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Michael King’s Documentary The Rescuers Visits the Sites of Tragedy

Beautifully shot in gold and red, The Rescuers makes the aftermath of genocide look awfully attractive, and the slow-motion footage of massacre appears positively nostalgic.

Add in silent, Masterpiece Theater–style re-enactments of European life during World War II, and this very serious film sometimes feels like a farce.

Structured around a train journey across Europe, Michael King’s documentary follows Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire and English Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert as they visit sites of tragedy and learn about the diplomats who acted against government orders and risked their lives to rescue Jewish families.

Gilbert is clearly in charge. Unlike Nyombayire, he is an E.U. citizen and does not face visa difficulties, but the implicitly troubling power structure between them — of a titled white man who has only studied genocide presuming to teach a young black woman who has lived through it how to heal her country — is never fully addressed. Though they traveled together for over a month, Gilbert is depicted as a talking-head expert, while Nyombayire is only allowed a few moments to reflect.

Experts on Holocaust history and a number of survivors tell their stories, but the most vibrant, urgent scenes are not in libraries and museums, or in re-enactments, but in the streets, when Gilbert and Nyombayire speak as peers and when Nyombayire walks alone in Kigali, remembering her murdered friends and discussing her country’s future. If only Gilbert had visited her there; perhaps he, and the viewer, would have learned more as well.

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Rising from Ashes Is More Than Just a Remarkable Doc About Cycling

Since familiar metaphors and tales of inspiration are typical building blocks of the sports story, it’s a little mysterious that director T.C. Johnstone didn’t invoke “breaking away” or some other cycling term in the title of his remarkable documentary about Team Rwanda. Perhaps it’s because Rising from Ashes is not just about a cycling team; it’s a testament to what happens when human beings care for one another. The young men, who hardly to dare to think about riding professionally, are the survivors of a brutal genocide that took away their families, their childhood, and their peace of mind, and left them with little pride in their country. Their coach, Jock Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France (in 1981), is an emotionally closed and reluctant leader who has done time for committing deplorable crimes. Johnstone puts six years of work on this film to good use. The work has as little fat as his stars, yet his footage is rich, and his story is layered. He unspools details and developments with a patience that never tries ours. Johnstone has confidence in all elements of filmmaking—images, interviews, narration (by actor and co-producer Forest Whitaker, used sparingly), sound, and a fantastic soundtrack—and uses each to vivid and captivating effect.

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Almayer’s Folly

One of the year’s most hypnotic and fascinating films, Chantal Akerman’s newest is a provocative adaptation of Conrad’s novel of the same name, an “exotic” tour through the wet jungles of Southeast Asia and a superbly crafted old-school melodrama complete with a ravishing half-blood temptress (Belgian-Greek-Rwandan beauty Aurora Marion) and a big dose of colonialist comeuppance. Conrad’s 1895 story is set in 19th-century Borneo, but Akerman has nudged it to the ’50s Cambodia, where the bitter titular Frenchman (Stanislas Merhar) nevertheless refers to his recalcitrant native wife as “the Malaysian.” (The dialogue is French and Khmer.) Stuck in the jungle while waiting out a failed gold mine, Almayer must give up his half-caste daughter for a convent education. But wait: We’ve already seen Nina (Marion) grown up in the film’s entrancing opening, as a Khmer dandy lip-syncs to Dean Martin’s “Sway,” gets knifed mid song, and spurs a dreamily dancing Nina to saunter up to the camera for a mega close-up and croon Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” in Latin. Time hopscotches, but Nina’s sequestered absence and then return to the forest, fierce and hateful and full-bodied, is the story’s main crucible, a sultry and uncontrollable riposte to self-pitying Euro privilege in the colonies. Typically for Akerman, it’s an intensely rhythmic, brooding, and contemplative movie, but the iconography of maddened white men lost in the Torrid Zone wilderness never gets old.

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Kinyarwanda

One of the goals of writer-director Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda, set in the midst of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, is to remind us that ordinary human dramas continue unfolding against the backdrop of unthinkable horrors. So as machete-wielding madmen are slaughtering their countrymen and -women, teenagers are falling in love (even across the very ethnic divisions inflaming the country), and married men are cheating on their wives. Culled from true stories and told elliptically in chapters (i.e., “She’s Tutsi/He’s Hutu”) that flash back and forward through time, the screenplay is filled with moments both charming and horrifying, sometimes all at once. We see how a teenager’s defiance of her parents saves her life, how a little boy’s misunderstanding of a mob’s fury leads him to bring the mob right to his home, and how a priest betrays the terrified crowd that has gathered in his church for protection, among other tales. Cast with both professional and novice actors (which results in uneven performances), the beautifully shot film is filled with exquisite moments: a man testifying of his crimes at a tribunal for reconciliation as his remorse wafts thickly off him; a gathering of teens breaking into a sing-along of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream”; and a wedding whose participants radiate such joy that it tilts the viewer’s faith back toward trusting human nature.

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GOAAAAAL!

Feeling nostalgic for World Cup fanaticism? Yes, it’s been a few long months since we got to crowd the bars at 10 a.m. and have that be acceptable. Now the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival is providing a chance to relive the euphoria of worldwide soccer competition. Today, catch Africa United, the story of three kids who walk 3,000 miles from Rwanda to South Africa for the World Cup. Their ambition makes us feel a little guilty about that whole bar-in-the-morning thing. The rest of the fest features a mix of classic and contemporary films focusing on people of African descent, with many New York premieres, parties, and panel discussions. ‘Africa United’ screens today at 1 (with Q&A)

Nov. 26-Dec. 14; Sun., Nov. 28, 1 p.m., 2010

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The General Who Couldn’t Save Rwanda in Shake Hands With the Devil

The 2004 documentary Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire is brutal viewing, recounting the experiences of Canadian General Roméo Dallaire as he oversaw the U.N.’s hamstrung and doomed peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda during the Hutu-led genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. Roger Spottiswoode’s drama Shake Hands With the Devil—starring Roy Dupuis (doing fine work as Dallaire) and lacking graphic footage of real-life blood-soaked environs and endless mounds of slain bodies—isn’t wrenching in the same way as its documentary predecessor, but it’s damning all the same. Told largely in flashback as a suicidal Dallaire shares with a therapist all he bore witness to, the new film details the behind-the-scenes politicking of Europe and the U.S., which ensured that peacekeeping efforts would be cosmetic, at best. Though the film, based on Dallaire’s memoir, can veer toward deification of the general, it’s hugely effective in illustrating the grotesque power plays (from Belgium’s colonizing of Rwanda in 1916, during which the Tutsis and Hutus were intentionally pitted against one another, to the flexing of young Hutu aggressors) that led to the deaths of more than 800,000 Tutsis.

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It’s Only Black Muslims

If you haven’t been thinking about Darfur lately—which would come as no surprise, given that the newspapers and television news shows are mostly silent about it—here’s a recent report by Eric Reeves, an international authority on the genocide going on there and a constant recorder of the death toll (now more than 450,000 and counting):

“Typically they begin very early in the morning, before people are awake. . . . A bomber flying at high altitudes will push out barrel bombs designed to terrorize and kill civilians. As the civilians flee from their huts the Janjaweed [the government’s Arab militia] will sweep in, killing all the men, raping women.

“We have many reports of babies, male babies being killed, sometimes having their penises sliced off so that they would bleed to death in their mothers’ arms. . . .”

Reeves, a professor of English at Smith College in Massachusetts, has leukemia, but that hasn’t stopped him from spending many long hours into the night helping to keep the world aware of its passive complicity in these ceaseless horrors (go to sudanreeves.org).

Reeves made an appearance on a Frontline documentary about Darfur, On Our Watch, which aired on PBS on November 20 and was brilliantly produced by Neil Docherty. For most of the four and a half years of these mass murders and rapes, American television has hardly noticed, but repeated and stinging criticism from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—who, at much peril, has often been a witness in Darfur—pushed the networks to briefly give the carnage some space.

But this recent edition of Frontline—still available at PBS.org —equals the very best of the CBS Edward R. Murrow exclusives that I used to faithfully watch in wonder and in anger.

“The people of Darfur,” Reeves says emphatically, “feel that they have been abandoned: ‘Where is the international community? Can it be they don’t know? And if they do know, why aren’t they here?’ ”

Remember that it took just 100 days to murder 800,000 people in Rwanda. And, needless to say, if these mounting atrocities were taking place, day after day after day, in Belgium, Spain, or Poland, correspondents and television crews from across the globe would be there.

But in this case, the victims are “only” black Muslims that Sudan’s National Islamic Front government despises as inferior human beings. It is already resettling Arab Muslims onto much of the land that two and a half million of the black survivors have been torn from—and because of the constant violence, some humanitarian organizations that provide food and medicine to these people are leaving to save themselves. Others have been expelled by the government.

It would be hard to find any survivors in Darfur with a single remaining hope of help from the pinnacle of the international community—the United Nations. So far, there have been 21 U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that action be taken by the commander in chief of this holocaust, Sudan’s maximum leader, General Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir has broken every U.N. agreement he has signed. He basks in the knowledge that under U.N. rules, no member state can be forced to accept U.N. peacekeeping troops without that state’s permission—no matter what barbarisms it is inflicting on its own people.

Meanwhile, the various rebel tribes fighting this government for their own reasons have splintered into often brutal factions that attack not only the Janjaweed and uniformed Sudanese forces, but also one another and the remaining humanitarian workers.

The first well-known international public figure to tell the naked truth about the ferocious leaders of Sudan—and charge them publicly with genocide—was Secretary of State Colin Powell. Then George W. Bush became the first world leader to say that the U.N.’s term for the Darfur crisis—”ethnic cleansing”—was nothing more than a euphemism for genocide, adding that “on my watch,” there would never be another Rwanda.

For a time, Bush was passionately involved, actually thinking of using force to deal with the humanitarian crisis. In Michael Abramowitz’s recent Washington Post report (October 29), “U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions,” he cites Bush’s keen interest in late 2005 in using the American military’s helicopter gunships to shoot down Sudanese planes bombing villages.

But his main advisers, including the war vice president, General Dick Cheney, got him to cool down. Then, as American forces became even more mired in Iraq, Bush decided that he couldn’t be targeted around the world for “invading another Muslim country,” say sources who ask not to be named—and, in any case, where would he get the additional troops? With the Democrats pushing hard to get the U.S. forces out of Iraq and now trying to cut the military funding for our occupation there, a U.S. intervention in Darfur will not happen while Bush is in office.

And though the president had, at one time, harbored a genuine desire to stop the killing and raping, there is another complicating factor in our relationship with General al-Bashir. There has long been close cooperation between the CIA and Sudan’s intelligence forces, which purportedly provide us with leads on Al Qaeda and other terrorists operating in Africa. As I’ve written in a previous column, the head of Sudanese intelligence was flown to Washington for a secret strategy conference with CIA chieftains as the genocide devoured more victims. I wonder which high-end Washington restaurant has been graced with his presence.

That cozy relationship continues to this day. It is not surprising, therefore, that after the House passed a bill authorizing individual American states to divest their assets, including pension funds, from companies doing business with Sudan, and the Senate Banking Committee approved a similar bill by Chris Dodd on October 17, the State Department (as reported by Reuters) urged the Senate to delay the legislation because it “interferes with presidential foreign policy.”

So, though we are still on Bush’s watch, Frontline reports that during a recent raid on a village in Darfur, a woman appeared “astride one of the Janjaweed camels . . . dressed all in black.”

A female villager recounted: “She had a bowl and put it on top of a sack and was drumming on it and singing, ‘Let’s burn the property of the blacks so they find nothing to eat or drink.’ And she was calling on Allah: ‘Please provide more bullets.’ While she was singing, a helicopter was shooting us from above . . .

“I was carrying my little baby on my back, and they shot him dead. After the child died, they pulled him away and they raped me.”

Next week: Can anything be done before the world hears—and then promptly forgets, as it has already done with the Rwandan genocide—about the Sudanese government’s final solution to its black Muslim problem?

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‘Beyond the Gates’

It’s easy to sneer at the current vogue for movies bemoaning the agony of Africa, a continent whose troubles show up on our radar in large measure because they feed Hollywood’s gaping maw for action adventures set in exotic climes. However tainted by smelly motives, though, the best of such movies bring the irreplaceable urgency of the big screen to the mess of post-colonial Africa. Heaven knows, the story of Rwanda’s 1994 civil war—in which hundreds of thousands of indigenous Tutsis were hacked to death while Western powers dickered over the precise definition of genocide—bears endless repeating. Michael Caton-Jones’s Beyond the Gates focuses on the massacre of 2,500 Tutsis at a Catholic school abandoned to its fate by U.N. soldiers with orders to evacuate only Europeans. Though hobbled by its anxious impulse to teach history to an audience that by now surely knows the basic contours of Rwanda’s tragedy, the script apportions blame where it belongs (on high), while leaving smaller fry—including an admirably un-cute BBC journalist—dangling, however sympathetically, on the hook.

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Genocide He Wrote

Even allowing that your play concerns mass murder, it’s rather daring to kill off your main character in the first two minutes. But that’s how Catherine Filloux begins Lemkin’s House, an afterlife-set biography of Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide. After his fatal heart attack, Lemkin finds himself in a crumbling manse. He attempts to relax with New York Times crosswords and a spot of home repair, but must contend with the Hutus, Tutsis, Bosnians, and Serbs who beset his living room. His mother, gassed in the concentration camps, also appears.

Lemkin had believed that the law he lobbied so tirelessly for, rendering genocide an international crime, would end such bloodshed. He learns, however, that though the U.S. passed his law in 1988, becoming the 98th country to do so, genocide shows little sign of ceasing. Lemkin had thought the law might serve as epitaph for the 50-odd family members he lost in the pogroms and in World War II. He’s saddened to discover what an ineffectual memorial he’s made. “I can see,” he says wryly, “that Lemkin’s law is just another bad Polish joke.”

Catherine Filloux, who has written four plays about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, researched her subject impeccably but lent her play a dreamlike tone that offsets any dryness or didacticism. Yet she has afforded it a somewhat lopsided structure—nearly all of those who assail Lemkin are Rwandan, with just a bit of Bosnia tossed in at the end and throwaway mentions of Cambodia and Darfur. She does, nevertheless, script penetrating dialogue and brief, affecting scenes, ably staged by director Jean Randich and the fine cast. Lemkin may despair, “When I was alive I was haunted by the dead. Now I’m dead and I’m haunted by the living.” But this play should haunt, and possibly inspire, much of the audience as well.

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What Lies Beneath

The outrage and attention focused on the Holocaust led to cries of “never again,” until, of course, the tragedies in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The anger and self-criticism sparked by My Lai did nothing to prevent Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay. We may be doomed to re-enact the mistakes of the past, no matter how much we come to terms with it. Knowledge is no prophylactic.

John S. Friedman has more faith in the power of historical revelation. His anthology, The Secret Histories, reads like a hymnal to the power of the exposé. Friedman, a Nation contributor and documentary filmmaker, has combed through some of the larger events of the post—WW II era and culled 26 stories, books, and congressional reports that together tell an unacknowledged version of the past 65 years. It’s a familiar bunch of dark tales: how the FBI launched counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) against left-wingers; how the CIA fomented the 1953 coup in Iran; excerpts from the Watergate and Pentagon Papers stories; a bit from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; and part of Seymour M. Hersh’s reporting on Abu Ghraib.

Secrets have power, and the power to prevent repeats of history’s tragic episodes is one of the collection’s unwritten goals. But many of Friedman’s histories aren’t secrets at all, and while they may have “challenged the past,” aside from the occasional Watergate-level stories it’s doubtful many of them have “changed the world.” Tragically, in many cases, such as the “Genocide Fax” about the coming slaughter in Rwanda, they changed absolutely nothing.

The inclusion of Eileen Welsome’s reporting on “The Plutonium Experiment” focuses not on the event itself—the decades-long cover-up of the intentional exposure of American citizens to lethal doses of plutonium—but on Welsome’s attempt to put human faces and names to the experiment’s subjects. Welsome dug up the identities of the “unwitting human guinea pigs” for her 1993 series for The Albuquerque Tribune, but the experiments had been revealed in a science journal in 1976, and addressed later in congressional hearings that received a modicum of press coverage in 1986. So Friedman hasn’t chosen to highlight the exposure of a secret so much as he’s trumpeted the story that brought this ugly atomic secret to the attention of a larger audience. The fact that the plutonium experiments were conducted at all is the rotten meat here; Welsome’s stories ran 17 years after the experiments came to light.

If The Secret Histories is a Behind the Music—style collection of underappreciated historical events, then Censored 2006, the latest installment of “the previous year’s most important underreported news stories,” is the I Love the 00s of the secret-news anthology set. Where Friedman’s collection, best for undergrads, seems stale and familiar, Project Censored’s 25 most overlooked stories of 2004—2005, selected mainly by undergrads, seems more to the point.

Here are some underreported stories that we can work with: how the Bush administration is undermining open government (#1); how the news media are criminally neglecting to cover the civilian death toll in Iraq (#2); how journalists are facing unprecedented dangers (#7). For the smart and courageous news manager, this annual report is a virtual road map for the coming year’s news schedule. Many of these stories should, in an ideal news world, prompt deep and lengthy investigative efforts. That they don’t is part of the book’s point—the mainstream media, corrupted by profit motives and a fear of an organized right-wing backlash, are often unwilling or unsuited to examine many of these stories. “Project Censored goes where the media’s conformist angels fear to tread,” writes columnist Norman Solomon in his introduction. (Disclosure: I wrote a story that was included in a past edition of Censored.)

Perhaps it’s a product of the pressure to fill out a collection, or maybe a result of the selection processes, but both anthologies risk trivializing their weightier parts by including less substantial offerings. In a fit of lurid excess, Friedman includes an excerpt from Anthony Summers’s 1993 J. Edgar Hoover bio, Official and Confidential, detailing Hoover’s alleged cross-dressing and mob ties. Similarly, the students and faculty members at Sonoma State University who choose the 25 most “censored” news stories of the year ( Underreported and/or What We’d Emphasize 2006 being deemed, apparently, too precise) display a sometimes frustrating tendency to include the obvious (#13, “Rich Countries Fail to Live Up to Global Pledges”) or the confusingly obscure (#24, “Ethiopian Indigenous Victims of Corporate and Government Resource Aspirations”).

But chalk any shortcomings up to format. If Friedman’s collection works best as a course reading—The Norton Anthology for Vindicated Paranoiacs—
it’s the perfect inspiration for the healthy skepticism displayed by the students and instructors at Project Censored. Both anthologies inspire a necessary distrust of the news media—and an unhealthy tendency to make us more receptive to conspiracy-theory readings of news and history. If you come away from these collections questioning everything you know, that’s part of the point—distrust flourishes when dark corners are illuminated.