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Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest

Camp fourteen 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, after turns in TorontoLondon; and Chicago. Look for selections from this year’s thought-provoking Festival as they travel throughout the year across the United States and Europe.

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.

When Politics Turns Deadly

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is the most detailed of several recent eyewitness documentary accounts of the brutal labor-to-death camps that enforce the North Korea gulag state, following Kimjongilia and Yodok Stories. Director Marc Wiese, honored with the Festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, illustrates horrific testimony from escaped prisoners and chagrined defector guards with animation that fits an extreme environment beyond any fiction. Plunging the audience into the rigidly totalitarian state where the slightest hint of nonconformist behavior is punished unto three generations, they wrenchingly convey how sadism can flourish as normal and a child born there can grow up with no awareness of a world outside the barbed wire with food and without constant death.

Further insight into the mentality of sadistic political victors in Asia is unforgettably provided in The Act Of Killing, where director Joshua Oppenheimer got Indonesian death squad leaders to bizarrely re-enact – to music – the genocide they carried out. This tribute to the power of Bollywood and Hollywood to get the most hardened thugs to preen their crimes against humanity for the camera has to be seen to be believe when it is released in theaters later this month by Drafthouse Films.

Two upsetting films directly link politics to tragic injustice, even though too many similar stories have been seen in fictional features. Director Al Reinert’s An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story is eerily similar to the murder trial gone wrong covered in The Staircase docu-TV series about a husband wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife based on suspect forensic evidence (let alone like many very unrealistic TV shows). While just luckily this Texas prisoner didn’t get the death penalty, he, along with his determined pro bono attorney and The Innocence Project, earnestly recount the years (and years) it took to challenge the ambitious prosecution that used this mishandled case as a steppingstone to higher office.

undoccumentedDirectly relevant to the current Congressional debate on immigration reform,The Undocumented trods much of the same arid ground and crowded morgues along the Arizona/Mexican border as the long-running National Geographic Border Wars TV series does in tracking failed border-crossers. But director Marco Williams usefully adds the points-of-view of the distressed family members who see them off hopefully south of the border, and the anxious relatives waiting to meet them north, many times, sorrowfully, to no avail.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, the festival’s opening night selection, answers the question “Whatever happened to Anita Hill?” since the controversial fall 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when she brought accusations of sexual harassment, and vociferous debates about it, into wide political consciousness. (Hill reported to the FBI a recent call from Thomas’s wife demanding an apology because she truly thought someone was imitating the conservative activist.) While director Freida Mock pretty much repeats inside-the-Beltway insights from journalists and Hill’s own memoir, with some helpful factual corrections to media misimpressions, it is as startling to see the 25 file cabinets full of hate mail (including death threats) she keeps stored at home near her Brandeis office as the many “We Still Believe Anita” events where she is still lauded.

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