Critic’s Notebook: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival

June 13th, 2013

“Don’t change your culture. Understand your culture.”

That challenge is delivered as a stern warning to Coumba (Dior Ka), the first member of her rural Senegalese family to be formally educated, in the spare, moving film “Tall as the Baobab Tree.” Those words, spoken by Coumba’s mother, encapsulate a guiding theme of the 24th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center through June 23 at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center. The festival’s director, John Biaggi, describes the theme as the conflict between traditional patriarchal values and human rights.

Conceived as a simple folk tale based on true events and using local, nonprofessional actors, “Tall as the Baobab Tree” — the festival’s closing-night selection — was directed by Jeremy Teicher, an American filmmaker working in the plain neorealist style of Satyajit Ray. It tells the story of Coumba, a smart, defiant teenager torn between her duties to her family and her desire for a better life for herself and Debo, her younger sister.

When her older brother injures his leg after falling from a baobab tree and is unable to tend the livestock, Coumba is dispatched to take his place. She arranges for a friend to stand in for her while she goes to the city to work as a hotel maid to earn money for his medical bills. Meanwhile her father arranges for 11-year-old Debo to marry a rich, much older man. Coumba and Debo strenuously resist.

The film festival, conceived as a cinematic arm of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental research and advocacy organization based in New York, has gained increasing visibility over its lifetime. Last year one of its documentaries, “The Invisible War,” sounded the alarm on the plague of sexual assaults in the United States armed forces, which Congress is now addressing. Whether the film directly spurred Congressional action, however, is unclear.

This year 7 of the 20 films being shown address issues related to women’s rights. Freida Mock’s “Anita,” the opening film on Friday in the festival’s main slate, is a portrait of Anita Hill that revisits the 1991 Senate hearings around the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, in which Ms. Hill testified that he had sexually harassed her.

Seen in retrospect, the merciless grilling Ms. Hill endured from congressmen, some responding to her testimony with disbelief and contempt, was infuriatingly shortsighted. Unflappably poised and dignified, Ms. Hill, whose testimony helped change the perception of sexual harassment in the workplace, stood her ground. The film examines the personal values of Ms. Hill, the youngest of 13 children. Some of the most moving scenes show her surrounded by her strong, supportive family at the time of her testimony.

“Anita” is one of two high-profile films to be shown in this year’s festival. The other, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” about the tribulations of the insolent radical feminist punk rockers in Russia who incurred with wrath of Vladimir V. Putin, is now being shown on HBO.

Superstition and modern medicine clash in Harry Freeland’s documentary “In the Shadow of the Sun,” which explores the perilous existence of Tanzania’s 170,000 albinos. Some of them have been hunted and dismembered in the belief that a severed limb of an albino will bring riches. The film focuses on Josephat Torner, an albino activist who travels through the country challenging that myth spread by witch doctors. It also follows Vedastus Zangule, an albino teenager and pariah in his village, who looks after his ailing mother. He is unable to attend a protected school for albino children because it is too full, and his daily life is a struggle to avoid harm.

The festival’s subthemes include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; disability rights; and crises and migration. The centerpiece, Raoul Peck’s “Fatal Assistance,” is a devastating study of the damage done in Haiti by international aid agencies in the chaotic aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake there. While billions of dollars were squandered, little money was made available to remove debris.

Of the three films that examine human rights in the United States, one of the strongest is “99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film,” which weaves the work of almost 100 filmmakers from around the country into a forceful polemic against economic inequality. Scenes of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and their offshoots, particularly in Oakland, Calif., create a sense of the movement as a more cohesive and better-organized rebellion than has been widely portrayed. The film suggests that the protests are far from over despite the current lull.

The movie doesn’t disguise its left-wing sympathies with the protesters, and it is bolstered by pungent political commentary from talking heads including Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine; the author Naomi Wolf; and Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild.

Two films, “The Act of Killing” from Joshua Oppenheimer, and “Camp 14 — Total Control Zone” from Marc Wiese, contemplate almost unimaginable real-life horrors. In “The Act of Killing,” Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who joined in the mass murder of suspected Communists and others in Indonesia the mid-1960s, gleefully recreate the scenes of their killings for the camera.

Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of “Camp 14,” who was born in a North Korean prison camp and escaped when he was 23, tells his story of forced labor, near starvation and torture. At 14 he was forced to witness the execution of his mother and brother. Profoundly traumatized, he ultimately confesses that he wants to go back to the camp, which is the only place he understands. The only scenes filmed inside the camp consist of amateur footage taken by a former guard who robotically recalls atrocities he committed.

The best of us and the worst of us: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival examines the limits of human behavior with a thoroughness and a hardheaded compassion that challenge us to confront reality in all its extremes and be the wiser for it.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs through June 23 at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center; ff.hrw.org.

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