`I WONDER how people used to remember when they didn't film, when they didn't take pictures....''
This statement by Chris Marker, a socially aware filmmaker of near-legendary reputation, overstates the case for cinema and photography as conveyors of ``truth'' about human affairs. But one readily sympathizes with the sentiment behind the remark, since movies and television have become the modern world's most powerful tools for recording, recalling, and interpreting its own ideas and behaviors.
Quoted at the beginning of ``Starting Place,'' a new documentary by Robert Kramer about the Vietnam War and its legacy, Marker's words make a good starting place for thinking about this year's edition of the annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, now playing in New York and soon embarking on an extensive American and European tour.
The artists who made the festival's dozens of offerings are actively engaged in the task of providing visual memories for all of us to share. These memories will have enduring value in future years, when we look back on the current era and try to understand what made it tick. But they have a special urgency right now, since most of them deal with real-world issues in desperate need of understanding, amelioration, and correction.
The centerpiece of the program is the first-ever retrospective of movies by Margarethe von Trotta, one of the few female filmmakers to emerge from Germany and establish a strong international reputation. It's hard to imagine a more appropriate artist for this equality-minded festival to honor, given the magnitude of her achievement as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and the consistency of her concern with social and political problems.
Such problems are at the heart of her latest work, ``The Long Silence,'' a highlight of the filmfest. Made as a German-Italian coproduction, it centers on an Italian woman whose husband, an enterprising and controversial judge, is investigating a flagrantly illegal weapons-dealing operation run by figures from government and organized crime.
When he is assassinated, his wife must come to terms with her grief and anger. She chooses to do this by continuing the judge's work, despite the physical and psychological dangers this decision brings with it. The movie's title refers to the silence of decent but inactive citizens faced with threats to their liberty and well-being, and also to the silence of women who are expected to support the powerful men in society rather than taking action of their own. Both silences are resoundingly broken in the course of von Trotta's film, although it avoids any hint of easy answers or simplistic solutions for the troubling social questions it raises.
The festival includes many documentaries alongside its fictional movies, and Kramer's unconventional ``Starting Place'' is likely to be one of the most talked-about offerings. Shot in 1992, the film chronicles Kramer's return to Vietnam more than two decades after his first journey there.
Much of the film presents fragmentary interviews with such persons as Kramer's first Vietnamese guide - now a respected translator of Western literature - and an American woman imprisoned in the United States for radical activism that had its original spark when she joined the antiwar movement years earlier. Other portions of the movie depict Vietnam itself as seen through Kramer's highly subjective camera eye.
In a sizable list of films including such respected efforts as ``Ice'' and ``Milestones,'' which he co-directed, Kramer has worked for years to combine the personal and the political into a seamless and humanitarian whole; the outcome of his labor has been extremely uneven in quality, but his seriousness and sincerity have always been clear. ``Starting Point'' leans toward the personal end of his artistic spectrum, even including footage of the birth of his daughter. As a result, the movie is more impressionistic than instructive.
It serves up some powerful images, however, often avoiding the merely photogenic to concentrate on the unexpectedly poetic instead. And it has a touchingly human dimension that makes it a fitting selection for a film festival that's named after human rights in the broadest sense.
Other attractions in the festival range from features to shorts, covering an impressively broad swath of intellectual and emotional territory. Some noteworthy items:
* ``Shadow Puppets,'' directed by Chuck W. Gamble (US). This allegorical cartoon focuses on a charming little misfit who lives in a sort of factory-prison run by a totalitarian state. After work each day, every laborer's hands are locked in a box to keep them out of mischief, but our hero finds a secret key that allows him to open the box and amuse himself by making funny finger-shadows on the wall. When caught, he's brutally punished - this is a cartoon for grownups, not young children - but he manages to triumph in the end. Drawn in strikingly bold black-and-white strokes, Gamble's animated tale is an effective parable of the human urge to maintain individuality and humor under even the most awful circumstances.
* ``A Street Under Siege,'' made by the Sarajevo Group of Authors (former Yugoslavia/France/United Kingdom). Shot late last year in Sarajevo by a collective of filmmakers, writers, artists, and students, this compilation of short videos gives harrowing evidence of such atrocities as the shelling of schools and hospitals. It also includes revealing conversations with overworked physicians, children who pass the time by playing war and survival games, and others who choose either to stay in their city or find a way to escape it. One poignant segment even shows the homeless dogs and cats of the city, finding in this seemingly small detail a subtle dimension of the inhumanity of Sarajevo's horrific situation.
* ``Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy,'' directed by Ellen Bruno (US). This poetic documentary is a tribute to the Buddhist nuns of Tibet for mounting courageous opposition to Chinese suppression of their religion and culture. Interviews with women who endured appalling ordeals of torture and maltreatment are juxtaposed with moving evocations of the ancient Buddhist tradition.
* ``The Imperial's Ism,'' directed by Alexander Kort, Michael MacIntyre, Shay Nichols, and Chet Fenster (US). Thomasi Macdonald vigorously recites a poem about a notorious explosion and fire in a North Carolina chicken-processing plant, which killed 25 people and injured 53 more. The carnage took place because the plant's doors were locked - or as Macdonald puts it, because ``a stolen chicken is counted for more than an endangered human life.'' Recounting and protesting this tragedy, his words are intercut with documentary shots of the plant and its surrounding community, and accompanied by Todd Bayshore's wailing saxophone. The film is brief, spontaneous, and completely to the point.
Additional items range from ``Are They Still Shooting?'' by Tomislav Novakovic, a rough-hewn but inventive meditation on the war in former Yugoslavia from an American perspective, to ``L'homme sur les quais'' by Raoul Peck, a moody and picturesque French drama billed as the first feature film about Haiti's recent history.
Of special interest is a reprise of the powerfully political ``Life on Hold'' by Lebanese director Maroun Bagdadi, a film about Middle Eastern terrorism that was shown in the 1992 festival and is being brought back this year as a tribute to Bagdadi after his recent accidental death.
* Presented by Human Rights Watch with sponsorship from MTV, the festival runs through May 12 at the Loews Village Theatre VII in Manhattan. Its next engagement will be in Los Angeles starting June 9. It then travels to Boston, San Francisco, and Palm Springs, Calif., as well as 12 cities in Eastern Europe.