Last night the Human Rights Watch Film Festival opened in New York. Judging by the four films I saw in advance, my recommendation is to look at the schedule (https://ff.hrw.org/) and buy tickets for some of the best political films being made today. Whatever you think of HRW, this is a project that puts it best foot forward whatever mischief it has been up to in Venezuela or elsewhere.
Additionally, I will be saying something about a documentary titled “Welcome to Leith” that is playing in Brooklyn tonight at 9pm, admittedly a little late in the game. However, even if you can’t make it to the screening, you should keep an eye out for the film that chronicles the attempt of neo-Nazis to take over a tiny village in North Dakota that was a virtual ghost town.
“3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets”
This is the definitive critique of “stand your ground” laws based on a white man’s killing of a Black teenager in Jacksonville, Florida not long after the Trayvon Martin killing. Jordan Davis was sitting in the back seat of an SUV with his friends in the parking lot of a strip mall listening to rap music while another friend was in a convenience store picking up some items. Just after Michael Dunn pulls up alongside them to allow his fiancée to pick up some wine in another shop, he asks them to turn down the music, which they do. Jordan Davis, however, takes offense and turns the radio up again. Words are exchanged at that point back and forth until Dunn takes a revolver out of his glove compartment and fires 10 bullets into their car, killing Davis. After his arrest, he offers an alibi that Davis was holding up a shotgun that he planned to use against him. So he was killed in self-defense.
The film consists mostly of filming in the courtroom and interviews with Jordan Davis’s parents and the friends who were with him that day. Director Marc Silver also had access to Michael Dunn’s fiancée whose testimony was critical to the outcome of the trial. At the risk of violating the usual spoiler alert strictures, I can say that she put morality above personal loyalty.
“No Land’s Song”
One of the results of the Islamic hijacking of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the banning of female singers in public unless men accompanied them. Composer Sara Najafi was determined to challenge and overturn this sexist measure by organizing a concert in Tehran that brought together some of the country’s most talented female vocalists that would be backed by Iranian and French musicians who would travel there to show their solidarity.
The film is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. When you hear the singers perform, you will be deeply moved by the Iranian style that deserves a wider audience both here and in the country where it originates. Due to the obstacles posed by American controls over artist visas since September 11th, we have been robbed of the opportunity to hear some glorious music.
The controls in Iran are just as baleful but driven by medieval attitudes rather than xenophobia. In some shocking scenes, we see Najafi making the case for female performances to a high-ranking mullah who babbles on about the danger of men being sexually aroused by the voice of a woman.
Ayat Najafi, the brother of Sara, directed the film. This is not the first film he has made about the oppression of women in Iran. Seven years ago he directed “Football Under Cover” about the first match of a female team in Iran with a visiting team from Germany. While some of the worst features of the Ahmadinejad regime are gone, the struggle continues to put men and women on an equal footing. For those who are inclined to support the “anti-imperialism” of the Ahmadinejad wing of the Iranian ruling class, the film should go a long way to clarifying the issues. As Emma Goldman once put it, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
“The Trials of Spring”
This is the definitive examination of the Egyptian political landscape in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests that gave the country so much hope. Both the men who gathered at the protests and the forces of law and order saw the degradation of women as key to maintaining the status quo.
The main subject of the film is Hend Nafea, a young feminist and revolutionary who was put on trial for her role in a peaceful demonstration that was attacked by al-Sisi’s goons. Nafea is a living symbol of the Egyptian revolution that was victimized for no other reason than demanding equal rights for women. Despite their differences over Islamic theology, the elites in Egypt and Iran share a belief that women are inferior to men.
The film will give you a strong sense of how Egyptian youth became confused over the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. While there is little doubt that the coup was a terrible blow to the nation’s hopes, there were ample signs that the Muslim Brotherhood had little commitment to women’s rights.
Gini Reticker has focused on women’s rights in previous films. Her “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” told the story of women who organized a peace demonstration in war-torn Liberia at great risk to their life and freedom. If you believe that women’s rights is inextricably linked to the overall struggle for human rights and social change, this film is a must-see.
“The Wanted 18”
In the first Intifada, the people of Beit Sahour in the West Bank decided that they would embark on a program of self-sufficiency that would be a kind of forerunner to the independent Palestinian state that they were struggling for.
This entailed the creation of a small-scale dairy farm that would be made possible by the purchase of 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz that was less hostile to Palestinian aspirations than the Likudniks. The dairy was so successful that the IDF occupying forces was determined to shut it down since it was supposed to be a security threat. I know that this sounds like a Joseph Heller novel or MASH but this actually happened.
Codirected by Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist, and Paul Cowan, a Canadian, the film reflects the absurdist element of what took place and uses Claymation to dramatize the cows’ reaction to the conflict that is taking place around them. The film also opens on June 19th in NY (Cinema Village) and LA (NoHo 7).
“Welcome to Leith”
This is showing tonight at 9pm at The Old American Can Factory on 232 Third Street. Leith is a tiny village of 24 residents not far from the booming gas fields of North Dakota. In 2012 Craig Cobb showed up with a plan to make Leith the epicenter of White Nationalism in the USA by buying up land and electing his allies to the Town Council. Despite the reputation of rural America as a backwater of racism and reaction, the village rejected him like a healthy body resisting a virus.
The film was co-directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who raised $60,000 through Kickstarter to make it possible. It is just one of the more recent examples of how low-cost digital filmmaking funded through the Internet can serve as leading edge social commentary. While Hollywood withers on the vine, radical documentary is flourishing thanks to the computer revolution.