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Watching the World

Amnesty International Film Festival puts human rights on the big screen

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The Amnesty International Film Festival returns to Pittsburgh for its third annual engagement, presenting 15 films -- from shorts to feature length -- focusing on human-rights struggles around the globe. Whether the result of wars, systemic poverty or global economies that disproportionately affect workers in developing countries, the fight for people to live in peace, health and relatively prosperity remains ongoing. This program offers both education and hope through documentation of the dignity and inspiration of campaigns past and present, and offers the re-affirmation of the human spirit to find strength, resolve and even joy amidst difficult times.

 

The festival runs from Fri., Sept. 9, through Sun., Sept. 17. The first week's films screen at the Melwood Screening Room and its auxillary venue, the Mini-Melwood, in Oakland (477 Melwood Ave., 412-682-4111). All films are to be screened via video projection unless noted. Tickets are $7 ($5 for students). For more information see www.amnestyusa.org/filmfest or call 412-291-9233.

 

The first week's films are as follows:

 

BHOPAL: THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE (Canada, 2004, 52 min.). Like so many news stories once shocking, the events of December 1984, in Bhopal, India -- when a U.S.-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant released a toxic cloud of gas that killed thousands within hours -- have long faded from the collective memory. Not so for Raajkumar Keswani, a local journalist who covered the story. In time, Keswani became so enraged by what he saw as a conspiracy of silence between the Indian government and Union Carbide -- designed to reduce liability -- that he devoted himself full-time to establishing scientific proof of the accident's lasting effects. This Canadian-produced documentary from Lindalee Tracey and Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil) profiles Keswani's quest for justice for Bhopal residents, and serves to remind us that the ugly aspects of technological progress are nearly always costs borne by the poor. To be followed by a discussion led by Folabi Olagbaju, director of Amnesty International USA's mid-Atlantic region. 8 p.m. Sun., Sept. 11 (Melwood) (Al Hoff)

 

BOXER AND BALLERINAS (Cuba/USA, 2005, 88 min.). What is freedom? What are its rewards -- and costs? Is there more of it in the U.S. or in Cuba? Can one judge economic opportunity the same as spiritual freedom? Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's documentary poses these and other questions as it tracks a few months in the lives of four young people -- a ballerina and a boxer in Cuba and two counterparts pursuing the same careers in Miami's Cuban-exile community. For Cubans, artistic or athletic skill paradoxically means a more privileged life in Cuba, as well as the rare opportunity to travel abroad and defect, if so inclined. In Miami, opportunities for success pose different difficulties, primarily the need for money. The filmmakers intercut these four narratives with historical news clips and disembodied voices relating histories and offering editorials from both sides, presenting a snapshot of Cuba and Cuban-American relations that is provocative without resorting to partisan hyperbole. In Spanish, with subtitles. 5:30 p.m. (Melwood) and 8:15 p.m. Sun., Sept. 11 (Mini-Melwood) (AH)

 

BULLETS IN THE HOOD: A BED-STUY STORY (USA, 2004 22 min.). A youth-produced short on rampant gun violence in one Brooklyn neighborhood abruptly turns from interviews with unrepentant gun-owners to an exploration of the death (during production) of 19-year-old co-director Terrence Fisher's best friend, Timothy Stansbury. That Stansbury was the eighth of Fisher's friends to die by bullet is horrible and sobering; that he was killed by a cop, and for no discernible reason, only deepens this video's cry of anguish. While the piece has some amateurish if heartfelt elements, especially Fisher's direct-to-camera editorializing ("It's sad how the cops had to shoot my boy"), it's noteworthy for its intimacy -- an inner-city neighborhood depicted by a native son taking the media's reins -- and for Fisher's documentation of his own response to the killing: He eschews rioting and retaliation ("that's what they want us to do") for peaceful protest and a commitment to getting his own voice heard. (Screens before Mardi Gras: Made in China). 5:45 p.m. (Melwood) and 8:15 p.m. (Mini-Melwood), Sat., Sept. 10. (Bill O'Driscoll)

 

COMPADRE (Sweden, 2004, 86 min.) In the 1970s Swedish filmmaker Mikael Wistrom meets Daniel -- a disabled Peruvian man who has left his Indian mountain village for a better life in Lima -- while the latter is scavenging on a garbage mountain, and subsequently maintains their friendship with visits and correspondence. Wistrom's documentary has the slenderest of narratives -- Daniel's family, which has held fast through hard times, now must splinter if the next generation is to succeed in greener pastures, a truth that Daniel knows. Compadre directly confronts the thorny issue of the vast social and economic inequities between Wistrom and Daniel -- a stew of guilt and resentment that threatens, quite reasonably, to destroy their friendship. Such moments also cast light on the West's frequent naiveté about its altruistic compulsion to bond with its poorer brethren. It can be achieved, Compadre suggests, though perhaps only in rare cases with individuals as determined as these two men. (Screens with the short Porter.) In Spanish and Swedish, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 12 (Melwood) (AH)

 

INNOCENT VOICES (Mexico, 2004, 111 min.) Luis Mandoki's film has cinematic craftsmanship, compelling characters, powerful storytelling and skillful acting; the challenge lies in stomaching the subject matter. Set during El Salvador's civil war, this is a coming-of-age tale that shouldn't be -- of a sensitive yet scrappy barrio urchin named Chava (based on the film's screenwriter, Oscar Torres) whose impending 12th birthday will find him either abducted into the military and trained to murder his own people or ferried off to join guerilla resistors, inevitably to be gunned down by one of his former classmates. Mandoki masterfully delivers artful scenes that teeter on unbearable for their brutality (the gunpoint execution of children), uplift with delicate poignancy (Chava's first brush with love during a night scene filled with floating "firefly" lanterns) and relieve with everyday chuckles. War is horrifying and it shouldn't be easy to watch. Mandoki challenges his audience to endure bearing witness and rewards it with a good story, though it's a story one wishes were not true. In Spanish, with subtitles. To be screened by 35 mm projection. 8 p.m. Tue., Sept. 13 (Melwood) (Heather Mull)

 

MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA (USA, 2004, 61 min.). The concept behind director David Redmon's cultural-exchange project was certainly admirable. First, shoot video of grossly underpaid Chinese workers making Mardi Gras beads in a compound-like factory. Then show the video to drunken Mardi Gras revelers themselves. On the face of it, Redmon's documentary seems to explore the most basic issues of globalization: Are traditional and agrarian societies being destroyed to make way for American-funded factories? Are low-wage workers being exploited? But Mardi Gras, which could have easily made its point in 20 minutes, eventually becomes more of a human drama than a political treatise. Redmon's camera lingers much too long on the factory floor, for instance, where more than a few of the bead-makers actually seem to be enjoying themselves. (Oops!) But not to worry: The horrified looks on the faces of Bourbon Street floozies, after viewing factory footage, are nearly worth the price of admission all by themselves. (Screens with the short "Bullets in the Hood.") In English and Gan, with subtitles. 5:45 p.m. (Melwood) and 8:15 p.m. (Mini-Melwood) Sat., Sept. 10. (Dan Eldridge)

 

ON THE FRONTLINES: CHILD SOLDIERS IN THE D.R.C. (Democratic Republic of Congo, 2004, 15 min.). "When you become a soldier your soul changes ... it's like dying today and being reincarnated into another life." Those are the harrowing words of a pre-teen former soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where since 1996 two guerilla groups, the Mai-Mai and the FDD, have been enlisting child fighters as young as 8 years old. Along with grainy battlefield footage, On the Frontlines -- co-directed by WITNESS and Bukeni Beck -- features heartbreaking interviews with a handful of the former soldiers. One describes witnessing the head of his best friend being crushed, while others talk calmly and sensibly about disemboweling enemies, smoking copious amounts of marijuana before battles and ultimately, losing their innocence. (Screens with War Games.) In Swahili and French, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 14 (Melwood) (DE)

 

PORTER (Peru, 2003, 20 min.). In this meditation, an anonymous Peruvian porter, who earns a meager sum transporting foreign tourists' gear up the mountains, reflects on his situation and his desires, however unlikely to be fulfilled, of a better life. (Screens before Compadre.) In Spanish, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 12 (Melwood)

 

STATE OF FEAR (Peru/USA, 2005, 94 min.). In one respect, Pamela Yates' film is a lucid and clear-eyed account of Peru's recent tumultuous history, detailing the rise of the terrorist group Shining Path deep in the impoverished Andes, through the government's bungled military response, and the subsequent election of President Fujimoro and the establishment of a virtual dictatorship in the 1990s, rife with corruption and ruled by military justice. But Yates also casts her story as a larger cautionary tale about democratic governments who exploit fear, waging a "war on terror" with no clear goals or strategies, until the very ideals they claim to be fighting for become subsumed in military oppression. Interviews with Peruvian soldiers sent to defeat the Shining Path in remote villages in the 1980s sound eerily familiar today: We didn't know the language, we just drove in on tanks, we couldn't tell a terrorist from a sympathetic farmer -- so we made everything worse. So too do interviews with Peru's elite, some of whom confess they hardly noticed when it was tens of thousands of poor, non-white people being killed. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 10 (Melwood), and 5:45 p.m. Sun., Sept. 11 (Mini-Melwood). The 8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 10 screening will be followed by a discussion led by Mel Packer, a longtime activist for international human rights. (AH)

 

THE SWENKAS (Denmark, 2004, 72 min.). Billed as a documentary, The Swenkas plays more like a neo-realist fable, complete with urban-griot narrator. Its curious subject is a group of black South African men who transcend Johannesburg ghetto life by "swanking" in style-and-fashion contests, in the process becoming folk heroes. The threads, it's true, are pretty flashy, but the stars are Mr. Dangerous, a middle-aged construction worker-cum-svenka, and Sabelo, whom Mr. Dangerous mentors after the death of Sabelo's father, the group's revered leader. At a scant 72 minutes, the story is light on complexity but thematically large, as Sabelo seeks the faith to keep competing under the weight of his personal struggles. The cinematography is polished, intimate and often stunningly beautiful; surely many scenes were staged. But if director Jeppe Rí¸nde, a Dane, never gets inside his "characters," he makes them worthy of the film's folkloric conceit. In English and Zulu, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 9 (Melwood) and 5:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 10 (Mini-Melwood). (The Sept. 9 screening will be followed by a discussion with CMU professor and South Africa expert Ellen Dorsey.) (BO)

 

WAR GAMES (U.K./Sudan, 2005, 58 min.). Marc Allen's documentary depicts a "bootleg Olympics" that occurred in the Southern Sudan in January 2003, as thousands of children came together to compete in the athletic event, despite their region's ravages of war. (Screens with the short "On the Frontlines.") In English, Dinka and Arabic, with subtitles. 8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 14 (Melwood)

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