the tour seems to happen on its own, as if Winterbottom’s camera were just riding along. But by the time Coogan and Brydon reach a peak of hilarity in a wintry graveyard, rehearsing the eulogy one will deliver for the other, you may realize The Trip has led you unerringly back to Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and its cheerful, doomed protagonist: poor Yorick.
As for the July releases I’ve been able to see so far, I particularly recommend Terri, a coming-of-age story directed by Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) from a screenplay by Patrick deWitt. Set in a wooded suburb in Southern California, where a middle-aged ex-hippie musician might hole up with his antipsychotics in a ramshackle house, the film is an appropriately casual, seemingly anecdotal yarn about the teenage title character (Jacob Wysocki) and his struggles to make himself show up for high school, given everything that makes him want to hide. These burdens include an absence of parents, a duty to care for his uncle (the psychologically disabled musician with whom Terri lives) and a physique so massive that the young man has taken to wearing pajamas everywhere, because who’s he kidding?
At this point in the description, the mind fills with forbidding words such as droll, quirky, offbeat and life-affirming. Terri does in fact threaten to veer into the Tradition of Goo; the fun lies in watching it slip past the danger, again and again, thanks to three extraordinary talents. The first is cinematographer Tobias Datum, who helps Jacobs put a different slant of light on the subject. I’ve never seen a coming-of-age story in which illumination in all its modes has played such a telling role. The second talent is Wysocki, whose subtlety makes Terri nimble amid all his flesh. And the third is America’s most comfortably rumpled actor, John C. Reilly, as the assistant principal who forms a bond with Terri. This part, Reilly could play in his sleep. That he chooses to do it fully awake, supporting every droll, quirky, offbeat gesture with a core of inner feeling, allows his Mr. Fitzgerald to be unexpectedly credible to Terri, and makes Terri solid enough to be touching.
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A word of welcome to the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the handsome new facility of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Among the new releases the Film Society will now be showing on its screens is the unexpected Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, opening July 8. An all-but-handmade production that boasts about the infinitesimal audience it should expect—but it’s wrong about that; it should have more faith—the film is exactly what its title claims: a Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s play, set in present-day Brooklyn, with rival Hasidic sects standing in for the Montagues and Capulets. It’s also the story of a bitterly anti-Orthodox woman who is struggling to invent the script for such a production with the assistance of two lapsed Hasidim who otherwise spend their time running scams out of the back of a van. On top of that, it’s the story of the recovery of a lost child. This puts the film into different Shakespearean territory. But everybody’s already working for free, out of sheer love of the project; why not throw in a little extra?
Eve Annenberg wrote and directed and stars as the dramaturge (while doubling, in unsupple Yiddish, as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet). Lazer Weiss and Mendy Zafir, whose fluent Yiddish unmistakably confirms their backgrounds, produced and play the lapsed-Hasidic hustlers. It’s wonderful what they’ve done with a few gauze curtains, some candles, a bunch of funny subtitles and a lot of inventiveness. Would that we had been able to go directly with them to Super 8 in Yiddish.