Exposing Indecency

You might assume that with Los Angeles’ heavily packed cinematic calendar, the last thing this town needs is yet another film festival, especially one landing smack in the middle of Memorial Day weekend. Well, you’d be wrong, because the Amnesty International Film Festival (AIFF) -which held its fourth L.A. edition this year on May 24-29 at the Director’s Guild of America- is just what this town needs to shake us out of our soy-latte induced, navel gazing complacency. This year’s festival slogan was EXPOSE, and indeed viewers were exposed to a veritable panoply human rights abuses and urgent issues, ranging from child labour to environmental disasters, from genocide and ethnic cleansing to globalisation, from child conscription to the war on terror, from workers’ rights to unjust imprisonment.

Clearly, not a light-hearted program, but that did not deter audiences from flocking to see 26 disturbing yet powerful films, made with compassion and intelligence, delving into issues often ignored by mainstream media. What started as boutique festival in Seattle in 1992, this year AIFF showcased films from 18 countries, spanning the four corners of the globe: Sudan, Rwanda, Liberia, India, China, Cambodia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba to name a few – a veritable crash course in third world geography.

Responsible for the excellent and careful selection, is Alessandra Gallo, the festival director, who combs through the thousands of submissions and scouts suitable films from other festivals. “There are a number of criteria for choosing a film, but I pay great attention to the editing and photography as well as the content. I seek films that can tell a story, and that relies mostly on good editing” she comments, adding “ There are a number of issues that Amnesty International works on, and when I find a documentary that highlights one of them, I try to include it in the festival. Since there are new Amnesty campaigns that come up all the time, that affords me a lot of variety”.

The 2005 season starts in LA and then tours the country – with an evolving program as certain films obtain distribution, new ones are added – visiting Pittsburg, Washington D.C., Seattle, and Salt Lake City in the fall, and later to Asheville, N.C. in January 2006.

** Some of the films were previously reviewed by International Documentary, and hence are not examined in this article include: Shake Hands With The Devil, Seoul Train, Mardi Gras: Made In China, Twist of Faith, Liberia: An Uncivil War.

Kief Davidson’s & Richard Ladkani’s Devil’s Miner is a Dickensian tale of child labour in the most dangerous of professions: mining. This is a heart-wrenching story of two teenage brothers, Basilio and Bernardino, toiling away, in conditions terrifying even for adults, in the dwindling Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosí (Bolivia). Staving off hunger with coca leaves, eeking out a meagre existence to support their widowed mother and baby sister, and awaiting with childlike eagerness for a day off so they can attend classes at school, the filmmakers showed how brotherly love and candid cheerfulness can still blossom in the darkest conditions.

Bhophal: The Search for Justice [ dir: Lindalee Tracey & Peter Raymont ] revisits the effects of Union Carbide’s deadly leak of methyl isocyanate gas, the fastest poison in the world, two decades later. The survivors struggle against government indifference, continued corporate negligence and risible compensation amounts, facing a conspiracy of silence on all sides, despite mounting evidence of genetic abnormalities in newborns and toxic drinking water. This beautifully photographed, haunting film follows local journalist Rajkumaar Keswani’s fight to bring the issue back to the fore.

The theme of corporate biological terrorism is continued in Between Midnight and the Rooster’s Crow, an in incredible debut from newcomer Nadja Drost. Debunking the myth of corporate social responsibility, Drost shows how in the search for the liquid black gold, slogans such as biodiversity and environmental protection are just cant for ENCANA corporation’s activities in Ecuador. Despite protest from the indigenous people – who are once again ‘silenced’ or duped with trinkets, and mirrors, only now they’re green dollar bills and the promise of infrastructure – the OCP pipeline is built along the side of a volcano and crosses 89 faultlines. This is a brilliant investigative piece, cut to melancholy pan-pipe music, on yet another example of egregious corporatism abroad.

After watching the harrowing short On The Frontlines – Child Soldiers in the D.R.C. (about the forced recruitment of children in Congo, where minor account for 60% of combatants), I was by now in dire need of cheer. Fortunately Marc Allen’s War Games provided it. In parts of southern Sudan the death rate is so high that “vultures cannot fly, hyenas cannot run”. But despite lack of running water, the threat of military incursions, and the occasional cow on the football field, an effort is made to bring happiness to a region steeped in sadness: the TWIC Olympics is where thousands of youngsters come together to compete, barefoot yet enthusiastic, in events – such as the long jump – whose existence they truly doubt. With diligence and seriousness the organisers set about to ensure the rules are followed, and in the true spirit of sportsmanship ‘taking part’ is what is most important.

Beautifully edited, with a pounding score, stunning visuals and excellent use of stop motion photography, Brit Marling’s and Mike Cahill’s Boxers & Ballerinas explores what a difference 90 miles make: a dynamic look at the destiny of two boxers and two ballerinas, one born in Cuba, the other in Miami. Avoiding facile clichés, the film really questions the slogan: “where you live is who you are”.

But history has the annoying habit of repeating itself, regardless of geography, as I learnt in the last film I saw. State of Fear is the best potted history of the bloody and tragic saga of modern Peru ever made. With a deft hand, incredible use of archival footage and interviews, Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís & Peter Kilnoy lay the groundwork for this complex yarn: using the Truth & Reconciliation Commission as departure point, they go back in time and explain the birth of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, the atrocities committed by both the terrorists and the anti-terrorist police, the Tupac Amaru hostage crisis, and the demise of the Fujimori regime. When body count is in, 70,000 Peruvians died during the years of terror, and countless others were tortured.

But what was most disturbing were the parallels between the Peruvian military response and the current U.S. involvement in Iraq: marines were sent to the mountainous terrain of the Andes, not understanding a word of the local Quechua, and incapable of distinguishing between innocent villagers and Maoist guerrillas. If only Washington were to watch this cautionary tale, there may be fewer lives lost in the Sunni triangle today.

Yet what is truly unique about the A.I.F.F. is that experience does not end once the credits roll and the lights go up. Amnesty International representatives and speakers from other organisations were on hand during the Q&As to assist and encourage any viewers spurred by the films to become more actively involved. “It is important not to feel hopeless and helpless at the end of the screening, but empowered that you can actually do something about it, ” emphasises Ms. Gallo. “The main distinction between us and other festivals is that Amnesty International has two million members to work on actions and follow up, doing more than mere advocacy”.

In these days of celebrity worship and presidential falsehoods, the hero-myth has been debunked. But every single one of the films had real heroes – whether the filmmaker facing threats and lack of finances in bringing an issue to the fore, or the lonely protagonist of the film, struggling against a corporate Goliath. I stepped out into the California sunshine, grateful for the good fortune of having been born in the affluent hemisphere, ashamed of Western corporate practices, but a far more informed and active citizen of the world.

Originally printed in Documentary — December 2005