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Nonviolence & Revolt at The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015

By Nora Lee Mandel

The New York stop of The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, June 11 to 21, 2015, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, provided intense, close-up views of some of the worst problems people inflict on people in the United States and around the world. The most hopeful feature documentaries seek nonviolent solutions, justice, and perseverance against all odds.

The Yes Men Are Revolting
The Wanted 18
The Trials of Spring
Burden Of Peace
Life Is Sacred


The Yes Men Are Revolting

“Why are revolutionaries so grim?” was asked of leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a lecture I attended in the early 1970’s. He sneered a response. But for 20 years, since they met in 1996, “The Yes Men” have creatively wielded humor and chutzpah to confront capitalism. In their 2003 eponymous debut, they infiltrated corporate meetings as if they were World Trade Organization representatives with a radical message. In The Yes Men Fix The World (2009) they joined with environmental organizations such as Greenpeace to focus their lively pranks on corporate-created catastrophes, such as the chemical disaster in Bhopal, and profit-taking from Hurricane Katrina. Now in their ‘40’s, they are here helped by co-director Laura Nix to seriously document how they face personal and professional challenges over five years to continue their brazen style of activism. From each of their hometowns, there’s the revealing perspective that their parents’ and grandparents’ Holocaust experiences inspired them to question authority from their youths. They now struggle with changing relationships (Jacques Servin, from Tucson, AZ, known as “Andy Bichlbaum”, lets startled environment activists in homophobic Uganda know he’s gay) and a growing family (Igor Vamos, a.k.a. “Mike Bonanno”, transplants from upstate New York to his wife’s Scotland), as well as each other. Are they burned out or will they manage to, um, capitalize on a new generation of activists to train around the world, as seen in 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, and the rise of social media to mobilize and dramatize climate change? (Launching “Survivaballs” at the UN’s International Conference on Climate Change was a colorful attention-getter; they advised the then-president of Maldives on his underwater press conference as seen in The Island President.) This informative and entertaining joint portrait is an encouraging start. (The Orchard theatrical release rolled-out on June 12.)

The Wanted 18

Canadian filmmaker Paul Cowan and Palestinian artist Amer Shomali (whose visa problems with the U.S. and Israel prevented him from attending the premiere) use humor in the most unlikely place – the occupied West Bank. A narrator adopts the tone of “Once upon a time in Beit Sahour” a town of 10,000 people near Bethlehem, that was Shomali’s parents hometown, to tell the story of an effort at nonviolent resistance during the First Intifada in 1988 that turns into an absurdist comedy in the spirit of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Archival news footage, interviews with now-older participants, reenactments of their younger selves filmed on site in the same locations (including extras re-living the events), drawings, and amusingly anthropomorphic talking animals in stop motion animation (benefitting from the resources of the renowned animators of the National Film Board of Canada) are creatively edited into a multi-media collage.

Idealistically impractical, a peacenik on an Israeli kibbutz sells 18 cows to the townspeople who are used to being goat shepherds and have no experience with cows, as becomes obvious to the perturbed (English-speaking) cattle, including Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka, each with a distinctive personality. Determined to boycott Israeli goods, a calamity of slapstick errors keeps thwarting the villagers’ avoidance of Tnuva, an Israeli cooperative with a milk distribution monopoly. Worse, the military governor (who shrugs through his essential interview) links this economic issue with political resistance to the occupation and declares “These cows are dangerous for the security of the state of Israel." Ironic hilarity ensues as the town unites to try to hide the cows and their "Intifada milk" from soldiers (the butcher has a surprising role). Reminding me of Norman Jewison’s 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, with a much more rueful ending, that I’m not sure provides the nonviolent alternative model to the younger generation that the directors intended. (Kino Lorber theatrical release rolled-out June 19.)

The Trials of Spring

The “Spring” is “the Arab Spring” of 2011 and the title covers the launch of a multi-media project, produced by Abigail Disney, Sally Jo Fifer, Gini Reticker and Regina Scully, of international social media outreach, a feature documentary, and a series of six very moving short films [streaming at The New York Times], each focusing on, through interviews and news footage, a different woman activist about what brought her to protest in 2011 and what has happened to her since – from tragic to exile to continually inspiring:

Bahrain: Our Oath - directed by Lauren Feeney about Dr. Nada Dhaif;

Egypt: Life’s Sentence - directed by Dalia Ali and Feeney about Hend Nafea;

Libya, Wake Up Behghazi! - directed by Cameron Hickey and Zainab Salbi about Salwa Bugaighis;

Syria: Brides of Peace - directed by Feeney about sisters Kinda and Lubna Zaour;

Tunisia: Keeping the Promise - directed by Mona Eldaief and Feeney about Ghazala Mhamdi; and,

Yemen: When Is the Time? - directed by Feeney and Sarah Ahmed about Belquis Al Lahabi

In the project’s centerpiece premiere, Reticker followed-up and expanded on the report from Egypt to include more detail on the political evolution of the now 23-year-old brave and stubborn Hend (featured in a 2012 New Yorker piece), and the people who have replaced her disapproving family in her life for crucial solidarity– a maternal older mentor, a young woman supporter, and her legal team. Each tells their story of the protests and the personal aftermath. This is a sobering look at the impact on women, in particular, beyond the slew of too-quickly optimistic documentaries about the “revolution”, such the Oscar-nominated The Square (Al Midan). She step-by-step walks through her changes from Tahrir Square, to the “double revolution” she staged at her rural village home when her family locked her up, to her brutal treatment by police and the courts, and copes with a life sentence hanging over her. We see her grow in confidence as she works for the legal rights organization that takes up her case and many, many others, and passes on to their clients her hard-won knowledge and empathy. A post-filming update: her lawyers have now recommended that she go into hiding while they still hope to ameliorate her harsh sentence.

Burden Of Peace

Claudia Paz y Paz is what a Hollywood hero should look like! After decades of dictatorship, civil war, civilian slaughter, assassinations of prosecutors, and a rising homicide rate (a narrator solemnly intones over archival footage of the terrible numbers and horrible atrocities), an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala demanded an open and objective process for the appointment in 2010 of the next head of the national Public Prosecutor’s Office. To everyone’s surprise, President Álvaro Colom chose Paz because she scored highest in the selection committee’s evaluations. The human rights activist and champion of the indigenous population launched a tumultuous four-year term as the country’s first woman in the post.

Taking her at her word for establishing a new era of openness and transparency, Dutch filmmakers Joey Boink and Sander Wirken follow her, in intimate cinema verité, throughout her difficult and fraught term that is exhilarating and tense. The first villains she faces down are the bureaucrats in each regional office, where silent smug men sit around conference tables with arms folded. She warns they must show progress in the new uniform database of crimes, victims, perpetrators, cases brought and adjudicated -- or they won’t get paid. Reeling off the shameful stats in their jurisdictions, the petite mother, casually dressed with long red hair, insists they go after both kingpins who have killed for political and territorial gain, and drug gangs killing for market share. (“Impunity” is constantly thrown around as a jargon term for the whole corrupt system, not quite how it’s used in American English.)

When a new president is elected in her second year, another Old Guard villain out of central casting, the head of a well-funded business organization, mocks her crusade in extended interviews, and sneers at her mentor, a murdered archbishop who first investigated the regime’s crimes. In trial footage, she persists against the leader of the former military junta (cue the scornful Latin American general), and wins on the charge of genocide, a first by any domestic court anywhere. Traveling on a whirlwind schedule with security guards and special trusted police, she is tearfully embraced by families of victims and indigenous massacre survivors, as the conviction rate goes up 35%. And then the opposition really goes out after her in the media, the legislature, and the courts, shown in a torrent of clips and sound bites. For those of us not familiar with recent Guatemalan history, the suspense ratchets up – Can she persevere until the end of her term? Another term? Can she make lasting change? Heck, will she survive? This documentary has all the drama of a wrenching bio-pic!

Life Is Sacred

A lot of South American political stereotypes are shaken off in this exuberantly refreshing quest to bring that hopey changey thing to Colombia. In a country known for drug lords, Marxist guerrillas, and brutal paramilitaries, every family has been touched by violence. In 2010, college philosophy professor/former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus is sure his grassroots and community organizing ideas to stop the violence can be put into practice on a national level, so he runs for president. Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard tags along with him and the dedicated volunteers he inspires through the campaign and four years through to the next election.

While following in the close-access style of seminal election documentaries, from Primary (1960) to the Oscar-nominated The War Room (1993) (cinema verité pioneer DA Pennebaker was in the crew on the former and co-director of the latter), this fresh, unconventional campaign is amazingly uncynical, even as professional politicians come on board to help when it looks like he has a chance (and are more leery of the camera). Mockus seems to care less about winning and more about convincing an entire country -- one person, then one rally and another city at a time -- that civil society is possible.

Small groups with Green Party T-shirts, super-hero capes, chants, and anti-violence slogans (like the film’s title), songs, body paint symbols, and props (like pencils as in mightier than the sword) become large throngs, and they enthusiastically surge into the run-off. His support is driven by a new generation of optimistic first-time voters, like 22-year-old Katherine Miranda who canvases neighborhoods while tearfully explaining how her father’s death motivates her new career. Just when the impossible dream has a chance, the establishment hits below the belt with a political consultant’s dirty tricks buzz saw of rumors, lies, and fears straight out of Rachel Boynton's Our Brand Is Crisis (2005) and seen similarly close-up in Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated Street Fight (2005). It’s a rude reality check for all. Though the quixotic candidate’s joyful, artistic tactics could be (uneasily) shifted to a Fascist and/or Peronist demagogue, Mockus goes a mighty step further, even as his steps falter due to Parkinson’s. Under pressure to be ordinary, he instead uses the entire experience as a teaching moment in commitment to democracy in action for all his supporters. His shining example finally converts key professional politicians who cannily catch the peaceful wave. This is a rare upbeat selection for a usually depressing festival.

June 18, 2015

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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