Truth and Tragedy at “Human Rights Watch 2009” Festival


Bombs fall from the skies above Lebanon like metallic raindrops, tearing people to pieces and families apart. In Afghanistan, music fills the air for the first time since shoulder pads were in fashion, but not without risk to those singing it. Malian girls struggle to walk, let alone breathe, after genital mutilation. Activist pranksters goose their way onto the cable news channels by posing as corporate agents of manmade disasters. And this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is as fervent as ever, trying to awaken us to seldom seen or heard atrocities and illuminate the efforts of those looking for a better way.

Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah wrecked Lebanon’s southern landscape and nearly obliterated its economy. With intense visual and moral clarity, Remnants of a War reveals the absurd tragedy of people in the region making a living dismantling explosives that have been scattered across terrain no longer safe for farming or play. Though it acknowledges both Israel and Hezbollah’s violations of international laws of war, Jawad Metni’s moving eye-opener, which ends on a strikingly poetic grace note, fiercely calls out Israel’s flamboyant military might and blames the deaths caused by unexploded cluster bombs on the superpower’s refusal, as of the film’s completion, to turn over its strike data to United Nations peacekeeping forces. (They have since released the info.)

The focus of Tapologo‘s equally enraged lens is the manner in which deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes drive South Africa’s HIV pandemic. Filmmakers Gabriela and Sally Gutiérrez Dewar peer into the wounded heart of a region where 50 percent of women are infected with HIV and a courageous network known as Tapologo tries to bring dignity to lives that have known none. The pain these women feel as their bodies increasingly betray them is brutal, but what lingers most is the documentary’s stinging indictment of the Catholic Church’s stance on AIDS and sexuality, ironically communicated via the heartache and fury felt by one of the church’s foot soldiers: a bishop working closely with Tapologo.

Another heart-wrenching testament to the integrity and solidarity of women in the face of staggering adversity, Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter follows the efforts of a West African woman living in Philadelphia to secure the asylum she thinks will save her two-year-old daughter from the senseless barbarism of genital mutilation. As evinced by their previous film Rosita (HRW ’06), humanist filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater demonstrate a nerve-shredding talent for cinematic juxtaposition—throughout, they intercut Goundo’s legal nightmare with the lead-up to a mass female circumcision in Mali—that avoids feeling trivial.

Not so for Afghan Star. Although in awe of the small but significant changes that have come to Afghanistan in the past few years, the film seems uncommitted to seriously exposing and challenging the root and sham of the Taliban’s contempt for music and women. Criss-crossing between life on the streets in the war-torn country and the titular American Idol–inspired reality program, director Havana Marking favors the crude spectacle of performance televised on the show, making a seemingly unintended case against democracy: It causes tacky TV.

And where Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, a/k/a the Yes Men, use ridicule of the most subversive sort to expose the way in which corporations dishonor human life (The Yes Men Fix the World), Joe Berlinger does so with an arrogance-free emphasis on human interest and eyewitness account. Tears tell no lies in the veteran filmmaker’s Crude, a Herculean work of investigative journalism that lays out the decades-long indignities suffered by an indigenous group living—or, rather, dying—in an area of Ecuador’s Amazon region ravaged by oil drilling. Berlinger handily rebuts every Chevron snake’s Bushy-sounding denial of wrongdoing with haunting visions of oil slicks and once-lush environs transformed to mud, contrasting shots of the sick with the cold steel exteriors of corporate towers—all to remind us that we should fight to combat the still-lingering effects of colonialism in our world.