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Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Fest

deepsouth posterThe powerful and poignant documentaries and docudramas of the 24th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival were welcomed in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and, for the first time, at the IFC Center, June 13 to 23, after turns in Toronto, London, and Chicago. Look for selections from this year’s thought-provoking Festival as they travel throughout the year to: Dallas, TX; Durham, NC; Merced, San Diego, and San Francisco, CA; Mount Pleasant, MI; Philadelphia and Phoenixville, PA; Salem, MA; Washington, D.C., and, Zurich.

The Festival is organized around themes that match the program activities of Human Rights Watch, as an international monitoring and advocacy organization—“Traditional Values and Human Rights: for Women, the Disabled, and Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT”); “Crises and Migration”; and, “Human Rights in Asia and the United States”. But the messages that come through from the brave, resolute, and determined people surmounting very difficult situations aren’t restrained by those categories.

Economic Inequality: Giving Voice and Face to the Poor

99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film has a highly unusual provenance, but it tells a chronological and coherent story of the genesis and progress of protests around the world to the response to the global financial crisis. Using footage from almost 100 filmmakers, lead directors Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites coordinated two other directors, five co-directors, additional shooters and media wranglers with almost a dozen editors. Keys to how absorbing this film is about a mass phenomenon are the interviews with individuals (and clips from the Guy Fawkes-masked “Anonymous”) who helped generate the idea of using (quasi) public spaces to publicize how the profits of private individuals (effectively promoted as the 1%) were countering the public interest, and the Direct Action Working Group that creatively and collectively kept the demonstrations going in downtown Manhattan for two months (yeah, it seemed like it went on longer).

occupy stillPlus a sampling of the organizers they inspired to “occupy” central locales in over 92 cities across 82 countries and more than 600 communities in the United States. The Oakland participants, where the most violence resulted, are particularly insightful on how local social and economic issues, conditions, and police tactics affected the outcomes, especially by law enforcement that resulted in hundreds of arrests as local governments shared tips on suppression strategies. While journalists wryly admit they didn’t really understand what was happening (unmentioned here is that the BBC still mischaracterizes the movement as “anti-capitalist”), lawyers and academics provide ominous context for the impact of these citizen actions and the precedents of government over-reactions that provides perspective to keep all our eyes wide open as it all still unfolds.

So when rich people want to help poor people that should be a good thing, right? Not in Haiti, as vividly shown in renowned Haitian-born director Raoul Peck’s illuminating and instructive Fatal Assistance, the Festival Centerpiece presentation by Human Rights Watch’s past Lifetime Achievement Awardee. Going beyond the apocalyptic damage and death of TV’s disaster tourism since the devastating earthquake January 12, 2010, Peck over two years follows frustrated Haitians trying to help themselves and the conflicting, confusing, very condescending, and ultimately incompetent efforts of international aid organizations, ostensibly coordinated by committees of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former President Clinton, interviewed as they try to re-make the country, amidst elections, hurricanes, and lots of bureaucracy. Besides the build-up of this damning evidence, culled from 400 hours of footage, two sorrowfully poetic first-person narrations reveal the hearts of the matter – one is from an (anonymous) woman aid worker’s e-mails home, representing the well-meaning young, and a few experienced, foreign workers who came with enthusiasm and packed up discouraged, and a male voice reading from Peck’s own, impassioned journals demanding Haitian empowerment.

Deepsouth also blames decades of poverty exacerbated by bureaucratic bumbling as the root cause of problems, here the growing scourge of HIV/AIDS in rural United States. The startling opening map moves through time to correlate the locus of slavery in the 19th century with rising HIV infections into the 21st century. Director Lisa Biagiotti travels over thousands of beautifully filmed byways of the Delta to follow people who are trying to reach out from the geographical, social, and religious isolation (sensitively portrayed) to provide education, friendship, substitute family, and lobbying (pedantically portrayed) for a convincing plea that this isn’t just the stereotyped urban crisis.

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