Friday, June 13, 2008

On the Front Lines

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
June 13-26
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street

Ariel Dorfman in A Promise to the Dead (courtesy White Pine Pictures)
Whenever brave filmmakers show audiences the stories of even braver individuals willing to fight against injustice in all its forms, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival -- now in its 19th year at the Walter Reade Theater -- is the place to be enlightened by their vital work

The events of 9/11 and their aftermath still reverberate among directors, and this year’s series is bookended by a pair of films that look at the legacy of 9/11. Of course, to Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, whose anti-terror allegory Death and the Maiden was a huge Broadway hit, September 11 has a double meaning: This was also the day that General Augusto Pinochet’s forces overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende, beginning a two-decade reign of terror.

In the opening night film, A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, the expatriate returns to his homeland. He relives the horrific occurrences of that black day and has an emotional reunion with friends who survived Pinochet’s rule. In addition, Peter Raymont’s film shows how the playwright -- who now teaches at Duke University -- reacted to September 11, 2001. Dorfman points out that those looking for missing loved ones and putting up flyers on Manhattan streets were uncomfortably reminiscent of the mothers and relatives of the “disappeared” in Chile after Pinochet began his murderous coup.

In the closing night documentary, USA vs. Al-Arian, director Line Halvorsen follows the arrest and subsequent trial of respected professor and pro-Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian on terrorism-related charges. Al-Arian was acquitted of most charges, but a hung jury on the remaining ones prompted the government to continue its case against him. The film begs an obvious question: If this professor was dangerous, why would we let him live in another country rather than lock him up and render him incapable of spreading further terror?

In Letter to Anna, Russian president Vladimir Putin himself is accused of complicity in the cold-blooded murder of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her hallway two years ago. A brilliant and humane writer who should have won a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, Politkovskaya was in the process of uncovering the truth behind Chechen war atrocities and other terrorist attacks in Russia, which didn’t exactly endear her to Putin and his inner circle. Her still-unsolved death proves that, even with today’s unrelenting worldwide media coverage, certain people remain above the law.

In Georgi Lazarevski’s This Way Up, a group of elderly Palestinians learns firsthand what erecting the West Bank Wall means to their everyday lives: It’s being built right outside the door of their nursing home, Our Lady of Pains. With endearing candor, these senior citizens try to survive in a world that has isolated them from their loved ones and even their caregivers. Calle Santa Fe, which also was shown at last fall’s New York Film Festival, powerfully explores director Carmen Castillo’s return to Chile for the first time since she fled in 1974 after her leftist husband’s murder. As a pendant to the Ariel Dorfman film, Calle Santa Fe shows how long-ago events never stop terrorizing those whom they directly affected.

Finally, there’s a sober, clear-eyed corrective to Michael Moore’s rousing but agit-prop Sicko: Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition takes an honest look at a handful of ordinary Americans caught in the mire of our labyrinthine health care system and shows the life-or-death decisions they are forced to make to try and keep their heads above water. What this film most effectively demonstrates without any political bias is that the United States, for all its talk of spreading democracy throughout the world, needs to get its own house in order first.

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