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Human Rights Watch Movies: Child Abuse & Terrorism + Sex Workers & Corruption

Myanmar Military Brutality: Total Denial
Human Rights Watch Film Festival entry Total Denial.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: ‘Total Denial’

The destruction of democracy in Myanmar (or Burma) is well known. The brutal behavior of the military is equally familiar, but the extent and consequences of that behavior have rarely been shown to such chilling effect as in Milena Kaneva’s Total Denial.

Watching the personal accounts – clearly obtained under dangerous circumstances – presented in Kaneva’s documentary, one is brought face to face with the cruelty of Myanmar’s military junta. A defector, for instance, describes how he was forced to leave the military so as to avoid maiming and killing innocent people. Evidence of torture, murder, and the wanton destruction of homes is plainly displayed.

Yet, in the face of all this evidence, smartly dressed lawyers representing UNOCAL and TOTAL have been trying to deny the atrocities committed while belittling the individuals who have dared to bring them to court for the slavery, rape, murder, and torture of villagers who stood “in the way of progress” during the construction of the Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand, near the Andaman Sea.

In order to help international audiences relate to the events portrayed in Total Denial, Kaneva gradually immerses us into the local indigenous culture. The magic of local sounds, be it a young singer singing a folk song or the tolling of golden bells, are used for this familiarization, while images of children playing and interacting with their families in their undamaged natural environment are supposed to appeal to our sympathies. In contrast, the awe in which many of us hold global business empires is also highlighted, thus exposing our participation as shareholders, whether de facto or in spirit, in the events depicted in the film.

One of the most effective strands of this story is the contribution of Ka Hsaw Wa and his wife Katie, who have led a successful bid to force the corporate powers to face the reality of their compliance. Having resisted peer pressure to take up arms, Ka Hsaw Wa has instead opted to document the atrocities the military have committed in the name of progress. By bringing those crimes to the attention of the world, his efforts have had a devastating effect.

As long as affluent multinational corporations choose to ignore unpleasant activities occurring at the base of their towering empires, heinous crimes against humanity will remain unchallenged. Total Denial, however, demonstrates that there is a way not only to challenge those crimes, but also to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Total Denial will be screened at London’s 11th Human Rights Watch Film Festival (website).

‘Suffering and Smiling’

The mass suffering of the people of Africa has long been ignored by more affluent governments elsewhere. This neglect is compounded by the fact that much of that affluence has come from plundering the natural resources of the African continent – with little thanks or reimbursement to the people who live there.

Dan Ollman’s atmospheric Suffering and Smiling highlights the situation in Nigeria. Lone voices cry out against the injustices suffered by the general population while the country’s rulers maintain a culture of corruption, self-gratification, and ruthless domination of the people they purport to serve.

Suffering and Smiling takes an unusual approach to the problem, as the vitality of at least one segment of Nigeria’s cultural history is expressed in the film through the words of African singer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who started singing about Nigeria’s problems following the country’s independence in 1960, his son Femi, and their family. Yet, although much of the local population revel in the drive of the music they seemingly accept their situation, taking no action to improve their lot.

On the other hand, Suffering and Smiling also shows that many Nigerians are deeply concerned with the country’s sociopolitical situation, and are committed to bringing that issue out into the open regardless of the dangers involved.

The film’s music is particularly effective. With its unique lyrics (that defy “classical” musical structure), the singers and their fellow musicians manage to express their strongest views on Nigeria’s political climate with unequivocal clarity. The subtitles – even if at times unnecessary – never impinge on the effectiveness of the message and, in fact, complement it quite well. (The 65-minute documentary has dialogue in English and Yoruba.)

The shrine built in memory of Fela (who died in 1997) is an important symbol demonstrating that at least one small group of Nigerians is willing to commit themselves to help that country’s disenfranchised majority.

Suffering and Smiling is presented as part of London’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival from March 21-30. It will be screened on Saturday, 24 March at 19:00 at Clapham, and on Wednesday, 28 March at 21:00 at the Ritzy cinema Brixton 08707 550062.

‘Punam’

The right of a child to experience the joys of learning and playing is rarely disputed. Yet, as Lucian Muntean’s 27-minute documentary Punam shows, our world ignores the plight of millions of children like Punam Tamang, a motherless nine-year-old Nepalese girl caught in the inescapable trap of poverty and child labor. Learning and playing are shoved aside while young children, through circumstances not of their own making, are forced to perform the work of adults.

Muntean’s beautifully shot documentary takes us through Punam’s daily life in Nepal; her insights into her world make her particular case all the more poignant. Clothing, feeding, and caring for her father, sister, and brother, Punam makes no demands; she simply expresses the wish that her friends could afford to leave their work – breaking stones or making bricks – to join her at school. She also wishes they could have more time together to play, for playing is restricted to one day a week – on Saturdays.

Director/producer Muntean and producer Natasa Stankovic present a clear narrative, with well-integrated images of the tedious daily chores that Punam accepts as her responsibility. Using water from a communal spout, she washes up pots and pans, and rubs soap into clothes on large flat stones. Scenes of Punam buying meager supplies from the local food seller, taking her siblings to school, and preparing meals by peeling vegetables or by slowly grinding the food all help to create a picture of a child denied her childhood.

Yet, there is hope. Punam’s view of the future for herself and her siblings is positive. She is keen for them to do well at school so they can get good jobs when they are older. She is concerned for her sister who is debilitated by broken legs that have not properly healed.

Punam, however, doesn’t dwell only in the tedium of Punam’s life, as it also shows her appreciation of the little she has been given – such as her happiness at learning to spell English words in the classroom. But above all, this moving documentary tells us that Punam does not have the fundamental human right to make her own choices.

Punam is presented as part of London’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, from March 21-30th.

Punam will be screened on Tuesday 27th March at 18:30 and on Wednesday 28th March, at 18:15 at the Ritzy cinema Brixton 08707 550062.

‘Carla’s List’

The devastating effects of political inertia and lack of moral drive are difficult subjects to capture on film, but Marcel Schüpbach’s La Liste de Carla / Carla’s List manages to accomplish that feat in an effective and memorable manner. Throughout Schüpbach’s 2006 documentary, your attention is constantly focused on the injustices of unpunished crime. Although criminal behavior of the worst kind – in this case, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia – has remained mostly unpunished, through the medium of Swiss prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, a forthright symbol of the sword of justice, new hope arises.

Carla’s List depicts episodes of persuasion, confrontation, and frustration as Carla endeavors to bring the perpetrators of genocide in the Balkans to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Those moments are balanced with scenes showing the painful reality of victims still suffering from the knowledge that those responsible for massacring members of their families – in their own hometowns – remain free.

Images of the stark graves of the murdered victims contrast with the sweeping affluence and comfort of the world of high politics. The portrayal of the inner workings of Carla’s team, including moments of personal reflection in which they express the difficulties of their job, makes you feel that you are part of their dilemma. In fact, we are squarely faced with the question of how to change the apparent hero-worshipping of hardened criminals in parts of the former Yugoslavia. Our eyes are opened to the outright hypocrisy of those in power who succumb thoughtlessly to the persuasive personalities of criminals, thus allowing inertia – and ineptitude – to maintain a blinkered view of the evil among us.

Yet, Carla and her dedicated team provide are determined to bring those criminals to justice. As different names in her list of war criminals are gradually captured and brought before the Tribunal, the viewer is left with the feeling that in the hands of Carla and her team justice is being administered – with more yet to come.

A fine musical score by Michel Wintsch sets the mood well, ranging from the irresolvable pain of the memory of the deaths of family members, to a tremendous build up of activity as Carla and her team grind the wheels of politics closer to the fruition of their mandate.

The image of Croatian General Ante Gotovina – one of the names found in Carla’s list – captured unceremoniously in Spain while having dinner, mirrors a belief that with unrelenting persistence, any criminal remaining free (such as Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army), will inevitably suffer a similar undignified ending to careers founded on demoralizing evil.

Carla’s appointment as prosecutor ends in September 2007, but Carla’s List shows that the remaining fugitives should feel uneasy in their new guises.

Carla’s List has French and English dialogue, and English subtitles. It will be screened at the 11th Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on Tuesday 27th March 18.30 at Gate Cinema, 87 Notting Hill Gate and on Wednesday 28th March 18.30 at ICA The Mall, London.

Carla’s List / La Liste de Carla (2006). Dir. / Scr.: Marcel Schüpbach.

‘The Railroad All Stars’

Directed by Chema Rodríguez, Estrellas de La Línea / The Railroad All Stars traces the lives of a plucky group of prostitutes who live in dismal conditions near a railroad in Guatemala City. Determined to bring some dignity to their lives – and to get publicity for their cause – they form a soccer team, “Estrellas de la Línea.”

As a result of the girls’ sexy jokes, the film’s dialogue milks humor out of the situation while news commentators indulge these unlikely soccer players with amused encouragement.

It’s easy to sympathize with the team members who express their frustrations about their situation. It’s equally easy to admire the dedication of girls who study or work during the day, even while working as prostitutes at night or whenever they can. Genuine tears provide evidence that the girls do not like what they do, but abuse, police corruption, and social prejudice deny them the opportunity to improve their lives.

The Railroad All Stars heightens the contrast between their poverty-stricken homes and exotic locations they have always dreamed of visiting. Such scenes are supported with appropriately varied musical background (by Paulo Alvarado and Michel Peraza) – some of the best moments evoking the jaunty humor of the context.

The Railroad All Stars is in Spanish with English subtitles. Although the subtitles could have been more clearly outlined and timed more appropriately, Chema Rodríguez tackles the subject with such appealing humor and insight that his film is well worth watching.

The Railroad All Stars was featured in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival held in London at the end of March.

Estrellas de La Línea / The Railroad All Stars (2006). Dir. / Scr.: Chema Rodríguez.

‘Rosita’

Rosita was a 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl who liked drawing colorful pictures. One day, this young girl’s life was drastically changed when, on the way to school, she was invited into her neighbor’s house and was raped.

Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s powerful documentary Rosita captures the drama of the defiled child and of her shocked parents. While the Nicaraguan government, the Catholic church, and the media attempt to interfere in the lives of Rosita’s family, others fight to ensure that the girl’s parents will have the final say on whether their daughter should go through with the pregnancy. Initially, the family believes they have no choice – even though their daughter could die while giving birth – but they eventually learn that they can have a say in the eventual outcome.

Throughout the chain of events, we are reminded of the presence of the girl by a carefully worded script that phrases statements and questions the way a pregnant 9-year old would ask.

As part of London’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which runs from 21-30 March, Rosita will be screened on Tuesday, 27 March, at 18:30 and on Wednesday, 28 March, at 18:15, at the Ritzy cinema Brixton 08707 550062 www.picturehouses.co.uk. The filmmakers will be present at the screening.

Rosita (2005). Director: Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater. Screenplay: María López Vigil.

‘Hot House’

When Hot House was shown as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London, it was received by the audience in stunned silence. The chilling reality the film portrayed made it almost impossible for us to extricate ourselves from its powerful message – there was too much to think about; we could not drag ourselves back easily into our world of banal complacency.

Written and directed by Shimon Dotan, and produced by Arik Berbstein, Jonathan Aroch, Dikla Barkal, and Shimon Dotan, Hot House presents a number of Palestinian male and female inmates in the Ber Sheba, Ashkelon, Hadarim, and Megiddo prisons in Israel. These inmates face the camera with confidence, announcing their sentences and crimes of terrorism as symbols of their patriotism and courage. With intellectual frigidity they pledge their existence to what they believe to be their Palestinian cause. In their minds, sending suicide bombers to kill a maximum number of Jews is a legitimate and significant act of political endeavor.

With considerable pride, witness after witness testifies to their allegiance to this mindset. Asked if they felt remorse after the death of innocent children, they immediately answer, “Of course not.” The same individuals who express love for their own families smile proudly at the idea of their own children becoming suicide bombers for the sakes of their cause. We are also shown scenes of young inmates educating themselves, learning Hebrew, and taking university degrees. This is no ignorant population.

Within the walls of these prisons an extension of the Palestinian state is being established, maintained, and developed with a certain amount of compliance by the Israeli guards. More experienced prisoners lead a population in the region of 8,000, establishing a governmental structure that replicates Palestine itself, communicating frequently with the world outside by secret messages, smuggled mobile phones, and other undisclosed methods.

Ron Klein’s music adds considerably to the chilling effect. As the witnesses speak of their commitment to their intransigent beliefs, uneasy tones hover as a constant message in the background.

With unequivocal clarity Hot House brings into the open the ongoing conflict of interests that exist in the powder keg that is the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. The struggle for Palestinians and Israelis for their right to land and a living remains unresolved while one culture is dominated by another, and while injustices remain unattended and unresolved.

Hot House is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, with English subtitles.

Hot House (2006). Dir. / Scr.: Shimon Dotan.

Total DenialSuffering and SmilingPunamCarla’s List, The Railroad All Stars, Rosita, and Hot House reviews: © Rosemary Westwell.

Arts Critic Rosemary Westwell has written for several publications, including “The Independent” and “Musical Opinion.”

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sydney -

Thanks for the review. I was thinking of Netflixing the film but I image it won’t be available there for some time. Thanks!

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