It's a busy season for filmfests, with Cannes just concluded and various others to come, but few will spotlight more intensely serious movies than the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, now in its 11th year.
Dedicated to "viewpoints of those fighting for political and individual freedoms," this year's program features 30 works from 13 countries, often with filmmakers on hand to discuss and defend their ideas.
Most of the offerings are documentaries, calling attention to film's great value as a communication tool as well as the ongoing importance - and popularity - of nonfiction moviemaking.
Some supporters of this genre prefer the term "nonfiction film" to "documentary," arguing that such movies are creative works that do far more than simply document their subjects. Evidence for this position is found in Public Enemy, by Jens Meurer, a spirited look at the Black Panther movement of the 1960s era.
Although it contains film footage dating back to the party's heyday, the main interest of "Public Enemy" lies in its current-day portraits of four surviving members who still believe in the movement's fundamental ideals - the old phrase "power to the people" says it all -even though they now work for change within the establishment. Young viewers will receive a history lesson and older folks will rediscover a turbulent period as they revisit the civil rights movement with Bobby Seale, still a charismatic speaker; Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor; Nile Rodgers, an influential musician; and Jamal Joseph, a screenwriter and teacher. Their idealism is as potent as ever.
Race also plays a role in Laleh Khadivi's poignant 900 Women, about a Louisiana prison for female inmates. The movie focuses on six women ranging from a drug-addicted young mother to, most strikingly, a grandmother who's serving a life sentence for two murders and is working to improve living conditions by lobbying for more recognition of the prison population as an unconventional household with deeply held family values.
Fiction also makes a strong showing, including a controversial movie by Dariush Mehrjui, a gifted Iranian director. Banned in Iran for seven years, The Lady focuses on a religious woman who copes with her husband's abrupt departure by turning her comfortable home into a shelter for poverty-stricken neighbors - who return the favor by demanding more of her generosity than she's able to provide.
Mehrjui is an astute observer of human nature, as he proved when his excellent "Leila" reached US theaters recently. "The Lady" is less original, borrowing ideas from Luis Buuel's classic Spanish drama "Viridiana," but it presents a complex portrayal of religious idealism and refuses to romanticize the poor.
Not every film on the program accomplishes its goals, such as Mai Masri's documentary Children of Shatila, about youngsters in a Palestinian refugee camp. While there's much potential in portraying social and political hardships through youthful eyes, this movie offers a reductive view of complicated issues.
Other items in the festival cover much territory, from studies of current political problems to a revival of Martin Ritt's steely 1957 drama Edge of the City, an "On the Waterfront" clone with Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes as working-class friends caught up in racial and economic problems. It's a reminder that human rights have long provided the movies with much of their most pungent raw material.
*Presented by Human Rights Watch and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the festival runs June 14-29 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater in New York. Highlights will travel to about 20 cities, including Boston and San Francisco. For more information, log onto www.hrw.org/iff
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