Thanks to the growing use of Vimeo online screeners, it has become much easier to write articles in advance of film festival openings that relied in the past on DVD’s or special press screenings that usually occurred during the hours when I was at my desk at Columbia University.
That was one of the reasons I never made to the annual Human Rights Film Festival screenings in the past but this year I was able to view seven films that will be shown from June 12th to June 22nd. The festival is a project of Human Rights Watch, an outfit that has a mixed record to say the least. When it comes to nations that are on the State Department’s shit list, they can be quite reprehensible—their role in Venezuela has been most shameful. On the other hand, if I were a political prisoner being tortured somewhere whose cause that HRW had taken up, I’d be glad for their support. If your tendency is to reduce politics to a global chess game in which you have to play either White or Black, HRW will naturally be black. But reality contains 50 shades of grey, none of them having anything to do with sex I should add.
Furthermore, the young and often very far to the left documentary filmmakers whose works get shown at the festival are reliant on it for a screening since the commercial possibilities for a film about—for example, as you will see below—four lesbian women from Newark serving prison terms for attacking a homophobic bully in Greenwich Village are quite limited. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of film that interests me as well as my readers.
Given the urgency of the Arab revolt, it is not surprising that a number of films dealt with it from a number of different perspectives. Let me start with them.
Because Cyprus is part of the EU, the Greek sector became a designated destination point for political refugees, including a preponderant number of Palestinians feeling sectarian violence in Iraq. Most are determined to make it to Europe and see Cyprus only as a way station. Despite being totally reliant on EU support and being prohibited from taking jobs in Cyprus for at least six months, a wave of xenophobia has swept the island after the fashion of Golden Dawn in Greece. When fascist threats fail to intimidate newly arrived refugees, there is the additional barrier represented by local immigration officials who put all sorts of obstacles in their path. The local branch of Golden Dawn in Cyprus is the ELAM, or the National Popular Front. As is the case with Greece, Cypriotes committed to human rights have mobilized against them. Their cause is taken up in “Evaporating Borders”.
“First to Fall” traces the steps of Hamid and Tarek, two young Libyans and close friends who live in Montreal and enjoy a peaceful and secure existence. When the revolt against Gaddafi erupts, they are riveted to news from their homeland and reports from Youtube and various websites. So inspired are they by the resistance to a 42-year-old dictatorship that they decide to return to Libya and become part of the armed struggle.
What strikes you almost immediately is that while the two young men are obviously motivated by political ideals (one lost family members during one of the waves of repression), they chatter about taking up the gun as if they were going to spring break in Florida.
Hamid, the older of the two, starts off as a videographer in Misrata but soon gets “promoted” to be a fighter after almost no training. In the bloody attempt to prevent the city from being overrun, he is hit by shrapnel and forced to undergo three surgeries to save his leg. In trying to deliver arms to combatants in Zawiya, the city of his birth, the 21-year-old Tarek is ambushed by Gaddafi’s troops and suffers wounds that leave him as a paraplegic.
Hamid stays in Libya to work in the Ministry of Defense. In the final moments of the film, that were recorded one year after the fall of Gaddafi, he describes himself as depressed by the government’s inability to move the country forward. For his part, Tarek, who has returned to Montreal, is preoccupied by his disability and cloudy future. Neither young man understood the full implications of going into battle against a well-armed professional military. Both would have been better off working for peaceful change inside Libya but Gaddafi made that impossible just as Bashar al-Assad is making it impossible in Syria. There are estimates of up to 15,000 casualties in the Libyan civil war, including Gaddafi’s soldiers. Proportionately, that would represent 750,000 dead in the US over an 8-month period. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bloodlettings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent memory. “First to Fall” is the definitive take on these events and should be of interest to anybody who has been following my articles on Libya, including to those who are violently opposed to my views. You owe it to yourself to see unmediated Libyan reality and not something filtered through the lens of Russian, Cuban or Venezuelan media.
As you probably know, “Return to Homs” depicts events that have been superseded by history. Largely because they were forced to confront tanks, helicopters and MIG’s with small arms, the young men defending Homs were forced to abandon the city. As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (https://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and heroism of those who took arms against the Baathist dictatorship or perhaps convince you of why you were wrong to regard it as an instrument of American foreign policy.
To put it bluntly, “The Green Prince” is an Israeli propaganda film about Shin Bet’s recruitment of he son of a Hamas founder as an informer. Unlike the great feature film “Omar” that shows the brutal methods that made a Palestinian youth become a snitch, this documentary represents the informer as acting on higher beliefs—his newfound commitment to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. If you get past the obvious propaganda intentions, the film is a fascinating look at Israeli strategy at creating divisions in the Palestinian movement after the fashion of the FBI’s decades-long operations. Fascinating in its own way, like looking at photographs of some debilitating disease.
Director Sara Ishaq was born to a Yemeni father and a Scottish mother who separated when she was young. After deciding that Yemeni society was too restrictive, she moved to Scotland to be with her mother.
“The Mulberry House” was made during one of her infrequent visits to Yemen that coincided with the version of the Arab Spring that was occurring there. It is both a family drama and a drama of Yemenite society as the household joins the movement opposed to the corrupt dictator Ali Saleh who resigned under pressure but left his deputy in charge. This solution has evaded Syria, where the Baathists and the military/corporate elite run the state like a mafia.
Overhearing the conversations in the forward-thinking Ishaq household over whether Sara is dressed “modestly” enough leads you to believe that Yemeni society is in need of a social revolution that drives a stake through the heart of the patriarchy. Indeed, the plaints heard throughout the household from the male members about the “damned” Yemenis who tolerate Saleh make you wonder if the patriarchy is a sine qua non for the ongoing corrupt and dictatorial rule.
Continuing with the themes of patriarchy and democracy, “The Supreme Price” focuses on the efforts of Hafsat Abiola, a Harvard educated Nigerian woman, to challenge the military dictatorship in her country as well as the current government that serves its interests as well as that of foreign oil companies interested in one thing and one thing only: a steady supply of crude oil.
Hafsat is the daughter of M.K.O. Abiola, who was elected president in 1993 but overthrown by a coup almost immediately. As one of Nigeria’s richest men, he was apparently too committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth and was removed. In some ways, he was Nigeria’s Thaksin Shinawatra. When his wife gave interviews and led protests about her husband’s removal and subsequent jailing, thugs hired by the coup leaders killed her. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in jail supposedly from a heart attack but more likely from poison.
The film is an excellent introduction to Nigerian history, all the more important given the rise of Muslim “extremists” in the North. After seeing the film, you will wonder why the entire country is not swept by terror against the elites. Sadly, the only target Boko Haram deems worthy of targeting is schoolgirls.
“Nelson Mandela: the myth and me” is to my knowledge the first documentary since “Dear Mandela” (https://louisproyect.org/2012/09/26/dear-mandela/) that reflects the disillusionment that has set in since the ANC’s neoliberal betrayal became too obvious to ignore.
To give you an idea of he road that director Khalo Matabane has traveled, he made “Story of a Beautiful Country” in 2004, a documentary described on IMDB as follows:
This is an interesting, upbeat documentary that presents a cross-section of South African society several years after the end of apartheid. Especially interesting are the comments of the white South African and the married couple, a black Soutt African, and his South-African American wife who looks white but in fact isn’t. These interviews give the impression of the country populated with wonderful people who have lots to say and live in a country that is worthy of respect. Apartheid is gone, a relic of the past. Today’s South Africa has moved forward. Judging by the tone and quality of the interviews, South Africa is moving in the right direction.
If the ANC has lost people like Khalo Matabane, its days are numbered.
Unlike most films shown at the festival, “Siddharth” is a narrative film about the search of an impoverished Indian father for his son who has gone missing after being sent off to work as a child laborer, an all-too-common fate in a country whose “economic miracle” is not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. I reviewed it last December (https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/03/2013-south-asian-film-festival-in-n-y-not-to-be-missed/) and can recommend it as a neorealist critique of a society that will certainly go from bad to worse under a government that promises to go full speed ahead with neoliberal “reforms”.
Finally, there’s “Out in the Night”, a film I alluded to earlier in this article. As is the case with documentary films on the leading edge, it takes up the cause of society’s most marginal figures: a group of four young women who defended themselves against a Black male homophobe whose hatred of “deviants” was as toxic in its own way as George Zimmerman’s of Trayvon Martin. Loved and accepted by their friends and parents, the four women had to put up with plenty of harassment in “the hood”. They came to the Village as often as they could to be among same-sexers, after the fashion of generations that came before them as described in Paul Buhle and David Berger’s “The Bohemians”.
Director blair dorosh-walther, who “identifies as gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns”, described her/his inspiration for the film:
Immediately following the arrest of seven young African American women on August 18th, 2006, I became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines like “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang,” “I’m a man, lesbian growled” and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles that really gave me pause. The headline read: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” An admirer?? I really could not believe it. A man does not ‘admire’ teenage girls on the street at midnight. That is harassment. And I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, never mind in New York City where it is commonplace.
I don’t know about the “admiration” this creep had for the four teenagers, but my admiration for blair dorosh-walther is undying.
Go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york for scheduling information on these and other films.