Tomorrow is opening night of the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York that includes two documentaries that I had an opportunity to see at press screenings a while back and discuss below. If they are any indication of the quality of the scheduled films, I urge you to take in as many as possible. If they are not exactly entertainment (as if anybody with an IQ over 75 could be entertained by something like “X Men Apocalypse”), they are compelling reminders of the need to support all those struggling for a better life.
On Thursday, June 16th at 8:45 PM, you can see “When Two Worlds Collide” at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. As a rule of thumb, if you have tended to agree with my recommendations, this is one not to be missed. It is the chronicle of the struggle between indigenous peoples of Peru and the government of Alan Garcia over the 840 Law he rammed through in late 2006 that opened up indigenous territory to mining and oil extraction as part of a neoliberal blitzkrieg that began earlier in the year with a Free Trade Agreement with the USA.
If I were to write a narrative film, I doubt if I could come up with someone as villainous as Alan Garcia. Early on in the film you see him addressing an audience of potential investors from the USA about how Peru was welcoming foreign investment. To indulge in a bit of Marxist jargon, he is the quintessential comprador bourgeois.
This was Garcia’s second term as President of Peru. In his first go-round, he clashed with the guerrillas of the Shining Party, a Maoist insurgency whose dogmatic and repressive approach isolated it from the urban working class. Their members were Quechean Indians living in the highlands.
In his second term it was the Indians of the Amazon rainforest who got the shaft. Unlike Chairman Gonzalo of the Shining Path, the opposition to Garcia was led by Alberto Pizango, a member of the Shawi tribe who was committed to nonviolence but totally uncompromising when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples whose water was being fouled by the Peruvian state oil company pipelines and who feared that things would get much worse with the advent of Law 840. It allowed private investment in their territory and sacrificed their hard-won right to a modicum of sovereignty.
They say that the choice of a principal subject is key to the success of most documentaries. That being the case, co-directors Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel were fortunate to have complete access to Pizango as he rallied opposition to the multinational onslaught given red carpet treatment by Alan Garcia. He is a plain-spoken man but capable of stirring rhetoric when the circumstances call for it. He was exactly the sort of grass roots leader José Carlos Mariátegui must have had in mind when he founded the Communist Party of Peru in 1928 based on a program that synthesized Marxism and indigenous principles.
As it happens, Mariátegui only decided to become a Communist after becoming disillusioned with the APRA party in Peru in whose name Alan Garcia misruled. For APRA, anti-imperialism and “development” were to be pursued within the framework of capitalism even if it meant treating the indigenous people in the same way they have always been treated in the Western Hemisphere, as relics of a “savage” past standing in the way of progress and civilization.
Once the opposition to Law 840 began to develop a mass base and after it began organizing picket lines throughout Indian territory, Garcia and his cohorts began to refer them to as relics of the past who were defying the needs of the country’s majority. That, of course, is what inspired the film’s title.
The tensions between the ruling party and the indigenous peoples escalated until a pitched battle took place on June 5th, 2009 when the cops began firing on pickets assembled on the “Devil’s Curve” jungle highway close to Bagua, a town in the heart of Indian country. Not long after the first Indians fell to the ground mortally wounded, others seized guns from the cops or used their own and machetes to strike back at the cops. One of the most moving parts of the film involves the father of one of the dead cops who returns to Bagua to get help from the Indians in finding his son’s corpse or more optimistically winning his freedom. After he discovers that he had been dismembered and thrown into a nearby river, he calmly states that he does not blame the Indians but the overall climate of violence created by APRA politicians.
Although I would hardly describe the film as “entertainment”, the directors had a bird’s eye view of the clash on the Devil’s Curve and were skillful enough to turn the footage into some of the most hair-raising scenes I have ever seen in a documentary. The struggle continues in Peru as it is likely that Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has won the recently held Presidential election. He is a former World Bank economist and co-chairman of First Boston, so that says it all.
Next Wednesday at 8:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater and 9:15pm in the IFC Center in the Village you can see “The Crossing”, a powerful chronicle about a group of Syrians fleeing Assad’s reign of terror and taking a risky boat ride across the Mediterranean to Europe in search of political asylum.
It puts a human face on the ordeal facing millions of Syrians that is now only an abstraction in the mass media or—worse—a target of nativist violence and state-sponsored blockades through much of Europe.
If there is still a question of what drives refugees to flee Syria, all you need to do is listen to the journalist Angela—a Christian–who along with her husband and journalist partner was forced to flee the country when she became a target of the security forces in 2011 after writing articles in support of the Syrian revolution. She was arrested once and worried that the next time she might be killed.
You can also hear from IT expert Rami who was working in the UAE. When he was arrested at demonstration in support of the revolution by the emirate’s cops, he was ordered to leave the country. Since going back to Syria meant arrest or being killed, he opted to join Angela and about 20 others in an uncertain sea voyage.
In 2012, director George Kurian was working as a photojournalist in Syria in the thick of the battles while buildings were being bombed to pieces. That led to the decision to make a film about the efforts of some to leave this hell. He put it this way:
“The Crossing” is about Syrian people speaking for themselves. Through it, we hope to join the debate about our electoral policies…Islam and its branches of fundamentalism will always serve as flashpoints in any discussion…[but] it’s these ideas that have kept us from acting. These concepts make us see refugees as a problem rather than a people who have a problem and who need our help.”
Although it is not part of the HRW film festival, I also urge you to watch the six-part series of nine minute videos about another group of Syrian refugees on the New Yorker Magazine website (http://video.newyorker.com/) directed by Matthew Cassel and executive produced by Laurie Poitras, who made the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. Poitras is affiliated with Glenn Greenwald whose views on Syria are questionable at best. I am glad that he obviously had no influence on this film.
Unlike “The Crossing”, Cassel’s film, titled “The Journey from Syria”, does not address the question of what drove people to mostly walk from Istanbul to Macedonia to flee the horrors of Syria but you might suspect that it was the regime rather than jihadists that was responsible especially since they refer to bombing. As is obvious at this point after 5 years of war, it is the Syrian air force that is creating genocidal conditions, not the lightly armed rebels.
For an excellent review of Cassel’s film, I recommend Idrees Ahmad, one of the most committed and tireless defenders of the Syrian revolution we have:
The Journey, however, is more than the chronicle of an exodus. It is a human story about ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonists are normal people—a jeweller, a hairdresser, and a schoolteacher—who have to face dilemmas that jewellers, hairdressers, and schoolteachers do not normally face. The film is well constructed and tells its story with minimal editorialising. Through its relatable protagonists, it offers viewers a mirror to consider the choices they might have made had similar circumstances been thrust upon them.
This context is important for the kind of debate currently raging in Europe. The last segment of the documentary shows movements like Pegida and demagogues like Geert Wilders stirring up xenophobia. The refugee exodus has served as a boon for the European far right. Across Europe, far right parties are now ascendant. Refugees are routinely demonised.
But if the left has failed to challenge this wave, it is because they, just like the right, have been unwilling to address the root causes of the Syrian conflict. The organised left across much of Europe has shown little sympathy for Syrians fighting oppression. Some have tacitly supported the regime; others, such as the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have backed Russian military intervention while opposing safe zones for civilians. (Some of the tropes the right has used to stereotype refugees were first used by the left to demonise Assad’s opponents, painting them all as “extremists” and “jihadists”)
Episode one of “The Journey from Syria” is on Youtube: