Films take on human rights

An international festival sheds light on issues of freedom and equality

Reality takes many forms, in life and in movies - and Hollywood seems determined to avoid all of them, pouring its energy into fantasies having little to do with the world we actually live in.

Moviegoers who want films to reflect and illuminate real life may have to leave the multiplex for an event like Lincoln Center's stirring Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, now in its 12th year and beginning to extend its reach through the Internet.

There's no shortage of movies focusing on issues of freedom, equality, and struggles against oppression. The festival's program has no fewer than 38 films from 15 countries, with styles ranging from straightforward documentary to expressive drama.

There's no shortage of subjects for socially conscious filmmakers to deal with, either, from religious extremism in Afghanistan to the daily lives of Dominicans in a New York City neighborhood.

Some offerings appeal mainly to viewers with special interest in a topic, but others are already on their way to general audiences in commercial theaters.

One such film is Life and Debt, which looks simultaneously at everyday hardships in a small, poor country - the island of Jamaica - and at larger, globalized forces that drive and sustain those hardships, often for the benefit of privileged people in faraway places. The film blends compassion for individuals with explanations of the socioeconomic factors that influence their lives.

It has become a truism that the personal and political are inseparable from each other, but balancing this equation in motion-picture terms is never easy. Few have managed it more responsibly than "Life and Debt" director Stephanie Black and writer Jamaica Kincaid, who shed light on the pitfalls of globalization - the hazards of free-trade agreements, the impersonality of world banks, and the like - without forgetting that sweeping historical forces are anything but abstract when they manifest themselves in people's lives.

"Life and Debt" debuted theatrically last week after opening the festival.

In a special event tomorrow night, a lifetime-achievement award will be presented to Raoul Peck, a former minister of culture in Haiti who has become a highly respected director with an ongoing interest in human rights. His latest movie, Lumumba, travels to theaters next Wednesday after many showings on the festival circuit. It tells the true story of Patrice Lumumba, who helped the Congo escape from Belgian colonialism but fell victim to assassins after a mere two months in the Congolese presidency.

"Lumumba" illustrates the pitfalls, as well as the possibilities, of historical fiction. Both are embodied by Eriq Ebouaney's performance in the title role, which combines a great sense of dignity with a regrettable failure to bring out the psychologically complex man dwelling beneath Lumumba's public persona.

The movie as a whole does an admirable job of calling attention to a revolutionary hero largely forgotten in other parts of the world. It shows little interest in exploring his political ideas, though, or explaining why he became a flash point of controversy for many Western observers. While it provides a dramatic introduction to a fascinating figure, "Lumumba" rarely digs below the surface.

Other festival entries centering on struggles against colonialism include Saadia: A Moroccan Woman in the Resistance, a powerful animation about a woman whose life gains meaning from revolutionary strife, and Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, director William Greaves's acclaimed documentary about an African-American intellectual who fought imperialism through the United Nations and other venues.

Very different subjects are probed in movies like Postcard From Peje, a personal view of the Kosovo conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and One Day Crossing, a meticulously produced fiction film about Jews fleeing Hungarian Nazis during World War II.

The festival centers on independent movies, but that doesn't stop the programmers from celebrating mainstream cinema when it intersects with the "indie" scene. The very first screening was Kiss of the Spider Woman, a non-Hollywood production that garnered four Oscar nominations in 1986, including a win for William Hurt as best actor.

Rarely seen since its first release, Hector Babenco's drama is returning to theaters next Friday with its bittersweet story of a gay man sharing a Latin American jail cell with a political prisoner played by the late Raul Julia.

In a welcome effort to reach a wider range of viewers, the festival has launched an Internet component called the Media That Matters Online Film Festival, devoted to short films and videos on American social issues.

Featuring works like Body Image, about social pressures on teenage girls, and Samantha Geller: Artists Fight Censorship, about a young woman battling for free speech, it promises to transform this New York event into a far-reaching phenomenon.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival continues through next Thursday at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. Media That Matters is on the Internet at

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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