When you go to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, you expect the screen to be a window onto the world. Feature-length documentaries will outnumber fiction films–the ratio this year is 16 to 3–and even in the latter category, fact will predominate over artifice. You will get glimpses into Israel and Palestine (Paradise Lost, One Shot), Peru (What the Eye Doesn’t See), the two Koreas (Repatriation), India and Pakistan (Born Into Brothels, For a Place Under the Heavens), Africa (Liberia: An Uncivil War) or Iran (Leila); and however maddening, disquieting, bracing or astonishing these views might be, you look forward to seeing them directly, as if through nothing more than a sheet of glass. What you might not expect–although you get it anyway in this seventeenth annual edition of the festival, running June 11-24 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater–is a riddle: When is a window not a window?
The answer: When it’s in Persons of Interest by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse.
Persons of Interest addresses the cases of about a dozen of the Muslim men in the United States who were imprisoned after September 11, 2001, on slight charges, if any at all, and held without trial for a year or more. You already know, of course, that our authorities shut away many people back then for nothing more than being named Muhammad. You also know, without believing a word of it, Attorney General Ashcroft’s claim that he was rounding up only terrorists, or those who knew terrorists, or maybe lived down the block from somebody whose second cousin knew someone. But unless you belonged to the family or legal team of a detainee, you probably do not know the name and face of anyone who was locked away, nor could you readily get such information on your own. Our government prefers not to say who, or how many, it held. (Human Rights Watch estimates the number at more than 5,000.) So Maclean and Perse have done us a valuable service by showing some of these people and their families and letting us hear their stories. Window metaphors suggest themselves: The filmmakers have shined a light on the situation, or let in fresh air. And, sure enough, the interviews take place in a bare room with whitewashed walls, with a glowing window niche at the left.
Then, about halfway through the film, the camera moves around the room until it offers a glimpse through that niche, which you see is not a window at all. The room is built on a soundstage. The niche opens onto a view of electrical cables and floodlights.
If Persons of Interest had a different subject matter, you might interpret this revelation as a routine gesture of academic skepticism. Yes, the film is a representation. Yes, the stories being told are stories (apart from the claims to truth that they make). But after more than half an hour of listening to people’s bewilderment and outrage and sense of betrayal (so many insist that they came to America to be free), after watching these witnesses break down in tears or hunch into themselves or lift their faces as if pleading with an unseen judge, I lost my breath at the sight of that dark enclosure where an opening had been promised. There is no play of appearances in the window that is not a window, no liberating distance from the subject matter or the self, but only suffocation. The outside has disappeared.
And what if I had seen that nonwindow on a different week? I watched Persons of Interest around the same time that Mr. Bush made his reassuring declaration that he would tear down Abu Ghraib prison: a public relations ploy that might have been suggested to him by Homer Simpson, and was pronounced as if under Homer’s tutelage. Who else would expect to be praised for destroying evidence, and in a criminal case brought against himself? No one laughed at the speech, though. The giddiness is gone even from the war party, many of whose members now adopt a somber tone to boast of their growing wisdom. Even they know there’s no sunshine behind that opening toward which Mr. Bush points, but only machinery for maintaining an illusion.
In this year’s Human Rights Watch festival, the films show you Peruvians struggling with their false-front democracy; Koreans grappling with the mutually reinforcing lies of North and South; Palestinians traveling through a homeland that seems to vanish right under their feet (Like Twenty Impossibles, by Annemarie Jacir); good citizens of Illinois tearing holes through the fictitious justice of the death penalty (Deadline, by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson). Whatever the individual merits of these films–I believe they’re variable–they all set you thinking about what a real outside might be, there, beyond that window we can’t get through.
For information on the series, go to www.hrw.org/iff.
The balance of nature: Because climate change strikes so rapidly in The Day After Tomorrow–something to do with “a critical desalinization point” in the Atlantic Ocean, leading to immense downdrafts of “supercooled air from the toposphere”–the plot needs to compensate by moving very, very slowly. Within days, hours really, of fictional time, the Statue of Liberty is encased up to its shoulders in a frozen sea, as shown in the ubiquitous ads; but in the real time of the movie theater, you wait a whole hour for the hero merely to predict what you’ve paid to see.
Not that you’ve had to wait for computer-generated mayhem. Writer-director Roland Emmerich, the Irwin Allen of the digital era, is quick to supply whatever you want, so long as it’s things going smash. Before impetuous he-man scientist Dennis Quaid can utter the words “new Ice Age,” Emmerich has treated you to a literal cliffhanger in Antarctica; a storm in Tokyo with hailstones the size of bowling balls (“Aieee!” cry the Japanese, crashing their motor scooters into storefronts at the first sign of trouble); the destruction of Los Angeles by giant tornadoes (which wreak havoc, most particularly, upon a sexually active TV weatherman); the flash-freezing in Scotland of helicopters sent to rescue the royal family (goodbye, royals); and, as the buildup to Act Two, the inundation of Manhattan, starting with an upsurge of sewer water. Notice how the thrill of grand-scale violence is tempered by the coziness of clichés: New York is filthy, LA lascivious, Tokyo hysterical, Britain stiff in its upper lip. This typecasting of entire populations within a plot of equally grandiose banality was also Emmerich’s procedure in his big hit of the Clinton Administration, Independence Day. (He’s had other credits since then–although, for some reason, the ads don’t flog The Day After Tomorrow as the new movie by the director of Godzilla and The Patriot.) But Independence Day at least featured Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and monsters from outer space. The Day After Tomorrow threatens you with snow and ice and is correspondingly white, in the worst sense of the word. This is your Connecticut investment banker’s apocalypse.
Throughout the film’s second hour, the main part of the cast is holed up claustrophobically in the New York Public Library, where the only destructive pleasure available is book-burning. Dennis Quaid, meanwhile, slogs through the snow toward these survivors (it’s a matter of being a good father), while his movie wife, Sela Ward, is busy with her own nurturing back in Washington, DC, caring for a little boy who has cancer. Imagine a film with the pace of an IV drip; think of a movie that proceeds as if on cross-country skies, into a blinding headwind.
Nothing enlivens these proceedings except for the dropping of two or three political sarcasms. These, and a clumsy attempt by the Bush Administration to discourage government scientists from commenting on the movie, have been enough to convince some anti-Bush activists to embrace The Day After Tomorrow, even though Emmerich’s implicit message is that the doom is upon us, it’s too late to act. Why, the fine people at MoveOn.org (who otherwise deserve every measure of support) have pegged one of their organizing drives to the film, with the assistance of Al Gore. Next, perhaps, they’ll buy out a screening of Van Helsing, to deplore Bush’s anti-vampire policies.
The Day After Tomorrow is (to use technical language) a piece of crap. Maybe certain leftists imagine they can use it to promote their agenda; but they’re the ones serving the movie, rather than the other way around. Think twice before you put yourself through a truly cryogenic experience at the movies–and all for the sake of watching alarming fake reports from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News (there’s a novelty) embedded in a film from Murdoch’s Twentieth Century Fox.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers in the New York area who want to warm up for the Human Rights Watch festival might want to catch the tail end of another good series at the Walter Reade Theater, “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” (through June 10). This year, the survey of contemporary Italian filmmaking includes a droll and sharp-witted political satire by Paolo Virzi, Caterina va in città (“Caterina in the Big City”), about a high school girl from the sticks who enters a big, prestigious school in Rome and begins bouncing between the cliques: this one made up of the daughters of George Bush and Dick Cheney (so to speak), and that one of the children of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Sergio Castellitto delivers a sensational performance, at once hilarious and lacerating, as Caterina’s father, a schoolteacher who is aggressively proud of his worldly wisdom but knows only one thing, that other people are more successful than he. For information: www.filmlinc.com.
Coming up at New York’s Film Forum, June 23-29, is an eleven-film survey of contemporary Brazilian cinema, presented by the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to offering the usual round robin of screenings, the series will include one-week runs of two features: Filhas do Vento (“Daughters of the Wind”) by Joel Zito Araujo, a cunning twist on soap operas featuring the largest cast of black actors ever assembled for a Brazilian film, and A pessoa é Para o que nasce (“Born to Be Blind”) by Roberto Berliner, a documentary about three blind street singers in northeastern Brazil, shot over a ten-year period. For information: www.moma.org or www.filmforum.com.