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.