Bright Lights Film Journal

Capturing Chaos: On the 2005 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Seoul Train

These docs and features show a world of upheaval – and, occasionally, hope

The films portray images and tell stories that most of us would rather not see or hear. Brutal depictions of warfare, from Baghdad to the slums of Medellin, refugees from North Korea fleeing starvation and torture, the ongoing tragedy within war-scarred former Yugoslavia. Who will be held accountable? The question hovered over the 20 documentaries and fiction films that were shown June 9th to 23rd at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, now in its seventeenth year.

The festival is an important stage for works that are often considered too political for commercial theatrical release. Most of the films are portraits of ordinary people struggling against seemingly insurmountable social and economic forces over which they have no control. And it is through such individual narratives that we learn of the dreams, the sufferings, and the needs of the disenfranchised of the world.

Putting a human face on the miasma that is post-war Serbian society, Goran Paskaljevic’s feature Midwinter Night’s Dream (2004) is an unflinching look at life on the margins of a psychologically devastated country. Set in Serbia in the winter of 2004, Lazar (Lazar Ristovski), an army deserter sent to prison for ten years after killing his best friend in a barroom brawl, returns home in hopes of starting anew. There he finds refugees from Bosnia squatting in his apartment – Jasna (Jasna Zalica), a single mother, and her autistic 13-year-old daughter, Jovana (astonishingly played by Jovana Mitic, who is autistic). Skittishly, like small birds pecking at the same few crumbs, these three lost souls begin to develop emotional connections with one another.

Filmed in the grayish hues of winter, the landscape is a melancholy vastness without contours. Fade-outs punctuate the close of each scene, leaving the viewer in a cyclical momentary darkness. Absence is everywhere. Despite Lazar’s and Jasna’s shy attempts to form a family, the burdens of the past keep intruding. Lazar wakes screaming from nightmares of the war; a former lover pursues Jasna, and he ultimately kills her; neighbors are suspicious, peering from behind curtains and making veiled threats. Only Jovana is safe, buried as she is in her own world. And it is her illness that Paskaljevic uses as a dark metaphor for Serbian society: ten years after the war, the turmoil and conflicts are still so present and intractable that collective withdrawal into a form of societal autism seems to be the only answer.

Presenting a more encouraging view of the former Yugoslavia is Videoletters (2004-2005), an extraordinary project by the Dutch documentary filmmakers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek. The work, a series of 20 short documentary films shot over a five-year period, consists of video messages taped by people searching for childhood friends, colleagues, or neighbors who had been separated by the war. Acting as mailmen, the directors would take the tape and track down the “lost” friend to show them the video letter, who was usually keen to respond (the directors would film the actual taping, delivery of the letter, and response, creating a film within a film of sorts).

The emotional impact of watching these confessional exchanges – simple shots of people talking directly into the camera while sitting on a sofa or at a kitchen table – is overwhelming. In one short, we see Mujesira, a Muslim woman from Bosnia whose children were killed after being rounded up and herded into a forest, seeking anyone who can help her find where her children are buried. Images of Mujesira scouring the forest and a nearby stream for her children’s bones make even the most hardened of viewers flinch. The filmmakers are finally able to trace a former work colleague of Mujesira’s husband, who, after seeing her message, promises to help. Another piece titled Emil and Sasa, portrays two young men who had been childhood friends before the war. Emil, who is half Muslim, half Serb, fled to Holland, while Sasa, who is Serb, was drafted into the Bosnian Serb army. Emil had heard rumors of Sasa’s wartime activities, and that he may have killed a Muslim who was an acquaintance before the bloody conflict began. Emil is heartbroken that his friend would think he was capable of such an atrocity. Through the video letters, the two friends talk through their experiences of the war and its aftermath. In the end, they meet in person and begin the process of reconciliation.

The former Yugoslavia is familiar territory for Rejger and van den Broek. They have made several documentaries about the Balkans, including the award-winning The Making of a Revolution (2001), about the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Through the Videoletters project, the filmmakers say they want to help “re-establish a dialogue between people who used to live together…. The war mixed the feelings of people. We just want to try to give back people their friends’ human identity, to make them call others [by their names] instead of Croat or Ustasa.” Since April, several of the video letters have been broadcast on every public television in the six nations that were once Yugoslavia. The series is the winner of the festival’s 20005 Nestor Almendros Prize for exceptional commitment to human rights. (For more information, visit the project’s website).

In the southern hemisphere, journalists Margarita Martinez and Scott Dalton have documented the lives of three youths caught up in the ever expanding violence of Colombia’s bloody civil conflict. La Sierra (2004) takes its name from an impoverished quarter in the city of Medellin. During the last decade, left-wing guerillas and government and right-wing paramilitary troops have been fighting for control over city neighborhoods such as La Sierra. Caught in the middle are urban gangs aligning themselves with each side as they seek to maintain their own dominance in the community. The result is the transmutation of a national civil war into that of a deadly turf battle among connecting barrios.

The film opens with a close-up of a dead body thrown into a ravine and the passing statement of a sorrowful shopkeeper, “We are in the hands of children with guns – life is worth nothing.” Thus the stage is set for witnessing the soul-numbing violence that is part of everyday life in La Sierra. Edison, 22, is a de facto paramilitary commander in the community and something of a Lothario – he has fathered six children by six different young women. Charismatic and extremely intelligent, Edison talks of the life he wishes he could lead, one where he could study and build clinics and schools for the people. But these are dreams for another place and time. During the year-long filming of La Sierra, Edison is gunned down in the street. Cielo, 17, became a mother at the age of 15 and was widowed a year later when the father of her child, a gang member, was killed. She spends her time visiting her imprisoned boyfriend and selling candies on buses downtown to survive. She eventually succumbs to her poverty and finds herself working in Medellin’s red light district. The third character is Jesus, a 19-year-old paramilitary member who lost his hand to a homemade grenade. Sweet natured and often lost in a haze of drugs, Jesus longs for a life without war but concedes that he has experienced nothing else.

Perhaps what is most affecting about La Sierra is its attempt to portray how desperate these three young people are for a chance to choose their destiny, and how few peaceful opportunities are open to them. Edison and Jesus, admitted killers, do not fight for any ideological cause other than their own survival and a need to find some dignity in the morass they were born into. Cielo, until the very end, clings to the hope that selling penny candies will stave off starvation and prostitution. Audiences are left to contemplate who bears responsibility for the roads they have taken.

From Asia comes an unprecedented exposé on the plight of illegal North Korean refugees living underground in China. Seoul Train (2004), by documentary makers Jim Butterworth, Aaron Lubarsky, and Lisa Sleeth, uses a combination of interviews with government officials, moving personal testimonies, and footage shot with a hidden camera to create a stunning portrait of a humanitarian crisis in the making. Extreme human rights abuses and economic deprivation under the regime of Kim Jong-il have driven many North Koreans to seek political asylum in China. Estimates range that from 30,000 to 250,000 North Koreans have crossed the border between the two countries within the last few years. But what they find when they arrive is less than welcoming. The Chinese authorities view the refugees as economic migrants and forcibly repatriate hundreds every month. Defection from North Korea is a capital offense. Returned refugees face certain torture, and, most likely, execution.

Seoul Train follows activist Chun Kee Wan as he attempts to smuggle a group of North Koreans out of China and into Mongolia. We hear stories about the terrible conditions they fled and their fears about what will happen to the loved ones they were forced to leave behind. One woman, Nam Chun-mi, is eight months pregnant. The group is ultimately caught, imprisoned, and deported. Their courageous struggle is juxtaposed with the blathering of UNHCR officials and Chinese functionaries as they endeavor to explain their inaction in the face of this unfolding catastrophe.

Other festival highlights included Occupation: Dreamland (2004) by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, a remarkably candid view of life for U.S. soldiers stationed in Falluja, Iraq, before they begin a series of military assaults that effectively destroy the city; Mikael Wiström’s Compadre (2004), a provocative chronicle of the Swedish photographer’s complicated friendship with a poor Peruvian family he first met and photographed in 1974 while they were searching for food; and The Education of Shelby Knox (2005), an affecting portrait of a feisty teen named Shelby Knox, a good Southern Baptist girl from Lubbock, Texas, who becomes an unlikely advocate for sex education, by veteran documentary makers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz.

In an age where celebrity culture increasingly dominates the news and the pool of legitimate media outlets seems to shrink daily, filmmakers from around the globe face enormous challenges in getting their stories heard. Nonetheless, compelling and exciting work is being made, and the importance of being informed about worlds beyond our own borders – physical, cultural, intellectual – cannot be overstated.