For my second Doc Talk devoted to this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival (currently ongoing at NYC's Lincoln Center), I struggled with whether or not to include my thoughts on Restrepo, a documentary that I feel seems somewhat out of place with the rest of the fest and which I think definitely deserves a separate review of its own. But then I watched Enemies of the People, which like Restrepo won an award at Sundance, and which also is great enough to be given an isolated focus. And then I realized that my favorite film from the first week of the Human Rights Watch fest, War Don Don, is equally terrific.
So, I'm keeping the concentration on the event itself, which I admit I initially expected to be focused too much on docs that are ads for causes but which has shown me some really high quality works of non-fiction that must be seen in this or any sort of forum. Below I take a look at four films screening during the second half of HRW, Restrepo, Enemies of the People and the wrong-man legal docs In the Land of the Free and Presumed Guilty, which closes the fest.
The reason I think Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's war documentary is out of place at HRW is that, especially compared to the other films I've seen from the fest, it doesn't really tackle a human rights issue. I mean, yes, war is certainly something worth fighting against in terms of its affect on human life, but war alone is not really qualified as a human rights problem unless or until ICC-defined "crimes against humanity" occur. Restrepo may feature a few scenes concerning queries from civilians regarding the capture of suspect peers, but for the most part the film concentrates on a year in the life of U.S. marines immersed in daily combat in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
There has been some praise for Restrepo that likens the doc to The Hurt Locker, mainly because the film debuted at Sundance during the time Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq War drama was receiving a lot of Oscar buzz, but it's wrong to make such a comparison for two obvious reasons. One is that Restrepo is the real deal and two is that it involves an entirely different conflict, particularly in terms of the terrain. For example, the climactic battle depicted in this doc, if need be compared to a dramatic war film counterpart, is more akin to the many Vietnam- and World War II-set films dealing with the taking of a hill than the tense IED stuff of The Hurt Locker.
Restrepo could very easily be accessible to fans of those kinds of war films, too. Though it does feature interviews, conducted both during and after the year-long mission in focus, the filmmakers are right there "in the sh*t" along with the marines, enough that I constantly forgot that I was watching a documentary. Adding to the tone are the helicopters and the bomber jets, all of which sometimes seem staged. And at times there are even multiple camera angles on a scene, which isn't so common to any non-fiction works, let alone war-set docs. As a lover of war films (which I never understood psychologically since I'm such a wimp and a pacifist), I whole-heartedly recommend it to others -- if there are indeed still other enthusiasts of the genre (if so, where were you for theatrical releases of The Hurt Locker and Battle for Haditha?).
The main difference is evident in that climactic battle section of Restrepo, in which no American deaths are graphically shown, as they would be, probably in slo-mo, in a drama. At the moment in the story where this violence would be depicted, the filmmakers cut to and intercut between talking-head footage from two of the soldiers' post-deployment interviews as the men describe what happened. In spite of the ethical necessity of this device it actually is more emotionally affecting than it would be as visually presented. That said, it is also heartbreaking watching another sequence in which a marine is seen bawling upon discovery of one of those fallen from his platoon.
Restrepo is filled with true, distinct and memorable characters, some as surprising as the son of hippie parents who was never allowed a toy gun as a child. And for 93 minutes, you'll feel like you've lived a short time among them, as they make homoerotic jokes, dance to sexual Euro club music during down times and, tragically, lose some of their brethren. Regardless of whether or not it fits in the HRW fest, you must see it as soon as you get the chance (if not at HRW, the film opens theatrically in NYC and LA June 25 with other cities following in July).
Enemies of the People
This powerful and multifaceted documentary, for which its co-directors have received HRW's Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, has its roots in the long, confessional Holocaust film Shoah (especially the interviews with the ex-Nazis) and the recent personal investigative films from Argentina, such as Our Disappeared and Los Rubios. On one level it is a strictly historical project being conducted by Thet Sambath, whose father, mother and brother were all victims of the Killing Fields massacres during Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia during the 1970s. On another level it is also a moving film by Rob Lemkin about this project, which Sambath has been working on for the ten years leading up to the U.N.'s war crime tribunal.
At the center of the project is Sambath's lengthy interviews with the Khmer Rouge second-in-command (aka "Brother Number Two"), Nuon Chea, who has no idea of his interrogator's family history. These sequences remind me somewhat of the interviews with Robert McNamara for The Fog of War, yet they have that personal connection that allows for a greater emotional response. Yet it's pretty unsettling, because Sambath is incredibly easygoing and even forgiving during his encounters with Chea, who is admittedly apologetic to a degree, but who also watches the hanging of Saddam Hussein on television, commenting that the Iraqi dictator was a patriot and a "winner, not a loser."
Other sequences show us Lemkin and Sambath's travels to the infamous fields, where Sambath talks casually with men and women who were perpetrators or complacently involved in the killings. In one disturbing scene, Sambath and one of the admitted murderers laugh together as the former asks the latter to pretend to kill him, for historical purpose. And then the old man does illustrate, rather closely, how he would slit or stab the throats of his victims. It's one of those important yet very difficult viewing experiences, as significant as the thirty-year-old archive footage that Lemkin presents to us at the film's end, of piles and piles of bodies and skeletons.
Enemies of the People can get repetitive at times, as Sambath repeats some stories and information about his project here and there, but it is altogether as much a necessity as the compatible HRW doc War Don Don and any other historical documentary about the Holocaust or comparable mass slaughter. If you can take it, see it, and just try to imagine yourself in Sambath's shoes as he sits there next to or opposite the men responsible for the deaths of his parents and millions of others.
In the Land of the Free and Presumed Guilty
I must unfortunately lump these two films together, not just because I found them to be lesser films than the two above but more because they deal with such similar causes that I would repeat myself if I dealt with them individually. Like many films before them, both docs concern incarcerated men who claim innocence and whom have had unfair trials.
In the Land of the Free, which is directed by Vadim Jean (Jiminy Glick in Lalawood) and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is the more familiar case of the Angola 3, a group of men accused of a murder they allegedly didn't commit (one of them wasn't even in the Angola penitentiary yet). But in addition to the wrong-man concern, for which the trio even has the support of the murdered man's wife, as well as the common racial issue of innocent African American men being convicted with weak evidence and all-white juries, the film also deals with the human rights issue of long-term solitary confinement. Since the early 70s these men have been living in this way, which is clearly inhumane no matter what the crime or the measure of guilt. The film itself is very pedestrian stuff, even for a doc that seems most suited to air on TruTV or the History Channel, but as long as cases like this exist, each one deserves its own film and each should be viewed by all of us who live in the "land of the free."
Of course, people outside the U.S. also deserve proper justice, and that's where Presumed Guilty comes in. Co-directed by Mexican lawyer Roberto Hernandez (with Geoffrey Smith), who previously helped set an innocent man free with his short The Tunnel, this feature documentary follows the appeal trials of Tono Zuniga (pictured above), who was arrested and convicted of a gang-related murder he had nothing to do with. Apparently in Mexico, people are picked up randomly all the time and given that the justice system there is based on presumed guilt rather than presumed innocence, a large percentage of the people in Mexican prisons don't belong there. If you've seen Crude and think the outdoor Ecuadorian trial is strange, wait until you see the sadly absurd proceedings of Zuniga's trial. In terms of its narrative, I wish the film ended a lot earlier, which could have given it an All the President's Men kind of conclusion, but I will admit that in its continuation it has a dramatic third act that had me in tears -- I won't say if they were happy or sad tears, though.