Amnesty International Filmfest

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Amnesty International Film Festival in West Hollywood. It was a collection of revealing documentaries and short films covering a wide range of topics that US audiences seldom get a chance to see. None of the films were produced by Amnesty, who merely programmed the series. The following are personal summaries of the screenings I attended with links to more information:

Hidden in Plain Sight (2003, USA)

Previously, Robert Richter’s series of documentaries, School of Assassins (1994), Father Roy: Inside the School of the Assassins (1997), and Crossing the Line (1999) were acclaimed exposÈs (the first and last were nominated for Academy Awards) of a Latin America militia camp funded by US taxpayers. Established in Panama in 1946 to teach various methods of combat and psychological warfare to Latin American soldiers, The US Army School of the Americas (SOA) was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. Pentagon spokesmen have admitted the SOA used torture training manuals through 1991 but claim they have been discontinued.  The school’s 60,000 graduates have included such figures as Manuel Noriega and Roberto D’Aubuisson (the notorious leader of the El Salvador death squads) and have been directly linked to the assassination of Oscar Romero and the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador.

Hidden in Plain Sight, directed by John H. Smihula, presents an update on the efforts of Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran and Catholic priest who is the leading figure in a grass-roots movement opposing the SOA (recently renamed The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operations) that has become one of the largest peace rallies in the US. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film is a talking heads documentary which effectively intercuts a wide range of opinion, from protestors to army officials, politicians, commentators such as Christopher Hitchens, and Latin American victims of violence such as Sister Dianna Ortiz. Informative and chilling, the film offers a grim examination of US and Latin American relations. Click here to access the official site.

My Terrorist (2002, Israel)

One of the highlights of the festival was this personal essay video by Yulie Cohen-Gerstel. In 1978, she was wounded by a Palestinian machine gun attack onboard a bus en route to the airport. Recently, Gerstel (who served in the Israeli army) stepped outside her upper, middle-class life to work as a photojournalist in the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and was shocked to discover the rampant poverty and living conditions of the Palestinians. Deciding that Palestinians and Israelis alike contribute to a cycle of violence, Gerstel located her attacker, a man named Fahad Mihyi who was beginning his third decade of a life sentence in a London prison, and began a coorespondence of reconciliation which culminated in her lobbying for his release. Immediately becoming a subject of controversy in the Israeli media for her willingness to forgive, Gerstel documents her hopes and aspirations — as well as her doubts and evolving complexity of feelings — throughout this transformative period. Personal and revelatory, Gerstel’s film offers a nuanced and challenging self-portrait. The film was distributed by Women Make Movies and won a Special Jury Prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

Respire (2003, France)

A striking, 3-minute music video, Respire is a whimsical animated short film for most of its running time and maintains a precarious balance between clichÈd images of nature and inventive compositions. The craft of the illustration and CGI rendering are exemplary, but it succeeds in delivering a punch through its evocative twist ending. Click here to download the video.

To Free the Slaves (2002, Canada)

Over 27 million people (mostly women and children) are currently slaves, narrowly defined as individuals who have been denied freedom of will through forced labor. (This doesn’t include sweatshops or imprisonment or a myriad variety of definitional gray areas.) Skillfully organized by segments, this documentary depicts the actions of various present day abolitionists. Canadians Jane Roy and her husband Glen Pearson redeem Sudanese slaves for $35 a person through Christian Solidarity International; Michel Larouche and Save the Children Canada rescue kids in Mali (repatriating 500 children from nearby Cote d’Ivoire in two years) who have been kidnapped and forced into slave labor; ex-prostitute Cherry Kingsley and Prostitutes Empowerment, Education and Resource Society (PEERS) advocate for child prostitutes in Victoria, British Columbia; Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit work to free bonded slaves in India who’ve accrued debts from such things as marriages, sicknesses, or a death in the family and spend their lives working as collateral to the loan, thereby never repaying the debt. The film is concise and brimming with personal interviews between courageous ex-slaves and abolitionist heroes.

Bus 174 (2002, Brazil)

This brilliant Brazilian documentary by writer/director JosÈ Padilha, his feature debut, has played at various film festivals (including Sundance) and it artfully reconstructs a horrific tragedy that occurred in the streets of Rio de Janeiro on June 12th, 2000. A city bus was hijacked by a desperate street child, 16-year-old Sandro do Nascimento, and the event was immediately captured by the national media, which broadcast the ordeal live hour-by-hour until its devastating conclusion. Incorporating that footage and later interviews with captives on the bus and the surrounding police, Padilha significantly deepens the material by juxtaposing a detailed account of the lives of Brazilian street kids in general and the life of Nascimento in particular, who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was 5 years old. A wide-ranging and comprehensive portrait of a city with a keen eye toward its social organization, the film succeeds in vividly describing the tragedy and its setting in unforgettable, multifaceted complexity. Click here to access the film’s official site.

Bombies (2001, USA)

After the US signed the 1962 Geneva Accords which prohibited military activity in Laos, US forces dropped 2 million tons of bombs on civilian targets in Laos (more tonnage than it dropped on Germany and Japan combined in WWII) between 1964 and 1973 and succeeded in hiding the action from Congress and the American people. Most of these munitions were cluster bombs, designed to break apart and rain down hundreds of smaller bomblets upon widespread areas. Only 70 to 80 percent of cluster bombs initially explode, however, and millions of unexploded bomblets remain in trees or beneath houses, buried in mud for decades waiting for the occasional curious child or farming spade to stumble upon and detonate. This highly informative PBS documentary examines cluster technology and follows demolition experts around Laos who continue to laboriously remove thousands of bomblets each year from villages and farmlands. First instigated by the Mennonite Central Committee which continues to teach Laotian children songs and perform puppet shows to educate the populace about the dangers of the bomblets (or “bombies,” as they are called in Laos), activists around the world have called for a global moratorium on the use of cluster munitions, which continue to kill and maim hundreds of civilians each year. Unfortunately, cluster bombs were still used by US forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan and most recently in Iraq. Click here to access the film’s official site.