Celebrating activism and exposing some of the more chaotic corners of world politics
Despite an avalanche of news and quasi-news programs, tabloid yakfests, and crudities like Cops, Survivor, and the latest horror, Temptation Island, “reality TV” is one of the more notable modern oxymorons. The world is teeming with upheaval in practically every corner, but you’d never know it from turning on the television. Major cultural and political shifts, even genocides, are either filtered through the lens of titillation, blatantly misrepresented, or ignored entirely.
San Francisco’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) in January 2001 addressed this pesky problem with one of the niche-iest formats of any fest, a three-day presentation of mostly documentaries on genocide, political activism, nuclear plant meltdowns, labor rights issues, and other troubling topics. While this would seem to be an automatic audience-chiller, the films assembled in this year’s fest are an exceptionally strong lot and well deserving of notice.
The opening film is Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, a fictionalized version of a Los Angeles janitors’ strike (unscreened by this reviewer). Loach is a rarity, a committed leftist filmmaker, and Bread and Roses is probably the highest-profile entry here. But it’s almost an anomaly in a fest in which seven of the nine feature-length entries (there’s one short) are documentaries. You can’t go wrong with reality.
Kevin McKiernan offers a crash course in an ongoing situation that has every element of a “good news story” but one that’s been steadfastly ignored by the mainstream media. Good Kurds, Bad Kurds brilliantly documents his dogged attempts to bring Turkey’s genocidal – there’s no other word for it – treatment of its Kurdish population to the world’s attention. McKiernan follows several threads. One is a family of immigrant Kurds in America who face constant harassment by a U.S. government afraid they’ll threaten relations with one of its biggest arms customers and launching pads for destruction: Turkey. Another is the PKK, the grassroots “terrorist” group fighting for a Kurd homeland that McKiernan befriends and interviews extensively. A third is the story of Ocalan, the legendary leader of the PKK who’s only alive because the European Union insisted Turkey not kill him if it expected entry into the EU. A fourth is Turkey itself, a “democracy” that’s also one of the world’s worst human rights offenders, with the burning of 3,500 Kurd villages and murder of uncounted Kurds to its credit. The shadowy presence behind all these machinations, dragged into the light by an unflappable McKiernan, is the U.S. government, whose black helicopters rain death on the Kurds. Kani, a Kurdish immigrant and activist, is bitter on the issue of American indifference: “I cringe when I hear the interest in the Tibet issue. And I think, what would it take to interest Americans in the atrocities in Kurdistan?” Despite the power of this film (shot by Haskell Wexler), American television refuses to touch it. It’s “a no-go” and “off our radar,” as one executive told McKiernan.
Tom Zubrycki’s The Diplomat turns the camera on another troubled realm that has received too little notice in the West. East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded in 1975 by Indonesian troops, with 200,000 of its citizens killed before it was taken over. Director Zubrycki uses a single person, an exiled East Timorese “diplomat,” as the foreground figure in this grimly effective story, which covers Jose Ramos Horta’s 25-year effort to broker his country’s freedom in the face of a vicious Indonesian government and an indifferent world. He’s a fascinating figure, a short middle-aged man unintimidated by the powerful interests around him. His fierce singularity of purpose and practical-mindedness – “I am not interested in ideological purity, the only thing that matters is justice” – gives him a grandeur that drives the drama. The film includes gruesome footage of the destruction of whole towns by Indonesian militias, so be warned.
On the local Bay Area front, there’s Jens Meurer’s Public Enemy, a passionate history of the Black Panther Party that was ten years in the making. Perhaps it took a French filmmaker to dispel much of the disinformation about the Panthers, who, as the film documents, carried guns legally and started out in a nonviolent mode before the police and the U.S. government (via the infamous Cointelpro program) took notice. One of the doc’s stars, one of the few major Panthers still around, is Bobby Seale, still articulate and happily unmellowed three decades after his heyday. Kathleen Cleaver (wife of Eldridge) was a key player in the group, and she’s shown continuing her work on a smaller scale, teaching law to students who’ve never heard of the Black Panthers. There are a few surprises here; at least this reviewer didn’t know that Nile Rodgers, leader of the great disco group Chic and producer of renown, was a Panther.
Slightly farther afield but still very much in the minds of many are the protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1999. This event in all its ragged glory is well captured in Shaya Mercer’s crazy-quilt doc coyly called Trade Off. There’s a familiar but fun sense of the left celebrating a success before it happens, with protestors dressing like turtles, whirling giant multicolored hula hoops, doing radical cheerleading in drag. But as the film shows, this was also a serious event that made partners of such disparate groups as steelworkers and street theater folk. Ultimately the combination worked. As a Seattle newspaper headline blared, “Summit Ends in Failure.” Among the film’s many small pleasures: an earnest young man dressed as a giant bee trying to explain global politics to a nonbeliever, and WTO officials finally made as uncomfortable as they’re making the rest of the world by having to nervously fight their way through a crowd of colorful protestors.
A couple of the docs are familiar from other local San Francisco fests. Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid’s superb Long Night’s Journey into Day focuses on South Africa’s TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), particularly examining the lethal, lingering effects of apartheid on a variety of victims of both colors. Another familiar work worth revisiting is Heddy Honigmann’s Crazy (right), which has a unique conceit. Director Honigmann interviews mostly Dutch soldiers who served in peacekeeping missions in the most volatile areas of conflict, from Bosnia to Rwanda to Cambodia. Each interviewee has a favorite song associated with the service that’s played to elicit a reaction. These reactions cover a wide emotional geography, from denial to near-breakdown as the often brutal encounters experienced are recalled. There’s an undeniable voyeurism in a film that forces people to relive traumas, but an equally undeniable power in watching them acknowledge the reality of their experiences. One soldier who served in Lebanon sums it up with terse poetry: “We were changing from cheerful kids to bitter men in a small world.”