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.