I wish the Human Rights Watch Film Festival didn't exist. I wish it didn't have to. That there was no need for it. Of course, what I really wish is that the issues and causes it presented through cinema weren't still abound. But unfortunately, war, genocide, injustice, hate crime, poverty and too many other human rights violations and crises continue throughout the world. Wouldn't it be nice if even half of them could disappear, and the HRW only had enough content for one week instead of two? Well, as long as there is so much suffering on Earth, we must have these films, and therefore we must have this fest, which continues its 2010 run this Friday at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, in New York City.

NYC's event -- which follows Human Rights Watch fests in Toronto, London, Ottawa and Chicago -- does last two weeks (ending June 24) and consists of 30 films, mostly documentaries. While it's fair to include dramas, especially since some audiences prefer to experience such tragedies through films like Hotel Rwanda and The Killing Fields rather than docs, I'm less interested in those types of movies in this particular setting. The one dramatic work I've seen that's part of the HRW (its centerpiece selection), Raoul Peck's Moloch Tropical, is decent, but it doesn't have nearly as much an impact as the non-fiction selections -- and not just because it's a complete fiction with only thematic ties to the human rights concerns of Haiti.

In the past I've admitted that I'm not a huge fan of most humanitarian docs, particularly ones that merely function as ads for awareness and support. I'm not suddenly turning into the typical critic who recommends docs for their worthy cause alone. And many of the films I've been watching from the HRW aren't films I'd recommend as stand-alone cinematic works. But I can appreciate them as lumped together in a forum fully stated and accepted as being more about the issues than the filmmaking. For the next two weeks I'm allowing myself to get behind the causes and forgive those docs that put advocacy above an engaging narrative. I can put my heart before my mind at least once a year.

I will recommend some over others, of course. The fest's opening film, 12th and Delaware (which I haven't yet seen, but which Scott praised at Sundance), is not a commercial for a single cause. So that's a plus. Restrepo, which I'll focus more on next week, hardly even seems to fit the fest, as it's more a combat war documentary with only minor address of human rights issues (outside of the issue of war in general being a humanitarian concern). Other films do actually feature great storytelling and thought-provoking debates in addition to or outside of communicating humanitarian issues and calls for action. For part one of my HRW coverage, to be concluded next Wednesday, I especially urge you to see the first of the following films. But if you want to watch more, you can't go wrong with all five, especially if you get a package deal ticket and save ten bucks.




War Don Don

I came away from this film, about a war crime trial in the wake of the Sierra Leone civil war, unsure of my stance on the issue. It was rather shocking, actually, because I never expected to accept -- though not necessarily side with -- the defense of members of an atrocious organization like Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front, which was notorious for cutting off the limbs and genitals of both soldiers and civilians, including children. Primarily focused on the case of RUF commander Issa Sesay, who led after Sankoh's arrest and ultimately disarmed the rebel army, Rebecca Richman Cohen's film is very evenhanded, giving us as much time with Sesay's legal team as with the prosecution. There is also a lot of focus on RUF spokesperson Eldred Collins, basically the chief propagandist for the party, none of it with the kind of judgmental perspective you might suspect a film like this to have.

War Don Don
is really just another great Rashomon-esque legal documentary, albeit one with global importance, and one that brings up a lot of the uncertainties leftover from the Nuremberg Trials concerning the scope of accountability in crimes against humanity. The doc's balance might be surprising if you've seen Cohen's name previously attached to the films of Michael Moore (though only as an intern or assistant editor). But she has gotten a law degree from Harvard since then and I dare say she's surpassed her old master. Honestly, I don't think I've been more torn on whether or not an accused subject is truly guilty or not since The Staircase (if you haven't seen that one, Capturing the Friedmans may come to mind instead).

Another absorbing debate brought up in the film is whether there should even be this trial at all. Many Sierra Leone civilians question the need for the "special court," which cost more than $200 million (financed mostly by the U.S. and UK), when the money could be used for health care, food and other necessities of a country rated the third poorest in the world. Some survivors would prefer to move on. Others see the need for an International Criminal Court to make an example out of the RUF leaders so future atrocities don't happen. Cohen doesn't circle either side's logic. She instead provokes and feeds discussion, one you'll be surely having with others or yourself for quite some time after seeing the film. And you must see it, whether or not you can catch it during HRW.


Pushing the Elephant

Here's something I learned from this film: while Arizona may be harsh in its pursuit of illegal immigrants, it is apparently quite favorable to refugees being resettled in the U.S. Directed by Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel, Pushing the Elephant (also known as Rose and Nangabire) is a heartwarming story inside of an overlying heart-wrenching tale of civil war and displacement, following a reunion of a mother and daughter separated more than a decade earlier when Rose left the Democratic Republic of Congo while five-year-old Nangabire stayed behind with her grandfather.

It feels a lot longer than it is, partly because it is so efficient (the running time is actually only 84 min.) But the parallel narratives, in which Rose tours the nation and speaks about the war she fled and her hope to one day safely return to her homeland, while Nangabire adapts to her new school and the family she doesn't really know, are worthy of even more time than they're given.




The Unreturned

Another film about displaced peoples, this one directed by Nathan Fisher and concerning middle-class Iraqis living in Syria and Jordan, The Unreturned presents interweaving stories of five individuals (and their kin) forced to flee their country during or following the Iraq War mostly due to threats received from the insurgency. It's an interesting area of focus because these members of society, the businessmen and the medical professionals, are vital to the rebuilding efforts, yet they're therefore some of the most imperiled. I have to admit, though, to losing patience with the film early on, when one of its producers engaged in a distracting debate with a group of Christian refugees so angry and disillusioned that they called for him to answer for the War and aftermath. Ultimately, it is also too dependent on expository titles, which constantly take you out of the personal stories being depicted.


Iran: Voices of the Unheard

One of this film's three subjects also addresses the filmmaker at various points looking for answers, though the interaction is more powerful and necessary than the one in The Unreturned. Mostly this young man is angry at the likely "happy-go-lucky" viewer of the documentary, questioning his (our) understanding of the oppression he and others experience in Iran. "Do they know what it's like to be at war for eight years?" he asks. and "Do they know what it means when dancing is a crime?" Such reflexivity is especially significant given the context of the HRW as a whole.

The guy, who's life reminded me of the recent Iranian docudrama No One Knows About Persian Cats, also seems to consider himself an unworthy subject compared to other more frightened citizens. I wonder if he should, then, have come first rather than third, behind the elder, revolutionary school teacher and the nomadic herding family in the Persian desert, who maintain a lifestyle that's being eradicated by the Iranian government. Whatever the order, this is an important film, made secretly and therefore illegally by Davoud Geramifard. It's almost like an Iranian Iraq in Fragments, but a little more on the protest side and with subjects who are a little less fascinating.




Nero's Guests

Even after watching this relatively short film (only 56 min.), I don't completely grasp the significance of the title. And even with some understanding of it, I don't think it really benefits the doc, which is about an unfortunate trend in which thousands of poor farmers in India are committing suicide out of shame for their inability to provide for their families. Directed by Deepa Bhatia, it's an anti-capitalism film that would make Michael Moore proud. In fact, its primary subject, a journalist/activist named P. Sainath seeking to raise awareness of the issue, combating a media shown to be concerned more with fashion and the wealthy, is like the Indian Michael Moore. If only he was the one behind and in front of the camera and he really would be.

And at one point, this subject also confronts the filmmaker (and through him the audience), quite angrily, here in an argument about the coffee industry, which he states consists of white Europeans with blond hair and blue eyes exploiting the third world growers by cornering the market on processing, which is where the money's at. In times like this I wished Sainath was more like Moore, debating people not associated with the film that's attempting to present his side -- though it's mainly the fault of the filmmaker for engaging the way he does, from behind his camera. In the end, Nero's Guests is too much about the activist, and unfortunately the filmmakers themselves, than the suffering people it means to be fighting for, and for that they should be even more ashamed than those farmers.