Women directors at Human Rights Film Festival

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This year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival’s (Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, June 14-28) program of 24 films includes eight directed by women.

In keeping with the festival’s purpose, all programmed films, including documentaries, fiction and animated features and shorts, are vetted for accuracy and, selected for their most gripping stories and greatest artistic merit, shed light and put human faces on pressing current social and political issues ranging from global warming and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to workers’ and womens’ rights to corruption in the electoral system.< The films directed by women are:

  • Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Strange Culture” chronicles the miscarriage of justice in the case of Steve Kurtz, a Massachusetts academic, artist, and member of the politically active art-theater collective, Creative Art. In 2004, while Kurtz was preparing for a Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit allowing viewers to test “organic” foods for genetically modified organisms, his wife died suddenly from heart failure. Kurtz called 911. When police arrived and saw the materials for the exhibition– all legally purchased– they summoned the FBI. Haz-mat-suited agents searched Kurtz’ home, seized his computers, books and his wife’s body, and held him as a suspected bio-terrorist. Three years later, Kurtz faces up to 20 years in prison on mail and wire fraud charges relating to acquisition of materials for the art exhibit. The film interweaves Kurtz interviews with news footage, testimonials and animation, and, using actors Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton and Peter Coyote to dramatize segments of the story Kurtz can’t, for legal reasons, discuss, creates a provocative documentary about post-9/11 paranoia and risks artists face when their work questions government policies.
  • Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes” is a visually stunning portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose large-scale studies of industrial vistas draw attention to the aesthetics, social and spiritual dimensions of contemporary globalization. Baichwal follows Burtynsky to China and Bangladesh, where his camera captures the effects of massive industrialization those countries are undergoing. In contrast to the epic photographs, Baichwal focuses on dehumanized workers who’ve become cogs in the industrial machine, revealing the toxic and alienating impact of globalization on the people supposed to benefit from the transformation. “Manufactured Landscapes” premieres theatrically at NY’s Film Forum on June 20.
  • Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayam’s “Enemies of Happiness” follows Malalai Joya, who became one of Afghanistan’s most famous and infamous women in 2003 when she challenged the power of warlords in the country’s new government. Two years later, surviving repeated assassination attempts and surrounded by armed guards, the 28-year-old ran in Afghanistan’s first democratic parliamentary election in over 30 years. Joya speaks out about the challenging task of introducing democracy to a country where most people are illiterate and warlords use threats and bribes to control the voting, and where many women cannot leave their children to get to the polls.
  • Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s “The Devil Came On Horseback” covers the tragic genocide in Darfur from the perspective of ex-Marine Captain Brian Steidle, who accepting a six-month post with the African Union as an unarmed military observer in the western Darfur region of Sudan, is transformed from a military man to an observer to an activist determined to bring an end to the conflict and war crimes that have claimed at least 200,000 lives and displaced 2.5 million people since early 2003. Steidle’s journey of personal transformation becomes our own, as we witness the 1,000 photographs he took as evidence of a crisis that cannot be denied.
  • Katy Chevigny’s “Election Day” tells the remarkable stories of twelve Americans who are determined to vote and have their votes counted. Crisscrossing a large swathe of the US, from South Dakota’s plains to Florida’s muggy panhandle, Chevigny shows a an Ohio woman and her infant child waiting in line– in the rain– for hours, only to be told when she reaches the voting booth that she must travel to another polling place to vote and, in New York City, a 50-year-old ex-felon is able to vote for the first time but is unsure his affidavit ballot will be counted. Meanwhile, in Stockholm Wisconsin, community members register on the spot, vote with paper and pencil, and know each other by first name. With the next presidential election race already in full swing, consider this film a wake up call for all who value their right to vote.
  • Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold’s “Everything’s Cool” takes up where “An Inconvenient Truth” left off. The filmmakers deliver a behind the scenes view of an ongoing battle between two groups of global warming messengers– the good guys who dispense bad news about impending disaster (count a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Weather Channel climatologist among them) versus bad guys (mostly industry-sponsored hacks) who try to instigate doubt about the evident dangers in order to deflect public attention and derail public action about global warming. The filmmakers explore what might transform the US from laggard nation to world leader on global warming.
  • Lynn True (co-director) explores the agonies of war-torn Africa in “Lumo,” a documentary about a young Congolese women who, having been brutalized by marauding soldiers, is cast aside by her family and fiance and eventually finds solace and sustaining support at a special hospital for the survivors of rape. On her uncertain road to recovery, Lumo Sinai proves that women’s solidarity of women can heal even the most irreparable of wounds. “Lumo” premieres on PBS on September 18, 2007 at 10 PM EST.
  • Laura Dunn’s “The Unforseen” (Executive Produced by Terrence Malick and Robert Redford) chronicles the career of Gary Bradley, farm boy turned real estate developer, who transformed 4000 acres of pristine West Texas countryside into one of the state’s largest, fastest-selling subdivisions. When the development threatened “Barton Springs”– a spring-fed swimming hole favored by the community– the people fought back and the subdivision became a lightning rod for environmental activism of the kind that flourished under Governor Ann Richards. However, development laws changed when George W. Bush became governor, and the water quality at Barton Springs, as well as the surrounding landscape of Austin, was irreversibly altered. “The Unforseen” contrasts the benefits gained from economic growth and property rights versus sustainable development and the public good.
  • Additonally, several films focus specifically on women’s issues:

  • The Railroad All-Stars,” directed by Chema Rodriguez, documents the lives of Valeria, Vilma and Mercy, three prostitutes who live and work in La Linea, a destitute neighborhood in Guatemala City. Fed up with abuse they get from customers, lovers, and the police, they form Las Estrellas de la Linea, a soccer team, “Las Estrellas de la Linea,” to draw attention to their plight. After their first game, they’re banned from competition because of their profession, but they attract huge media attention– which is just what they were hoping for–and find a way to a better life through the most unusual of channels– soccer.
  • “Sari’s Mother,” directed by James Longley, follows a courageous mother as she struggles to get medical help for her 10-year-old son, who’s dying of AIDS. Filmed in Iraq during the course of one year, the film’s an intimate view of Iraqi life that few foreigners get to see.
  • Carla’s List,” directed by Marcel Schupbach, shows Carla Del Ponte, prosecutor at The Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as she and her team relentlessly attempt to bring notorious war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to justice before September, 2007, when Del Ponte’s appointment as prosecutor ends.
  • For 2007’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival’s full program, click here

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    Jennifer Merin

    Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).