TELEVISION coverage of the Gulf war, with its instant images of high-tech combat and controversial questions of censorship and responsibility, sparked a new awareness of the complex role played by visual media in today's world. This month, a major film event in New York is spotlighting the importance of film and video as tools for exploring human-rights issues in countries around the globe - issues that cry out for attention and understanding even when dramatic incidents like the Tiananmen Square massacre and the demise of the Berlin Wall are not propelling them into front-page reports.
Billed as the largest American event of its kind, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is remarkably diverse in the topics it examines and the countries it represents.
Many of its offerings take sides on the subjects they deal with, worrying less about ``balance'' than about airing views usually suppressed or marginalized in movie theaters and TV programming.
A number of the 36 entries also take unconventional approaches to film and video, looking for new forms of expression as well as new ideas on human rights.
A good example of such unconventional work is How Nice To See You Alive, by Lucia Murat, a Brazilian journalist who was imprisoned and tortured under her country's military government during the 1970s. Much of the film consists of videotaped interviews with eight women who underwent similar ordeals. These are framed by fictional scenes with actress Irene Ravache as a torture victim whose experiences, although now in the past, haunt her with maddening intensity.
There are no displays of violence in the picture, only recollections by women whose plunge into horror has left them anguished yet surprisingly resilient, as they think back on their lives and search for the meanings of what they endured. The film's mixture of fact and fiction demonstrates that there is no ``standard'' or ``correct'' way of probing such troubling material, but that any effective means must be employed to convey its impact and urgency. ``How Nice To See You Alive'' is distributed by the New York organization Women Make Movies, and deserves to be widely seen.
An even more startling mix of images is found in Introduction to the End of an Argument, a video by Elia Suleiman and Jayce Salloum that mingles pop-culture products from Europe, the United States, and Israel - revealing how consistently and outrageously much of the world has demonized Arab culture and history in media that have a pervasive influence on popular thought. Using old movies, cartoons, TV clips, pop songs, and similar artifacts, the video shows how Westerners and others are alway s imposing their own narratives on the Middle East, in fiction and nonfiction alike, and how this constant stream of simplistic material tends to merge into a blurry but insidious consensus that Arabs are somehow less worthy and civilized than ``the rest of us,'' whoever ``us'' may happen to be.
``It's only a simulation,'' a voice is heard to say at one point on the sound track. Yet the Suleiman-Salloum video's images make it clear that the cumulative power of such simulations is awesome, and that audiences must learn to be alert to their presence. The most ``innocent'' kinds of entertainment are seen to be fully involved in this problem, from ``I Dream of Genie'' reruns to cartoon characters with exaggerated Arab names. All are quickly and pungently ``deconstructed'' by the makers of ``Introdu ction to the End of an Argument,'' who fracture their raw material into sight-and-sound collages that make shockingly clear how racism and ethnocentricity have corrupted much representation in the mass media.
Other entries in the festival (which includes a number of American premi`eres) range from feature films to documentaries and even music video.
The documentary Chile in Transition, directed by Gaston Ancelovici and Frank Diamand, depicts the challenges Chile faces in returning to democracy after almost 17 years of military rule. The emphasis is on members of today's military (especially young ones) and on former associates of Salvador Allende Gossens, the elected Marxist leader who was ousted in a 1973 coup.
There are recollections of torture and suffering during the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and excerpts from the correspondence of two young Chilean men - one of whom, having emigrated to Canada, criticizes his friend for joining the Pinochet military, an action that could lump the friend with oppressors and torturers when democracy is established again. The film opens and closes with images of a large boat being hauled along a highway on a truck - perhaps symbolizing a country that should be sailing sm oothly through history but, because of drastic errors in the recent past, must now be painfully maneuvered to a satisfactory position in the world.
Other instructive documentaries include Children of Desired Sex, a documentary by ``Salaam Bombay'' director Mira Nair about the use of abortion for gender selection in her native India; and Who Will Cast the First Stone? by Ahmed A. Jamal and Sabiha Sumar, about the political implications of Islamic laws used selectively and repressively against women in Pakistan.
Shorter but no less resonant is No More Disguises, a video by Tom Sigel, Boryana Varbanov, and Pam Yates, shot in China about two years ago. It blends a song by Cui Jian, who's known as ``the John Lennon of China,'' with news footage of the Tiananmen Square upheaval, contemplative shots of the square in peacetime, and poignant close-ups of ordinary Chinese. The fact that ``No More Disguises'' is a music video has a pungent message: that the future of China rests with its younger generations and their creativity.
An emphasis on the importance of youth also shines through Dear President Bush, a father's dramatic statement regarding his son's departure for Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis - proving that a movie can say an enormous amount in less than 10 minutes. The same goes for Rondino, an amazing Hungarian animation by Csaba Szorady, which does more to deflate the pretensions of political torture in two minutes than all of Hollywood accomplishes in a year.