Romeo Dallaire has the name of a silent-movie star and a face to match: clear eyes, ample mustache, chin of cleft granite. In a better world, Steven Silver might have cast this man as the lead in some Ruritanian adventure. Instead, things being as they are, Silver has made a documentary, The Last Just Man, in which Dallaire appears as himself, the former chief of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda.
He’s a riveting presence, not because he commands the camera but because he allows himself to be commanded by it, letting it crawl across his humbled face while he recounts how he could do nothing–nothing–to prevent hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s Tutsis from being hacked to death. In early 1994, while the slaughter was being prepared, General Dallaire issued warnings (which were ignored), made requests (which were denied), launched initiatives (which were contravened). The UN’s member nations–with the United States at their head–blocked his every effort to stave off genocide; and for this he stubbornly, brokenly holds himself accountable.
I nominate Gen. Romeo Dallaire as spokesperson for this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, on view in New York, June 13-26, at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Speaking out of unimaginable pain, he spells out a conviction that animates the entire series: “We’re now fighting for a philosophy, an ideology, that man is man is man. We’re all the same.” If that’s the case, he says, then the work of safeguarding basic rights can no longer be an option of individual states. It must be the duty of all.
Though inconvenient for Bill Clinton and unacceptable to George Bush, this philosophy nevertheless runs through all the films and videos the festival presents this year. There are, of course, too many to summarize–although you might fit their subject matter into two categories, “Horror Stories” and “Tales of Human Resilience.” I’ve mentioned a picture from the former group. Now let me call attention to three from the latter, which I pick out for being especially notable as filmmaking.
Balseros is one of those insanely ambitious documentaries in which the filmmakers follow several characters over the course of years, on the chance that what comes out may have the scope and complexity of a novel. In this case, the gamble paid off, thanks to the persistence of the Catalan directors, Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domènech, who went to Havana in August 1994 to film the mass exodus of Cubans on makeshift rafts. As you may recall, Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton were busy back then opening and closing their coasts. While the leaders played for political advantage, some 32,000 Cubans threw themselves into the sea, hoping to be borne to Florida on little more than inner tubes or sticks of wood. Many of these people drowned; others were picked up by the US Coast Guard (when Clinton switched policy) and taken back to Cuba, to be shut up at Guantánamo. Bosch and Domènech got remarkably candid interviews with seven of these would-be emigrants: hearing their complaints, learning about the family members they wanted to join in the United States (or would leave behind in Cuba), catching the impromptu neighborhood celebrations that attended the launching of their rafts. Later, the filmmakers visited these same rafters as they languished in Guantánamo, then recorded them as they entered the United States on visas and got settled (with the help of a Catholic charity) in Miami, the Bronx or Hartford.
All this was rich enough; but Bosch and Domènech returned five years later to track down the rafters and learn how they had fared. The answer, in brief, would be, “Some better, some worse.” (One ends up in Miami, living happily with his family and working at Office Depot; another is last seen peddling drugs on the wintry streets of Albuquerque.) But the giving of brief answers is not what Balseros is about. It’s about a historic rupture and the quotidian aftermath, year after year, as variously experienced by seven ordinary, fallible, highly determined people; and the film is so lovingly crafted, so focused in its concerns, that it even includes special theme music for the characters.
Also in the category of “Tales of Human Resilience” are two recent works by the extraordinary Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, recipient of this year’s Nestor Almendros Prize. The first of the two, Rana’s Wedding, is a fiction film that tracks its title character through a busy twelve hours as she hurries back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Her complex agenda: to defy her father, marry her bohemian boyfriend (who has at least one other woman hanging around–but what the hell?) and remain in Palestine rather than be carried back to Egypt. As Rana, Clara Khoury starts out in a fog, works up to a fury and ends up out of breath but exultant–which is the kind of thing that any actress likes to do, and which she carries off with a winning combination of sharp intelligence and ugly-duckling grace. You feel how right Rana is to want to stay in this place. She fits perfectly into a setting that Abu-Assad has caught brilliantly, and of necessity on the fly–a Jerusalem that’s torn up, sinuous, maddening to negotiate and beautiful.
The Jerusalem-to-Ramallah route that Rana takes fictionally is itself the subject of the second of Abu-Assad’s works in the festival: the documentary Ford Transit. In part, the film is a portrait of an outgoing, wised-up, slightly edgy young man named Rajai, who drives one of the West Bank’s innumerable jitney vans. (They’re the only reliable transportation for Palestinians, who ride them in stages from one roadblock to the next.) The film is also a travelogue, a study in sociology (since Palestinians from all walks of life ride the jitneys), a deeply responsible meditation on suicide bombing and an anthology of political essays. Providing the latter are some well-known figures, including Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and Israeli-American filmmaker B.Z. Goldberg, whom Abu-Assad invited into the van for interviews.
Sorrowful, uproarious, clever, alarming and argumentative by turns, Ford Transit is a first-rate movie–one of those rare documentaries that seem to grasp a situation effortlessly, and as a whole. You could hold a Human Rights Watch Film Festival and show no other picture.
Fortunately, though, there are twenty-seven more.
Short Takes: For further insight into human rights and wrongs, I refer you to The Weather Underground, a fine new documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel that is now having its theatrical premiere at New York’s Film Forum. To plunge straight into the confessional journalism that this subject requires in The Nation: Yes, I knew some Weathermen in 1969, and no, I wanted no part of them or their head-case Days of Rage, though, hey, if you’d ever suffered through a Progressive Labor Party meeting, you too would have wanted to smash something. Green and Siegel could have added to their viewers’ understanding of the Weathermen, both above and below ground, had they evoked the youth movement’s competing options: the blinkered, moralizing tedium of PLP, the minstrel antics of the Black Panthers’ white sycophants, the woozy chaos that swirled around the Yippies, the numbing bourgeois niceness of the religious left. Don’t get me wrong–I’m talking about my friends here. I’m talking about myself; and I can tell you, there was a context in which the Weathermen could temporarily have seemed plausible (though not if you understood the difference in muscle power between them and the Chicago Police Department). This context is missing in The Weather Underground.
But that’s about all that Green and Siegel have left out. Using collage methods that at times recall the sixties films of Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage (may his memory be a blessing), The Weather Underground pieces together old TV broadcasts, newsreel footage, home movies and period texts (both published and unpublished), bringing them together with present-day interviews of such principals as Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd and (for the opposition) Todd Gitlin. What emerges, with uncommon emotional force, is the urgency of the sixties themselves. Do you think you’ve grown numb to that napalmed Vietnamese child running down the road, to Dr. King crying out against the war, to the slaughterhouse of Fred Hampton’s apartment, to every stomach-churning utterance of Richard Nixon? The Weather Underground will make you feel them again, as vividly as when they were happening. The world explodes before your eyes, and you understand how Mark Rudd can speak today of “this knowledge that we couldn’t handle. It was just too big. We didn’t know what to do.” Rudd does not exonerate himself for the destruction he caused while flailing about. He says he looks back with “guilt and shame,” whereas others (like Naomi Jaffe) claim they would do it all again. Weigh these people’s
outrages however you will, against the enormities of Richard Nixon or the measure of your own heart. The Weather Underground succeeds in letting you put them in the balance.
Beginning around 1985, the Soviet Union, too, seemed to explode. Smart young people–including graduate students–suddenly could venture into limitless new opportunities, or crimes (how could you tell the difference?), with no need for any measure other than “More.” This stretch of recent history provides the subject of Pavel Lounguine’s new film Tycoon: A New Russian.
Starring the brusque and vulpine Vladimir Mashkov, Tycoon is an engaging product of the wild-and-crazy school of Eastern European filmmaking. Most major scenes incorporate a band (ranging from an accordion duo to full orchestra), to add lilt to the drunken expostulations, fistfights, window-smashings, machine-gunnings, gratuitous sexual encounters and bazooka attacks that mark each turn of the plot. Sometimes there are llamas. Always there’s money to be made–and in this fictionalized account of the career of Boris Berezovsky (whom Lounguine gleefully presents in the thinnest of disguises), money can be spun out of air, as if by magic. Just make sure you pay the Uzbeks to take care of the Georgians for you, and be careful of giving those thieves in the Kremlin any part of your action.
What most impresses me about Tycoon, apart from its zestful empathy for Berezovksy–I mean, Makovsky–is the way the picture recalls Citizen Kane. The story takes the form of a post-mortem inquiry, conducted not by a newsreel reporter but by a shambling, ironic investigator (Andrei Krasko) who has been stripped of authority in advance. (He’s the one thoroughly sympathetic figure in the movie. Think of him as the old Russian.) The investigator interviews people who knew Makovsky and gets their sometimes conflicting accounts, which play out in flashbacks of occasionally baroque complexity. I don’t claim that Lounguine is as good at this game as Welles; but, with the subtitle of his movie, he does remind you that the original title of Kane was American.
Unfortunately, Lounguine pulls a plot twist in Tycoon: A New Russian that recalls, rather too heavily, another film with Welles. Better not to dwell on that. I’d rather say that Tycoon, at its best, reminds us of how Welles’s masterpiece was a hot-off-the-presses piece of contemporary history. That’s what Tycoon is, too–and I say, it’s terrific.