Nonfiction cinema is attracting more attention than usual these days.
Admirers of "Hoop Dreams" are still debating the reasons for its shut-out in the Academy Awards race. The journal October has devoted its current issue to the controversy over a Helke Sander documentary probing mass rapes committed in Germany by Allied soldiers as World War II drew to a close. Recent films about China's democracy movement are sparking new discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre and its causes.
With a lineup of more than 50 films from 30 countries, this year's edition of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival directly feeds this interest in truth-based movies. Its program covers a wide range of events, interests, and concerns - some from a historical and analytical perspective, others from an urgent and impassioned standpoint.
This is the first time the filmfest, in its sixth year, is being presented in one of New York's most respected venues: the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, justly celebrated for its commitment to thoughtful film programming. The festival then embarks on an extensive tour.
'Drawing on film's power'
A major component of the event is a group of films commemorating the end of World War II, including a screening of Marcel Ophuls's classic "The Memory of Justice," a 4-1/2 hour study of the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal and its importance to the postwar era.
While this film is rarely shown in theaters because of its length and complexity, it seems newly relevant, given the increase of right-wing violence in Germany and elsewhere. It's an excellent choice for a festival that wants to enhance awareness of human rights by "drawing on the power of film to communicate across borders, both physical and ideological," as organizers put it.
Another of the festival's special interests is the rise of religious fundamentalism. One selection that vividly examines this is "Father, Son and Holy War," directed by Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.
Stating the intentions of the filmmakers, a narrator says they started the documentary as "an inquiry into religious violence," but adds that they found it necessary to examine a "crisis of male identity" that feeds and sustains this violence. The picture then cites a host of sources, from ancient mythology to popular Indian and American movies, to indicate how "macho" attitudes exploit aspects of religion, secular tradition, and politics in an attempt to keep women and all "others," including mavericks like the persecuted author Salman Rushdie, in submissive social positions.
Applying his findings evenhandedly, Patwardhan finds evidence of machismo in both the Hindu and Muslim sectors of Indian society. The film's narration makes facile use of nostalgic anthropological theory, finding explanations for the present order in ancient matriarchies and shifts from nomadism to agrarianism. Still, the movie contains potent images and mounts a powerful condemnation of practices like wife-burning.
Links between gender roles and sociopolitical oppression emerge in other festival offerings, as well. "In a Time of Betrayal," by Carmen Castillo, studies Augusto Pinochet's dictatorial rule in Chile through the present-day relationship of the filmmaker, who was tormented by Pinochet's security police, and a woman who spent 18 years as an informer for the regime. Filmed in classical documentary style, the movie gains extra cinematic impact from its arty but atmospheric shots of Santiago, which give it an otherworldly mood that seems oddly appropriate to the material.
Gender also plays a strong part in "From One Prison...," by Carol Jacobsen, a series of interviews with women serving time for violent acts they committed against men who had abused them. Although the film raises more questions than it's prepared to answer about relationships between women, violence, and the American legal system, it provides rare insights into a set of extremely troubling issues.
Out of the ordinary
Other films on the program cover very different subjects. One that has already gained much festival and TV publicity is "Twitch and Shout," by American filmmaker Laurel Chiten, about a medical condition entailing involuntary movements and vocalizations. Steadily upbeat and affirmative, the movie effectively questions common definitions of "normality" and "illness."
Out-of-the-ordinary experience also crops up in "The State of Weightlessness," by Polish director Maciej Drygas, who looks at the Soviet space program. The film's main human rights relevance comes near the end, when Drygas suggests that space research has little value. More broadly, the movie brings out the ironic contrast between the idealism represented by space exploration and the sad realities of life under the failing Soviet system.
Although the film's interviews center largely on the human side of space travel, including the cosmonauts' emotions, the director's conclusion seems to be that space is basically irrelevant to solving hard problems on our own planet. While many would argue with this contention, it deserves to be heard in a festival concerned less with easy solutions than with difficult questions that need all the attention cinema can give them.
* After its Lincoln Center run, ending June 30, the festival moves to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, July 15-21; the Boston Film Festival, Sept. 8-21; and Palm Springs, Fla., Jan. 4-21, 1996. Other US dates and a world tour to follow.