The Amnesty International Film Festival returns to Pittsburgh for its second annual engagement here with 17 films -- from shorts to feature length -- focusing on human rights struggles across the globe. As another year finds the world still in turmoil, this program offers hope as the filmmakers document the dignity and inspiration of ongoing struggles and the triumph of victories.
THE LETTER (USA, 2003, 75 min.) Powderkeg recipe: Take a depressed mill town in lily-white Maine. Add influx of 1,100 Muslim Somalis. Do it all post-9/11. Filmmaker Ziad H. Hamzeh's documentary focuses on Lewiston, Maine, where racist sentiments are aroused when refugees resettle there. The fuse is lit with Mayor Larry Raymond's letter to Somali locals asking them not to invite more Somalis to move there and strain its resources. The letter draws national attention, and ignites interest from white supremacist groups, who plan a rally there. The filmmaker's sympathies clearly lie with the Somalis, but he doesn't reduce the racist groups to caricatures or clipped soundbites. While this material could easily lend itself to homilies about "diversity," the film instead is an unflinching look at how the embers of racism get stirred -- and the vigilance required to prevent a conflagration. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Khadra Mohammed, co-founder of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center. In English and Arabic with subtitles.
8 p.m. Sat., March 27. Melwood
I PROMISE AFRICA (USA, 2003, 3 min.). Filmmaker Jerry Henry documents what he experienced in a rural Kenya village during the 9/11 tragedies.
KARIM'S VIEW (Netherlands, 2002, 25 min.). The miseries of child labor are depicted here by Cherry Duyns, who follows 11-year-old Karim, a Moroccan boy who works in a coppersmith's and is his family's sole provider. In Arabic with subtitles.
BORN INTO BROTHELS (USA, 2004, 83 min.). Children born to prostitutes in the slums of Calcutta have little hope of escaping that life. Yet Zana Briski (who co-directed with Ross Kauffman) is determined to teach eight of these children photography, and hope. In English and Bengali with subtitles.
8 p.m. Sun., March 28. Melwood
RESPIRE (France, 2003, 3 min.). An animated music video from the French band Mickey D makes a sad prediction about the future of our environment. In French.
CHEVRON-TEXACO: ECUADOR'S BLACK PLAGUE (USA, 2002, 10 min.). Amazon Watch interviews community leaders and residents of Ecuador who are angry about the grotesque damage that American oil companies have wrought on their land. Before complaining about gasoline prices, remember that you don't have to live beside a lake of oil sludge. In English and Spanish with subtitles.
THE COCONUT REVOLUTION (U.K., 2002, 52 min.). Dom Rotheroe's film about the South Seas island of Bougainville is a fascinating and inspirational document of a resourceful people undaunted by colonial oppression, privation and the world's ignorance of their bizarre situation (in the late '80s, Papua New Guinea blockaded the island). The Bougainvillians toss out the British copper-mining company, strip the mine facility for their own needs -- including jerry-rigging weapons to fight the Papua New Guinea forces -- and tap their heritage to live off the land in fascinating ways (they adapt automobiles to run on coconut oil). The evening's program will be followed by a Q&A with Dr. Ellen Dorsey of Amnesty International's environmental group.
8 pm. Mon., March 29. Melwood
DEADLINE (USA, 2004, 93 min.). Despite revisiting familiar arguments against the death penalty, this documentary wraps them in a novel storyline: Gov. George Ryan's struggle over commuting the sentence of every prisoner on Illinois death row. Republican Ryan, a long-time death-penalty backer, called a moratorium on capital punishment in 2002, citing evidence that it was unfairly applied to the poor, the outcast and racial minorities. Following the process from clemency hearings to Ryan's momentous decision, Deadline feels baggy at times: In addressing every possible aspect of the issue, from 1970s U.S. Supreme Court rulings to the sentiments of prison guards, it sometimes loses focus on the compelling central narrative. But filmmakers Katie Chevigny and Dallas Brennan more than compensate by highlighting some little-discussed issues, including the role of prosecutorial wrongdoing. And there's no denying the poignancy of seeing the parents of a convicted killer and the parents of his victim tearfully face each other at a clemency hearing. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Dr. Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh history professor and member of the Pittsburgh Abolitionists Against the Death Penalty.
8 p.m. Tue., March 30. Melwood
NOAM CHOMSKY: REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE (Canada, 2003, 73 min.). Considering Noam Chomsky has made a career of challenging orthodoxy, Will Pascoe's documentary is an ironic tribute. Filmed during Chomsky's lecture tour in Canada last year, the movie treads ground familiar to fans: Chomsky discusses the "war on terror," mass-media control and the prospects for post-9/11 activism. But while there are some good moments (as when Chomsky recounts being censored by National Public Radio or discusses privatizing Social Security) the film mostly comes off as propaganda, a sort of "Manufacturing Dissent" in which contrasting views never appear. All we get is an hour-long revue of lectures and talking heads. Fawning academics laud Chomsky's legacy, and the students at his knee never challenge assertions like "[T]he only people who are afraid of Saddam Hussein are people from the United States." (Really? What about people in Iraq?) A more spirited debate would have made for a less boring film, and a more useful one when viewers discuss issues outside the cozy theater.
DISSIDENT: OSWALDO PAYÃÂ AND THE VARELA PROJECT (USA, 2003, 20 min.). Havana-based Oswaldo Payá risked censure and worse to collect more than 10,000 signatures of fellow Cubans, calling for an open democratic society. Not surprisingly, in 2002, Castro's government rejected the petition. Filmmaker Heidi Ewing interviews Payá and other signatories, prior to the government's crackdown on dissidents in 2003. In English and Spanish with subtitles.
8 p.m. Wed., March 31. Melwood
TIMOR LORO-SAE (Portugal, 2003, 11 min.). Vitor Lopes's animated short pays homage to the people of East Timor, who after centuries of colonialism and occupation are now free.
THE BIG DURIAN (Malaysia, 2003, 75 min.). Filmmaker Amir Muhammad finds the events of October 1987 curious. Not just the incident when a soldier burst into a Kuala Lumpur hotel blasting an M-16, but the subsequent media and governmental manipulation of the event, and its effects on the various people of the city. Muhammad interviews an odd cross-section of KL -- from a giggly Muslim teen-ager to a Chinese bullshit artist, poets to professors -- asking them to riff not only on the 1987 shooting, but on the country's uneasy factions of Malays, Chinese and Indians, and the social and political tensions this racial mix engenders. Muhammad's film is somewhat scattershot, careening from intentionally silly to maddeningly obtuse. But its broad snapshot of this densely populated, vibrant urban area -- and potential tinderbox -- has its fascinations. In various languages with subtitles.
8 p.m. Thu., April 1. Melwood
HEIR TO AN EXECUTION (USA, 2003, 100 min.). Ivy Meeropol's grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 after being accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Using archival news footage, home movies and interviews with family members and associates of the Rosenbergs, director Meeropol, through a personal journey, attempts to come to terms with the life and death of her famous forbearers.