Reel Life: Flick Pix
--- Pamela Yates directing Granito in 1982 in Guatemala, Part 1 of her Trilogy of Resistance and “Bill Nye Science Guy” using media against climate change deniers, both in films at 2017 Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, New York City
Mideast Migrants, No Justice - No Peace, and Media Freedom Issues Fill the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival
By Nora Lee Mandel
The 28th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival is one of the best socially conscious series of documentaries shown in New York City. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at IFC Center, most screenings June 9 - 18, 2017 were followed by Q & A’s with filmmakers, film subjects, Human Rights Watch researchers, and other experts. Here’s an overview of a selection of the engrossing and informative documentaries, most New York Premieres, shown on themes around:
No Justice -- No Peace
My additional capsule review coverage of the women-directed films at the Festival is posted at FF2 Media, plus my full review of 500 Years, the capstone of Pamela Yates’s Trilogy of Resistance.
Nowhere to Hide
City of Ghosts
Lost in Lebanon
The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies)
Muhi - Generally Temporary
The Blood Is At The Doorstep
Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
MIGRANTS AND THE MIDEAST
The continuing human fallout from the disruptive rise of ISIS and the ongoing Syrian civil war dominated the Festival. Each international documentary focused on a different aspect of this tragedy whose causes and impacts extend far beyond its origins.
Nowhere to Hide
Zaradasht Ahmed and Nori Sharif, the filmmakers of the Opening Night selection, received the Festival’s prestige honor, the 2017 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, named for the activist cinematographer. Their inside view of the war in Iraq is a revealing eye-opener for Americans who turned away when the U.S. pulled out in late 2011.
Kurdish/Norwegian director/photographer Ahmed specializes in empowering local people to document their own experiences. When he was filming at a medical clinic in the formerly diverse village of Jalawla, in the central Diayala Province of Iraq, just over three hours from his family’s hometown, he himself first interviewed the staff about the change-over and the wary optimism at the front-line facility. Similar to the arrangement of Guy Davidi with Emad Burnat for Five Broken Cameras (2011), he trained and equipped a dozen medics to continue filming.
But as militias filled the power vacuum that gradually made the area a “no go zone” inaccessible to outsiders, Sharif, a 36-year-old long-time nurse (seen at work in photo above), was one of the few who stayed on, even as the wounds to treat got more serious. He kept filming the violent chaos he was seeing on ambulance runs through the ruins, and the contrast to the rising stress on his wife and four children. ISIS starts infiltrating, then takes over in 2014; the doctors flee and he keeps filming. When ISIS threatens him as an elitist, and the clinic is wrecked, he takes the camera on their harrowing flight through the desert, that before just looked beautiful from a distance and now risks his families’ lives. He struggles to get to a meager refugee camp where his small children still suffer PTSD from bombings, and he helps set up a medical clinic. After five vividly chronicled years, he puts down the camera so Ahmed can bring his first-person story to the world.
Ahmed, along with producer/editor Mette Cheng Munthe-Kaas, participated in Q & A’s at the Festival. East Village Entertainment is distributing this powerful diary through North America for awards qualification. Producer Ten Thousand Images is also soliciting donations for Nori and his family and the others living in Sa’ad IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp at: Scroll down.
City of Ghosts
American director Matthew Heineman documents the stories of parallel, though more political, witnesses, in Syria, with this revealing behind-the-news documentary that had its New York premiere earlier this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. He interviews four twenty-something men who first got caught up in the Arab Spring to start web-casting protests in their ancient home city of Raqqa, on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River: “The Syrian revolution changed us.”
But they continued as citizen journalists when another authoritarian regime filled the vacuum. ISIS gradually took over to declare the capital of their caliphate, a geographic base that supported their extreme ideology. With ISIS tightly controlling its own propaganda media, any footage or photographs you saw on CNN, BBC, and other international outlets on what it was really like to live under ISIS’s brutal rule came through these men and their dedicated reporters as RBSS - “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”. This film includes additional images not seen before that searingly counter ISIS’s slick videos and social media posts. With ISIS not only hunting and killing journalists but also their families, they managed to slip out to still dangerous exile, where Heineman tracks their fraught exile in Turkey and Germany. They are buffeted by kudos, anti-migrant protests, and ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe. But courageously they persist.
My full review from 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Lost in Lebanon
With the West pushing against Syrian war refugees, British directors Sophia and Georgia Scott spent a year at the northern Lebanese border where Syrians first arrive, for the sisters’ second film looking at the psychological impact of war. They closely followed four people who would be regular folks in the U.S., from the youngest, Nemr who at 19 just wanted to be a high school student before his parents sent him out of the country to avoid conscription in the oppressive Assad’s army, to the oldest, Sheikh Abdo (seen in photo above), who at 39 takes seriously his traditional leadership role like a mayor for his community and tries to do all he can for them in a refugee camp.
Each is homesick and fearful for loved ones, as they describe the bombs and devastation they fled. But even as the directors show how well-organized they’ve been to try and be self-sufficient and useful during their difficult year among half-million Syrian refugees, the cameras intimately document the personal impact as the Lebanese authorities ramp up restrictions, with arbitrary arrests and paperwork, as well as denial of access to schools, housing, and supplies. As the four get more depressed and frustrated, their conditions seem like a recipe for radicalization (or worse), while all they want are normal lives. Unlike other films (let alone fundraising solicitations) that appeal just to pity, this is a thoughtful, articulate warning against the world’s continued inaction on this ongoing crisis.
My additional capsule review, focusing on the women.
The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies)
In a microcosm of Eastern European impacts and debates, a small village in Bulgaria has been ravaged by the invisible forces of globalization and Westernization that have left only 38 elderly residents and many abandoned houses. What is visible to them are the primarily Syrian refugees who walk through at night, and the direct democracy still new since the downfall of Communism. Director Tonislav Hristov returned to his homeland to patiently observe the effort of one man, Ivan the Postman (seen in the photo above), to bring all these issues together in one bold idea: he runs for mayor on the platform of opening up their village to welcome the asylum-seekers.
The migrants are trodding the same paths conquerers have used for centuries. Ivan watches them pass through, chased by border guards, and realizes they are a potential resource to revitalize the community with young families willing to work the fields and fix up the houses. The camera follows Ivan on his route each day as he not only delivers the mail but checks on each person, helps them out with chores – and feels each out for their views on the refugees and his idea. (The director pointed out, in answer to a question, that those favorably disposed were from families who in the past had been Turkish refugees.)
This all looks warmly promising until we get to see his opposition-- the long-time mayor who locks herself in her office keeping busy on the town’s only computer, and a loudmouth, long-haired, unemployed nationalist. Both take advantage of the old ways and nostalgia for the good old days -- she counts on her extended family to vote for her, and he whips up blame-the-migrants complaints while sitting around tables drinking beers. Where Ivan sees the refugees’ occasional stays in the empty buildings as pointing to a positive development, the others complain about dangerous vandals. Despite the lovely views of mountains and close looks at craggy faces, the hopeful vibes depressingly dissipate the more these negative agents are on screen, just like those getting louder in Europe.
FilmRise will distribute the film in North America, including through Amazon Video Direct’s Film Festival Stars.
Some of the men leaving Asia and Africa are economic migrants desperately seeking jobs. Debut feature filmmaker Adam Sobel intimately captures how their fantasies of opportunities don’t get to square with the realities of building the huge facilities needed for the 2022 FIFA World Cup of soccer, the world’s biggest sporting event, in Qatar, one of the Middle East’s richest countries. For this unique access, Sobel’s team was already based there when the government decided to counter the bad press about the conditions for the 1.6 million temporary laborers by staging a “workers welfare” soccer tournament among the contractors, dubbed “The Workers Cup”.
Sobel was able to interview the participants (seen in team photo above) living in the Umm Salal Camp run by the Gulf Contracting Company for over 4,000 laborers. Before try-outs begin, we hear the men from Ghana, India, Kenya, and Nepal rue their misleading recruitment and their hopes, while we see their exhausting work days and a scroll cites the restrictions that keep them behind locked gates, reminding one of the refugee camp he left. They recall co-workers who went violently crazy and point to where others were seriously injured. Two had played on good teams at home in Ghana and they have long-term dreams of getting on professional teams, one even lying to his parents that he already has. They even imagine scouts might see them play at this tournament, so they successfully negotiate for practice time.
In class divisions, the Indians work in air conditioned offices; Sebastian manages nine such labor camps and, as a loyal eight-year employee, he takes on managing the company’s team, too. But for all their condescending attitudes to the Africans and Nepalis, they also struggle with financial pressures and long-distance relationships, wishing to be promoted to a level that qualifies them to bring their wives. All the men are lonely, and all are big soccer fans.
As the championship games excitingly go on, there are swings between camaraderie and racism, with frustrated suspicions that other companies’ teams have non-worker ringers. There’s cheers and moments of restored self-respect, then they go back to being a cog in the regulations. Not a Hollywood victory, but a modest win-win for the companies, the workers, and the audience getting this first empathetic, insightful look behind the expensive facades.
Muhi - Generally Temporary
Muslim Palestinian boy Muhammed with a rare disease is seen as a migrant for medical care from the limited facilities in Gaza to a Tel Aviv hospital, living from ward to ward. Co-directors Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and American videographer Tamir Elterman movingly documented for over four years his and his dedicated grandfather’s life living in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions. While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education. The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war, give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrate Jewish holidays with him. When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison with the many glimpsed Arab patients and families to just condescendingly employ him as a janitor. Ironically, the prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the joyous thrill of mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school, are not available in Gaza and will keep him in this limbo as he will need new ones as he grows, for which the directors are leading a crowd-sourcing campaign.
My additional capsule review, and my commentary on the Jewish woman.
NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
The Blood Is At The Doorstep
Erik Ljung’s debut documentary is an extraordinarily detailed examination of a police shooting of an unarmed mentally ill African-American man, and an intimate portrait of the devastating, yet energizing, impact on his family.
Dontre Hamilton, 31, was shot 14 times in a public park across from Milwaukee City Hall, not far from where Ljung lives, and he was in contact with the family within weeks of the April 2014 deadly confrontation. Maria Hamilton is the grief-stricken mother, but is furious that since the first day when she told an officer that her son was coping with paranoid schizophrenia the investigation stopped and she could get no answers. Rather than the usual TV news approach of focusing on her tears and baby pictures, Ljung is with her week after week as she presses the police department, the medical examiner, the district attorney, and the mayor for facts and justice, and rails against the police union. Her older son Nate is guiltily shaken from his own problems when the police and press mix up his own checkered background with his brother to justify the officer’s shooting.
When Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri a few months later, the Hamiltons are ready to join a solidarity rally and start seeing their tragedy as part of a long-time national problem. Ljung stayed by them over three years, documenting how they gradually turn into nonviolent activists, and constructively push for changes in police procedures that can be used as a model in other cities. (He also frequently interviews besieged Police Chief Ed Flynn to get his perspective.) Maria becomes one of “The Mothers of the Movement” campaigning with Hilary Rodham Clinton, and founding Mothers for Justice.
The family’s experience directly intersects with simultaneous scenes in Ferguson from Camilla Hall’s Copwatch (that World Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival), Queen Muhammad Ali & Hakeem Khaaliq’s #Bars4Justice screened at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, and Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis’s Whose Streets, that Magnolia will release in theaters August 11. But even as the Hamiltons articulately take on leadership roles in protests and community training, they amazingly do not get sucked into rhetorical flourishes or physical confrontations celebrated in those films, but stay focused on keeping the peace and what could benefit Dontre’s legacy: the Milwaukee Police Department became one of the first in the U.S. to require Crisis Intervention Training for all officers. Nate, Maria, and another brother Dameion Perkins (seen in photo above) participated with the director in Q & A’s with each Festival screening.
The Festival included related screenings of Peter Nicks’ The Force on the beleaguered Oakland Police Department under pressure to reform and perform, the second in his planned trilogy of films exploring public institutions in Oakland: health care (The Waiting Room), criminal justice, and then education. My full review after Kino Lorber began theatrical run on September 15 in New York, the Bay Area, in Los Angeles on September 23, around the country, and then out on DVD/VOD.
Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2
Each of the documentaries on law enforcement rages against juries. One is an in-depth re-consideration of the jury experience, albeit without the racial element. French documentarian Florent Vassault met Lindy Lou Wells while working on his first documentary in the U.S., Honk (To Stop Executions) (2010). Lindy Lou served on a Mississippi jury in 1994, went along with the other jurors to find Bobby Wilcher guilty of fatally stabbing two women, voting to sentence him to the death. She has been haunted ever since.
Twenty years later, Vassault follows the 65-year-old Southern Baptist on a unique, thought-provoking quest through the Deep South landscape to find her eleven fellow jurors and see how they have reconciled with the trial and the sentence. She is one of the most effective interviewers I’ve ever seen on screen. Very personable, she disarmingly engages each former juror (as in photo above), who she tracks down one by one, about their memories of the trial and their reflections since. In comfortable living rooms, on porches, and drinking sweet tea on front lawns in rural and suburban towns, their dialogues with this very open and honest woman run the gamut of opinions and are unpredictably revealing -- from refusal to talk, blanked from memory, to eye-for-an-eye Bible-thumpers with no doubts or regrets. But she is gratified to find four who share her anguish that there was then no legal option of life without parole.
She also takes the director on a tour of her conscience, from returning to the courtroom and the prison where she became Wilcher’s sole visitor and correspondent in his last years, until his appeals ran out and he was executed in October 2006.
Lindy Lou is relieved to find younger family members of the jurors who question if they would ever serve on such a jury. I, too, was called to serve on a death penalty case jury. In the 26 page questionnaire that a higher court ruled potential jurors had to complete to weed out those against the death penalty, I successfully put in everything I could possibly think of that would disqualify me. So the final approved jury only consisted of those who are pro-death penalty. This film portrait is an unusually brave and frank look at that civic duty that bears a heavy responsibility.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
American investigative documentarian Brian Knappenberger specializes in delving into controversial people behind the internet. Celebrity sex tapes online are tawdry click bait, and cheeky Gawker was the online equivalent of a gossipy tabloid (several editors came from the British Fleet Street tabloid tradition). In 2012 it posted clips from a sex tape of WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea, seen in photo above), though it wasn’t the first to break the salacious story. Hogan’s lawyers initiated legal wranglings in his Florida hometown to get hold of the video, in the first celebrity sex tape case to go to trial. Gawker refused to take down the clip.
In the Festival’s Closing Night selection, Knappenberger immediately puts the well-publicized Bollea v Gawker Media in the political context of the attacks on the press around the right-wing conspiracy dial and the wider declarations from candidate Donald Trump: “We’re going to open up those libel laws, and you’re going to get sued like never before!” Gawker is more sympathetic as a defender of free speech than Hustler Magazine when it won a 1988 Supreme Court case defending their freedom of speech against Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The director interviews Gawker editors extensively on the personal toll of the suit and liabilities, and media reporters give an inside look at the trial when more and more expensive lawyers (staying in nice hotels) dragged out the case, excluding their insurance company. Only after their legal fees mounted over $13 million, and the court announced astronomical compensatory and punitive damages of $140 million did Forbes Magazine in 2016 reveal that billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel funded the litigation in revenge for Gawker outing him as gay back in 2007, quite a dish best served cold, or philanthropy as Thiel called it. Gawker was sold off (it still has profitable sub-websites) and the editors nearly bankrupted.
Other detailed case studies show a warning trend, from Hearst in history to how investigative reporters (proudly) outed casino-owner Sheldon Adelson as the secret buyer (and bully) of their newspaper – and lost their jobs. One wonders if the legal troubles fact-checking website Snopes faces is part of that trend.
Too bad the extended conclusion gets overly dramatic and heavy-handed. Many familiar clips from the 2016 Republican Convention of Thiel and litigious Trump on the campaign trail railing against the media pile on. These are intertwined with too many sanctimonious defenses of noble “speaking truth to power” journalism (even old school Edward R. Murrow and Woodward and Bernstein flash by), all citing wrapped-in-the-flag first amendment guarantees of free speech, accompanied by stirring music -- appropriating the very emblems the threatening side uses. In addition to a theatrical run, the relevant documentary is now streaming on Netflix.
Canadian director Nicholas de Pencier’s debut feature documentary is based on key chapters from Ronald Deibert’s 2013 book, with the subtitle Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, about the work of the public interest cybersleuths at his Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. They reenact how they first revealed how deeply the Chinese government had infiltrated the Dalai Lhama and other exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, India through software they dubbed Ghostnet.
His emphasis that the fastest rise in internet use will be in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America where both populations and government control are growing are vividly illustrated with on-the-ground examples. The posts by an activist against violence on women in Islamabad, Pakistan are sobered by news of how rape threats escalated to her murder. Activists are seen using the expanded WiFi connections for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro to upload video as the “Media Ninja” network (photo above) of their protests against the showy expenditures, even unmasking an undercover police provocateur, while the main TV networks ignored the demonstrations.
The documentary also points to governments that have controlled internet connections to track down regime opponents, such as Ethiopia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The Citizens Lab identified off the shelf American and Canadian software that makes possible this spying on citizens.
Some of Deibert’s insights are no longer shocking to a public inured by Alex Gibney’s Zero Days (2016) on the Stuxnet cyberweapon, how Arab governments have stymied the hopes of the Arab Spring’s Facebook revolution, the Russian cyberhacking of the U.S. election, repeated disclosures by corporations of data breaches, and especially the videos of police attacks on unarmed African-Americans that spurred #BlackLivesMatter. One woman activist offers good advice: the best security is livestreaming everything. Deibert keeps his faith with technological solutions to protect digital rights. (Now available on such streaming services as iTunes and GooglePlay.)
Human Rights Watch Film Festival also screened David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy as Nye’s mission for science literacy goes from his classic kids’ TV show to take on anti-science agitators directly through the media (in photo at top), a la his mentor Carl Sagan. This is the second feature-length documentary from these “science storytellers” whose Structure Films “makes films about people doing cool S.H.I.T– science, health, information and technology”. PBS will release the film in theaters beginning October 27, 2017 in New York City, and then expand to other cities nationwide.; it will be broadcast in 2018 on PBS series POV.
Many of these films are also shown at versions of the Human Rights Watch Festival in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, and Toronto. Watch for them as they open in theaters, streaming platforms, or broadcast on PBS or other channels.
Versions of this review are also at:
Film Festival Traveler – Mideast Migrants
Film Festival Traveler – No Justice, No Peace and Media Freedom
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; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix
Copyright © 2018