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Watchers of the Sky Celebrates the Fight Against Humanity’s Worst

The greatest lie of the last 80 years: “Never again.”

At this moment, Omar al-Bashir, the world’s wickedest despot, is free not just to rule the Sudan but to make diplomatic visits to international allies — China, Saudi Arabia — despite the calls of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his arrest. Since seizing power in 1989, Bashir’s militias have murdered almost half a million Darfurians, enemies he still proudly calls “vermin.”

This bastard’s crimes against humanity are precisely what the United States vowed to stop when, in 1988, it at long last joined the rest of the world in ratifying the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. (The U.N. had approved the convention almost 40 years earlier.) Fat lot of good Ronald Reagan’s signing-on did: As Edet Belzberg’s bracing, vital doc Watchers of the Sky reminds us, the Clinton administration shirked our obligation to aid the Tutsis in Rwanda, arguing the difference between genocide and genocide-like events. (It’s not the definition of is that should haunt the former president — it’s the definition of moral cowardice). Equally troubling, but not in the movie: Bush Jr., whose presidency was pretty much swaggering Reagan fan-fiction, looked Bashir in the eye at the United Nations and declared the killings straight-up genocide — but then never actually bothered to do anything about them.

Never again: You hear that promise anytime goodhearted people discuss the Holocaust. And yet it always happens again, and the goodhearted always find excuses to let it. Watchers of the Sky, working from Samantha Power’s essential book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, accomplishes the nearly impossible trick of updating viewers on the prevalence of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries without rubbing our noses in our failure to stop it. The film drapes its despairing history onto Hollywood’s most reliable narrative frame: the tireless efforts of unlikely heroes on impossible quests. By the end, even as you mourn for the millions piled into mass graves around the world, you at least feel the flickering of a universal human decency — yes, there are people who have dedicated their lives to fighting this.

The first is Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who lost his family to the Nazis and devoted his short, lonely adult life to uniting the world against mass exterminations. Lemkin coined the word genocide, and one of the film’s most stirring passages charts its development: In smartly animated sequences, Lemkin’s raw cursive, often scribbled or stricken through, dances before us as Power recounts his efforts and explains his thinking. His new term in tow, Lemkin crafted the U.N. convention that Reagan signed a half-century later, and set about lobbying international dignitaries to approve it. The U.N. adopted the convention in ’51, but that meant little without U.S. support; in ’59, Lemkin died at a bus stop, en route to more meetings with more powerful people who would most likely have made sympathetic noises but found reasons not to help.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor with the ICC, is another Quixotic soul fighting for the basic human right not to be murdered just because you’re a member of a group some monster doesn’t like. Ocampo assembled the evidence against Bashir for the ICC and the U.N. Security Council, and the film shows him at work, both toiling behind the scenes and addressing the representatives of the member nations who will (mostly) agree that Bashir must be stopped — and also that they’re not the ones to do it. In affecting interviews, Ocampo reveals the personal cost his crusades have cost him: In the ’80s, in what became known as the Trial of the Juntas, he helped prosecute the architects of Argentina’s Dirty War, earning him the enmity of some family members supportive of the regime of the deposed Jorge Rafael Videla. Today Ocampo says that Videla’s crimes didn’t constitute genocide, but — unlike with Clinton’s crew — that didn’t mean ignoring them. The Trial of the Juntas intentionally resembled the trials at Nuremberg, right down to lead prosecutor Julio César Strassera’s impassioned promise: ¡Nunca más!

As Ocampo can tell you, there’s been plenty más. Still, the fact that he presses his case so strongly, that there are movies and books documenting it, that Bashir is (for the most part) an international pariah — all this is, at the least, encouraging. Inspiring figures like Ocampo, Lemkin, and Power herself may not live to see the eradication of genocide from this planet, but they are bringing about the change that must occur before that one ever could: Today, no one can pretend not to know when it is happening. Ben Ferencz, who actually led the trial at Nuremberg, also appears, speaking of his struggles to get nations to commit to using the force necessary to enforce international law. Toward the end, his eyes brimming over, he shares the tale about Tycho Brahe that gives the film its upbeat title.

Watchers of the Sky shrewdly mixes archival footage, animated history, field reports of atrocities, and both anguished and heartening talking-head interviews with hope-stirring scenes of actual people standing up to the greatest evil of our age. It’s a significant step on our journey toward being able to say never again without having to cross our fingers.

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Honour Puts a Social Issue Into a Thriller Framework

Shan Khan’s London-set debut feature, Honour, attempts to combine a thriller framework with a social-issue concern — “Honour killings,” which, per the movie’s closing credits, are estimated by the United Nations to total well into the four figures on a yearly basis.

Khan invites the possibility of having his political agenda override his filmmaking responsibilities; thankfully, though, he reveals a strong knack for constructing suspense, and the movie’s ultimate flaws are more narrative-based than message-related.

Honour tackles its subject from the perspective of Mona (Aiysha Hart), a British-Pakistani real-estate agent who develops a relationship with a Punjabi man (Nikesh Patel). However, Mona’s strict family — led by her mother (Harvey Virdi) and her policeman brother (Faraz Ayub) — condemns such an against-tradition union, and, in an unflinching scene, Mona’s brother strangles her on the family couch.

The back-and-forth structure of Khan’s script, which often diverges from the present to explain the events leading up to the attack, keeps at bay key information. For instance, when the British actor Paddy Considine appears as a bounty hunter hired by the family to find Mona, it’s not initially clear how — if at all — Mona might have somehow managed to escape the strangling alive.

The result is that the striking up-and-comer Hart and the veteran Considine, sporting an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo, are occasionally stranded off-screen while Honour reveals other extraneous actions.

But Khan’s orchestration of suspense impresses; he proves especially skilled at dropping well-timed close-ups on objects that immediately add conflict to a situation: a knife in the kitchen, a photograph of Mona, a bundle of cash wrapped in a newspaper (a Psycho reference?).

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Teasing Apart Palestine’s Effort to Become State 194

In April, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned from office, five months after Palestine received non-member observer state status at the United Nations. The new documentary State 194 teases apart Fayyad’s efforts to make Palestine the 194th member state of the U.N., and how those efforts were received in Palestine, Israel, and abroad. Filmmaker Dan Setton highlights the grinding political processes that halted the realization of a two-state solution and full recognition of Palestine. The best part of State 194 is its domesticity, its low-key approach to a conflict that has been widely sensationalized in the media. Fayyad is depicted not just as an international spokesperson for a peaceful struggle, but as a man whose wife criticizes him for not packing enough oil in with the olives. He is Westernized and palatable to American and Israeli leadership—and to many Palestinians. The heated, urgent talk here comes from activists—from the rallying masses of youth in Ramallah calling for a united front rather than Fatah’s and Hamas’s factionalization of the Palestinian nationalist movement, to the rage-filled speech of an Israeli woman urging Palestine’s recognition. Fayyad expresses hope for his country, but his personal comfort and privilege—the ability to travel, to access sufficient water—suggest that his hardships are more ideological than the harsh realities faced by many Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Is the two-state solution more appealing to Westerners with the ability to ignore the conflict? Will Palestine gain international recognition? The film delivers no answers, but it ably articulates how important it will be to keep asking those questions.

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Mr. Ahmadinejad Is Coming to NYC; You Know What That Means!

Protests. Tons of them.

It has become a common trend now in New York City news that when the sixth President of the Islamic Republic of Iran comes to town for a United Nations gathering, it can only be expected that hundreds of people will meet him half-way with angry remarks and on-the-ground disapproval. Who can forget his speech at Columbia, when President Lee Bolinger dissed the leader right before he went on to speak, calling him a coward and, in more words than none, a piece of shit? Or any of the other protests that have happened outside of Ahmadinejad’s quarters, his car service and the U.N. headquarters?

Well, let us continue this pattern next week as the U.N. General Assembly meets in New York. President Obama will be there, along with hundreds of world leaders, including the guest of honor, Mr. Ahmadinejad, who will be speaking on Wednesday. Expect traffic delays and the same story in the media over and over and over again.

Last year, the Iranian frontman stayed at the Warwick New York hotel. This year, the same is expected so the protestors will gather outside to bash the man 24/7. Rumor has it that the group behind the major protests, United Against Nuclear Iran, is trying to reserve a room inside the Warwick so they can literally knock on Ahmadinejad’s door with an endless list of grievances in hand.

Word of advice to Mr. Ahmadinejad: just Skype in your speech next year.

United Against Nuclear Iran and other Jewish groups are demanding that the Warwick New York denies a room to the leader but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. One organization, the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, filed a legal motion with the Manhattan court that ordered the hotel to either ban the leader from staying there or to use his hotel fees to pay the damages for a member that was harmed in a suicide bombing by the Iranian-supported group known as Hamas. A federal judge refused to hear the motion on Thursday so it looks like, as of now, Ahmadinejad has a place to sleep in Midtown.

However, all these attempts are preemptive: the hotel and the Iranian government have not even confirmed that the leader is staying there. That just shows you the vitriol of the protests here when Ahmadinejad comes to town: regardless of actually knowing that he’s actually staying at the Warwick, the protest groups have already chalked up plans to buy a room there and filed legal motions against the hotel.

Before we slip into the boring media narrative mentioned before, we’re going to end on a final note here: New Yorkers do not like the Iranian leader. And that’s that.

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U.N. Me

From its “Oil for Food” scandal in Iraq to its inaction in Rwanda and Darfur and its farcical human rights council appointments, the U.N. is slammed again and again in U.N. Me as an organization that has betrayed its founding values. Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz’s documentary is cut from the Michael Moore cloth, making its case through an episodic structure that’s light on depth but heavy on outrage and the usual combination of talking heads, archival footage, cartoons, and on-the-street publicity stunts—including handing out flyers at the U.N. with the Webster’s Dictionary’s take on “terrorism,” a term the U.N. itself has refused to define. The film’s censure is bolstered by galling facts about U.N. hypocrisy and ineffectiveness in the face of abuse, discrimination, and genocide. Unfortunately, mocking jibes and cutaways to Team America and Wonder Woman (among other movies and TV shows) establish a jokey attitude that weakens the overall case. That shortcoming is made even more pronounced by Horowitz himself, whose on-camera grandstanding involves trying to run through security gates, lambasting U.N. members from a council podium (and getting thrown out of the building), and interviewing the Sudanese ambassador to the U.N. with sarcastic questions that tip the proceedings into awkward Ali G–ish territory. Nick Schager

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Culture Clash Yuks in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator

In his third collaboration with director Larry Charles, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the young, dumb dictator of fictional North African nation Wadiya. Under Aladeen’s rule, oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is a hostile threat to global peace and capitalism. And yet, Aladeen himself is so attracted to Western culture that he has commanded a parade of American celebrities to have sex with him (Megan Fox plays “herself”), taking Polaroids afterward as proof. It’s not a “Fuck you, America!” power thing (that’s a fetish saved for another character, one The Dictator codes as unequivocal slime). “I really want someone to cuddle,” Aladeen confesses, then gazes longingly at walls covered in photos of his celebrity conquests. A poor little rich boy with no limits and no one to love, he’s sort of the Muslim-extremist version of Arthur.

He might not even be a murderer: Without the self-absorbed leader’s awareness, everyone Aladeen sentences to death is smuggled to safety by his resistance-minded executioner. Soon, Aladeen’s brother (Ben Kingsley) attempts to sell him out, hiring a goat-fetishizing look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) to serve as Aladeen’s double as they all travel to New York to defend Wadiya’s nuclear program to the U.N. The plan is to have the real Aladeen killed, then coach the fake into using the U.N. speech to renounce Aladeen’s regime and announce Wadiya’s impending transformation into a democracy. (Kingsley’s character is no human rights champion: He needs Aladeen out of the way to exploit Wadiya’s oil.) The dictator escapes his scheduled assassination and ends up outside the U.N. in bum garb, leading the gathered protesters in a cry against the “illegitimate” leader addressing the assembly inside.

This draws the attention of Zoe (Anna Faris), a crunchy Brooklyn activist who mistakes Aladeen for a dissident and welcomes him into her refugee-staffed Williamsburg food co-op. While plotting to overthrow the impostor and take back Wadiya, Aladeen uses his disciplinary talents to reform Zoe’s store and falls for her in the process. This subplot activates the film’s most successful joke: Of course a despot who rails against democracy while accumulating gold-plated Hummers and watching Real Housewives would feel at home in a place where “resistance” to the American mainstream revolves around the rigid dictates of political correctness and the consumption of luxuries like coconut water. Faris gets most of the films freshest, funniest bits: Zoe’s memory of her time in a “feminist mime workshop” made me laugh harder than anything Baron Cohen did the whole movie.

Ali G and Borat were such genius characters because Baron Cohen immersed himself so totally while thrusting himself out into the real world and into contact with unsuspecting strangers. The Dictator, in contrast, exists purely in movie world: Although there was apparently much improvisation on set, there’s no interaction with “real” people. Baron Cohen reportedly stayed in character between takes on The Dictator, but I’m not convinced he stays in character during takes. The character doesn’t seem to amount to much more than an imprecise, inconsistent accent and an unapologetic, played-for-laughs proclivity for rape, in a film dedicated to the rehearsal of old-hat culture-clash stereotypes that generally fail to unearth anything new about any of the cultures involved. Aladeen is so implausible as a real-world construction that neither character nor actor takes him seriously—in one early scene, during a speech about how Wadiya is developing uranium for “peaceful purposes,” Aladeen gets the giggles. Twice.

One of Aladeen’s accomplices realizes that the Supreme Leader has been transformed by his Brooklyn sojourn when he starts working Yiddish words into conversation, but he shouldn’t be surprised, given that Aladeen’s comic sensibility is thick with borscht. (“Twenty dollars a day for Wi-Fi?!?” he exclaims on checking into his hotel. “And they call me an international criminal!”) Eventually, the staleness of Aladeen’s one-liners starts to seem like the joke in and of itself—that’s gotta be the only reason why there’s an Eat Pray Love punchline in this movie . . . right?

Much of the material that isn’t dusty feels strained, as if the film is reaching to simulate the anarchic no you didn’t! moments that Baron Cohen’s previous vérité experiments stumbled into. But even in its manufactured boundary-pushing—a flash of full-frontal Baron Cohen, another scene set partially inside a birth canal—The Dictator never really risks anything.

As a comic stunt and a political statement, the film seems to exist to support its climax, in which the “real” Aladeen tries to sell America on the perks of a dictatorship but ends up illuminating America itself. (“Your media would appear free but be secretly controlled by one person and his family!” “You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group!”) As a punchline hammering home the film’s core polemic—basically, that “freedom” and “tyranny” aren’t black and white or mutually exclusive—it’s pretty great. But it doesn’t justify the film-long setup that precedes it. It suggests what could have been had Baron Cohen and Charles played the material a little straight and given the movie’s world stronger ties to our real world. Great satire, after all, is funny because it’s true.

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Angelina’s War Movie: Hollywood Goes to Bosnia in The Land of Blood and Honey

It’s 1992, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel (Goran Kostic) are about to hook up in a Bosnian nightclub when they’re interrupted by a bomb blast. Later, Ajla is one of dozens of women rounded up and bused to a detention camp where Muslim females are kept to satisfy Serbian male soldiers’ apparently endless appetite for rape. Danijel is a commander at the camp and “protects” Ajla by not letting anyone else rape her. After she lets him fuck her in laughably stylized soft-focus, he shows her how to escape. Later, at a different camp, she allows herself to be kept as his “Muslim whore.” First-time director Angelina Jolie clearly aims to keep Ajla’s allegiances ambiguous and spends much screen time trying to humanize Danijel to the point that we might believe Ajla could love him or that he could change. The denouement that sorts it all out moves from predictable tragedy to ludicrous redemption; closing titles confirm that the motivating intent in making In the Land of Blood and Honey was activist rather than artistic. Jolie has constructed a persona as the anti-movie star, but in making a United Nations extra-credit project about the Bosnian War that pointedly criticizes the U.S. role in a conflict now safely in history’s rearview mirror, she has produced a sanctimonious vanity commercial for her own good intentions. That’s about as Hollywood as it gets.

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North By Northwest

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1959).
The most abstract of Hitchcock masterpieces is an intricately-plotted thriller about nothing really. Spies chase Cary Grant from the U.N. to deepest Kansas to Mount Rushmore apparently believing him to be someone important. The outrageously sardonic tone provided a model for every subsequent Bond film.

Sun., Oct. 23, 1, 3:30, 6 & 8:30 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 24, 1, 3:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2011

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Babes in Bosnia: Hollywood’s Take on Sex Trafficking in The Whistleblower

In Canadian director Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower, shot in Romania, British babe Rachel Weisz plays a poor Nebraska cop who takes a U.N. job in postwar Bosnia to investigate the sex trafficking of young women, including two Ukrainians, and unearths evidence of multinational peacekeeper complicity in the crimes (and U.S. government support of the whole ugly racket). Geographic diffusion aside, Kondracki’s fact-based thriller remains somewhat focused on its grim subject, though its principled bid to allure and enlighten the VOD-surfing masses results in a surplus of Hollywood-style eye candy and narrative formula. No less a looker than Monica Bellucci appears as the bitchy head of the U.N.’s repatriation program, seemingly to offset the arguably admirable characterization of most every male as a sex-crazed creep or worse, while late-reel scenes of suspense involving the heinously victimized Ukrainians fall somewhere along the line between shocking reportage and standard-issue torture porn. Clearly channeling Jodie Foster’s distaff avenger in The Silence of the Lambs (but with a healthy hetero appetite thrown in), Weisz’s Oscar-campaign-worthy turn does nothing to obscure the movie’s half-intended message that, regardless of national borders, where sex is involved, there’s money to be made.

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Richard Ashcroft

United Nations of Sound, Richard Ashcroft’s latest solo go-round, is finally seeing its US release after hitting the UK last summer. This time, the former Verve singer worked with a new backing band and American hip-hop producer No I.D. The result? Well, Ashcroft still kind of thinks he’s Jesus. And like most of his solo work, it never exactly moves past his past work, instead echoing and aping it in unequal measure. But, you know, dude still looks cool on stage.

Wed., March 23, 8 p.m., 2011