Monitoring World’s Atrocities

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival keeps humanity’s dark side in focus

Governments around the globe who commit human rights abuse are responsible for massive suffering and exploitation, but just as damaging can be the indifference of those who turn a blind eye to the situation, a group that is far larger than the perpetrators themselves.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, an annual event in New York, is accordingly never at a loss for material. One interesting trend in this year’s selection of films is the focus on narrower, quality-of-life issues alongside the more obvious abuses facing people.

Here’s a closer look at four films from this year’s festival.

Making its New York premiere is “The Education of Shelby Knox,” made for the PBS “Point of View” series, airing on Channel 13 on June 21. This documentary tells us how Lubbock, Texas, has abnormally high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and yet, the board of education there refuses to pursue a sex-ed policy that goes beyond advising abstinence—an approach clearly failing the community.

The film focuses on high school sophomore Shelby Knox, who is part of the town’s youth initiative to provide realistic alternatives to abstinence. She is a good Southern Baptist who pledges to wait until marriage to have sex, but she’s refreshingly non-judgmental and open to questioning opinions and doctrines. Directors Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt show how Knox’s journey winds up including other groups, like gay kids seeking a gay-straight alliance at the school, and how Shelby sometimes finds herself without allies in her insistence that everyone be included in the effort.

If you ever wondered where all those beads in New Orleans come from, “Mardi Gras: Made in China” provides the answer. Director David Redmon shows us the Chinese factory where young women make hundreds of pounds of beads for about $12.80 a week, along with the kids who are trading “beads for boobies” stateside. Redmon captures the reactions of Mardi Gras revelers he stops to show images of the bead-makers. While some are indifferent and just want to see “Girls Gone Wild” behavior, others are genuinely upset about the Chinese work conditions. The women in China are just as surprised to discover that all of their hard work goes toward behavior they find socially embarrassing and unacceptable—and that most of those beads quickly wind up in the trash.

Also making its New York premiere is “The Liberace of Baghdad,” an illuminating look at what America has wrought in Baghdad, as seen through the lens of filmmaker Sean McAllister and his host, Samir Peter, an Arab Christian and once Iraq’s most prominent pianist. McAllister seems surprised when Samir’s daughters voice admiration for Saddam Hussein and say that things were better before the war, an opinion for which they are rebuked by their father, who reminds them of the former dictator’s many crimes. Clearly believing the Anglo-American message that Iraq’s “liberation” is a godsend to the populace, he soon discovers the everyday realities of life for the average Iraqi. Everybody is armed and, sometimes, just leaving the house means risking your life.

After seven months of being driven around by Samir, McAllister, who is British, hears his host complain that the job is causing him a lot of stress because the insurgents are stepping up their targeting of foreigners. McAllister says that the more security the hotel for foreign journalists gains, the less safe he feels, and he starts to see why Samir’s daughters preferred the security of Hussein’s regime.

Another frightening example of the harsh balancing of democracy and security is presented in the opening night film, “State of Fear,” which provides a 20-year history of Peru, in which society was beset not only by Shining Path terrorism, but also by the dictatorship of Pres. Alberto Fujimori. The meticulous chronicling of this tumultuous period—in which 70,000 Peruvians were killed—is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

The film begins with the origins of the Shining Path, a revolutionary movement led by Abimael Guzman, a charismatic Marxist-Maoist who appealed to the indigenous Peruvian’s sense of betrayal by the system. Within months, many Andean villages fell prey to these fanatical revolutionaries with a Pol Pot mentality; already impoverished peasants were terrorized and boys as young as eight were kidnapped for indoctrination and soldiering.

Meanwhile, in Lima, there was a willful ignorance of what was happening, until the late 1980s, when the violence reached the capital, with car bombs and policemen killed at the rate of two a day. In fear, the nation elected Fujimori in 1990, who moved within his first year and a half in office to suspend democracy by dissolving Congress and ruling by decrees. Even after Guzman’s capture and the disintegration of Shining Path, the Fujimori government continued to invoke fear of terrorism as a cover for media domination and the silencing and “disappearing” of political opponents.

After Fujimori’s ouster in 2000, Peru followed in the steps of post-apartheid South Africa by setting up a truth commission and demonstrating it was willing to confront its recent past with a clear eye. “State of Fear” serves as a chilling reminder of the potential for democracies to slip into fascism when terrorism does its deadly work.

Other noteworthy films also deserve mention.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Boys of Baraka” explores at-risk inner-city boys from Baltimore who go to an experimental boarding school in Kenya. They face strict academic and disciplinary programs to which they are unaccustomed, but they also are able to build skills that may have eluded them back home.

In “No More Tears, Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal,” Helene Klodowky explores the life and the brutal murder in 1989 of Sri Lankan human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, and her sister’s journey home to Sri Lanka to break the silence that followed in the wake of the slaying.

In “The Wall,” Simone Bitton talks to Israelis and Palestinians about the merits and downside of the wall that Israel is building in the West Bank to prevent suicide bombers from crossing into its territory.

“A Midwinter’s Night’s Dream” is Goran Paskaljevic’s narrative film that explores post-war Serbia through the experiences of a soldier who comes home to find Bosnian refugees squatting in his former home.

“Videoletters” is a series of 20 short documentaries made by Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek during a five-year period that chart the attempts for war-weary Yugoslavians to find ways to reconnect by sending someone of a different ethnicity a message of introduction done on video.