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The 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.
Don’t Give Them That Old-Time Religion
The very timelyThe New Black delves deeper into the controversy of attitudes towards homosexuality in the African-American community and the powerful influence of its churches. Maryland is a highly symbolic place for director Yoruba Richen to explore the reality of the intertwined politics of race, faith, and homophobia. The state where Frederick Douglass was born into slavery passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act last year that recognized same-sex marriage, but petitioners forced a referendum onto the ballot.
In the run-up to the November showdown on “Question 6” (you may have missed the outcome during the national presidential campaign, so that makes it more thrilling), she follows African-American activists on both sides as they organize and electioneer. Richen intimately presents a very human face to both male preachers thundering at their large, enthusiastic flocks from their deeply felt faith, and lesbians who gain the confidence to come out and lead discussions with their families that provoke profound introspection, and considerable sympathy from the viewer. In contrast, in The Parade, a feature also traveling around North America as part of the excellent Global Lens 2013 series, somewhat inspired by the true story of mucho macho Serbia’s first gay pride parade amidst post-war ethnic tensions, director Srdjan Dragojević uses broad slapstick humor to entertainingly defang homophobia.
Born This Wayis the shockingly real, African dystopian nightmare version of legislating against gay rights. In the Central African country of Cameroon, teachings from the Catholic institutions founded in French colonialism have synthesized with traditional religions to literally demonize homosexuals and try lesbians as witches. Soon after independence in 1960, the country made same-sex relations illegal, imprisoning more people for sexual orientation than any place in the world, let alone charging them based on rumor and looks. Directors Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann’s hidden camera scarily captures the hysteria in a small town courtroom, so the lonely activists who come together, and come out, in the largest city, Douala, at Alternatives-Cameroun, the first LGBT center there, ostensibly for government-approved HIV/AIDS prevention, can be seen as incredibly brave to show their stories on film, including sharing the threats and inquisitive badgering in their difficult daily lives. Outside the country, the documentary is being used to rally diplomatic pressure on long-time president Paul Biya to change the law.
In The Shadow Of The Sun searingly demonstrates that demonization in east Africa goes horribly further in Tanzania for albinos (who have the genetic condition of white skin and eyes due to a lack of melanin pigment). Witch doctors are evangelizing a brutal get-rich-superstition that ritual use of albino limbs and bones will assure good fortune -- 72 murders have been reported over the last five years, with little justice. The danger is so great that well-meaning government protection means rounding them up into pitiful, crowded, guarded compounds, to eke out lives like refugees uprooted from their homes. Director Harry Freeland followed the charismatic albino Josephat Torner around these communities for six years as he goes way beyond the familiar activism of a discriminated minority member. He publicizes albinos’ plight by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest, despite his congenital albinal weak eyes and joints, and offers important mentoring and encouragement to younger ones. (The very difficult and limited choices for teenaged Vedastus to safely get a good education are heartbreaking). Much more, in his native Lake Victoria region that is the heart of the religious hysteria and deadly attacks, he courageously faces down wary bigots, village by village, with peaceful educational exchanges, and even confronts a witch doctor over why and who is encouraging him to promulgate these dangerous beliefs. Josephat may be the most heroic person I have ever seen on film.
In Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, religion is revealed as the crucial flashpoint that tripped up the radical women in the eponymous Russian band, whose arrest and show trial of three of its members became an international cause célèbre, from Amnesty International to Madonna, and a “Free Pussy Riot” anthem by Peaches and Simonne Jones. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin provide an in-depth look at the individual women (Katia, Masha, and Nadia), their families, and the Pussy Riot feminist, political performance art collective, with up-close footage that starts months before the arrest, continues through bail hearings, and during and after their trial. (We learn their signature pastel-colored balaclavas aren’t just for anonymity, but are intended to look more “silly” than threatening).
While the media here focused on their anti-President Vladimir Putin musical antics, their 40-second “punk prayer” on the altar of Moscow’s large Christ The Savior Cathedral, blocks from the Kremlin, that was intended to protest the Orthodox Church’s entwining with the government, set off a firestorm of a backlash from militant believers. A group of Orthodox haranguers looks incongruously like a motorcycle gang, criticizes them in religious terms as witches and demons, and, like Putin in a TV interview, are too offended by their anti-patriarchal feminism to even say their name. (One of their proud father’s chuckles that his atheist daughter was raised “a good little Bolshevik” by her Communist grandmother.) This informative and involving documentary continues to be available on HBO On Demand during the summer.
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