The first year I covered the Human Rights Watch Film Festival I became so depressed by all the films that I couldn't watch a serious issue documentary for a long time. I tend to follow the HRWFF every June with Silverdocs, and thanks to the former I'm always concentrated strictly on upbeat stories at the latter. Thank goodness for the broad mix of subject matter and tones in nonfiction cinema, and therefore the array of choices at a less precise doc fest. I’ve often wondered what kind of people are into an event strictly focused on works about war crimes, government repression, deportation, rape, AIDS and low-optimism civil rights causes. Sure, we all need to cry sometimes, but sixteen films worth of tears over the course of two weeks is a bit much.
That said, the 2012 slate for the New York edition of the HRWFF, which begins tomorrow (June 14), is actually very strong. And I insist that you venture out for some of the documentary selections or at least keep them in mind if you’re either not in the New York area or otherwise can’t make it to Lincoln Center before June 28. I can recommend at least five necessary titles, of those I’ve seen (this excludes the much-acclaimed Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which was not made available to me). Each of these docs has something more to offer than injustice, sadness and a call for awareness. They are must-see films regardless of how they draw attention to human rights travesties.
The Invisible War
Although I’m not typically one to recommend a documentary on its cause alone, I believe this is one of the most important films of the year and addresses one of the worst unknown issues in America: sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. And yes, it is sometimes a difficult doc to get through with all the tears being shed on screen as victims (one of them male) talk about their rapes and how their troubles didn’t end with the actual incident. Too often their stories made me think I was watching an Irish period drama about Catholic “fallen” women being punished for having “tempted” their violators.
Considering how fair the film is in sharing the military’s side of the issue, the offense on the Pentagon’s part comes off particularly despicable. Directed by Kirby Dick (This Film is Not Yet Rated; Outrage), it’s not surprising that this is such a strong and quite damning expose.
Call Me Kuchu
There is a shocking moment in this film that I could see viewers taking issue over, similarly to how the real tragedy of Dear Zachary is somewhat exploited for the sake of its storytelling. But I’m more upset over the fact that I’d never even known about the “kuchu” activists of Uganda, who are fighting for LGBTI rights in a country that still sees homosexuality as a crime, one that lawmakers are trying to see punishable by death. With endearing and commendable characters and stories, the film is like Uganda’s Word is Out, Before Stonewall and After Stonewall wrapped up in one moving and powerful feature debut from co-directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall.
Another African story, this positively touching documentary follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who has just learned that she was born with HIV and will be moving to a new orphanage (the Little Heaven of the title) for kids her age similarly afflicted with the disease. Anchoring the narrative on young Lydia’s diary, read by the subject as voiceover narration, director Lieven Corthouts keeps the film incredibly upbeat, appropriately paying mind to the girl’s mantra of trying to be happy every day.
With its jazzy soundtrack, rhythmic montages and occasional inclusion of Lydia’s dance moves, Little Heaven reminds me of the recent dreamy musical-tinged documentary Bombay Beach. Yet it’s not so much a fantastical approach to the would-be sorrowful subject matter as it is an inspiring look at a smart, compassionate and courageous kid whose uncanny spirit keeps her going in spite of her misfortune.
Both Little Heaven and this film have the benefit of playing like straight dramas. Neither one features interviews or even much acknowledgement of the filmmakers by the subjects on screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly I found out this was in fact one of the few fiction selections at the HRWFF, except that it recently won the top prize at the doc fest Full Frame.
Directed by Fernand Melgar, the film observes a Swiss detention center for illegal migrants and asylum seekers who will eventually be shipped back to the countries they’ve fled. The real issue of the film doesn’t come up until the very end, as for the most part the men locked up are treated fairly well, for being prisoners, at this particular center. It’s what they face on the outside that’s to be feared, whether their fate back home in the Congo or Kosovo, or even before that with the abusive authorities who transport them on the “special flight” out of Switzerland. But there’s also a subtle, underlying evil of the neutrality and feigned sincerity and innocence on the part of the center’s staff which is thoroughly disturbing.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
There are two highly accessible American-made documentaries about Chinese dissidents making the festival rounds this year, each of them a potential crossover like we’ve never seen with this subject matter before (the other is Stephen T. Maing’s High Tech, Low Life). And as much as I like them getting the issues out, I’m also hoping they provide a gateway to the important but little-known New Chinese Documentary movement, which is largely unrecognized over here.
Ai Weiwei has the greater chance at transcendence if only because the titular artist is growing in popularity in the U.S. and is a lively, punkish personality whose trademark is photographing himself flipping off institutions he’s against. Funny, irreverent and profoundly in tune with being of and about the power of different media today, this is one rare human rights issue doc that the kids are going to think is awesome. I keep selling it as the coolest art world doc since Exit Through the Gift Shop, but it’s so much more necessary than that.
Technically, my theatrical pick of the week is The Invisible War, which I’ve written about above. It opens in New York, San Francisco, North Hollywood and Washington, DC, on June 22 [see expansion dates through July here] But I’d also like to recommend the 2011 SXSW Audience Award winner, Kumare, which opens in New York in one week [see here for more dates elsewhere]. It’s kind of like a non-comedic mix of Morgan Spurlock and Sacha Baron Cohen in which Indian-American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi documents himself playing the titular character, a spiritual leader who deceptively takes on followers just to tell them they don’t need a spiritual leader. Of course they don’t listen to that lesson and increased uncomfortability ensues.
A few docs are hitting video that I think Movies.com readers would enjoy, including Indie Game: The Movie, which is now available digitally from iTunes and the surprisingly delightful Give Me the Banjo, which tells the history of the instrument, features some great performances and is narrated by Steve Martin.
My pick of the week, however, is something for the movie fans: Something’s Gonna Live. In a way, this film plays more depressing than anything at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival because most of it was filmed a decade ago when most of its legendary film artist subjects (cinematographer Conrad Hall and art directors Henry Bumstead, Robert Boyle and Albert Nozaki) were still alive. Directed by Oscar nominee Daniel Raim, it’s also a kind of memorial for the bygone era of matte paintings and a certain care for authenticity that’s said to be lost in the digital production designs of today.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.