Would that the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) never needed to begin in 1988. Would that films could not be made about hate crimes and racism, bigotry and blacklisting, the near-extermination of Polish Jews, political terrorism and torture, Vietnamese and American widows' grief, civilian massacres, attacks on women, and the many other forms of physical and psychological abuse because none of this existed. Would that it were so and that our own inclination to ignore or dismiss devastating inhumanity didn't perpetuate its continuance. But because injustice and discrimination continue unabated, the HRWIFF bravely and compellingly stands "with victims and activists to bring offenders to justice, to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom and to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime," holding governments and the powerful accountable for their actions.
Each year the traveling program of the HRWIFF exhibits fiction and nonfiction, short and feature-length, experimental and traditional works that unmask and confront human-rights transgressions. The selection committee weighs artistic merit and political content equally. The five-week, 10-program series, which plays each Tuesday in February at Webster University, proves without a doubt that indicting historical and contemporary transgressions is intellectually gratifying, emotionally moving and aesthetically exhilarating. The 13 exceptional works included in these programs easily surpass Hollywood's failures to capture the complexity of the human condition. (The remaining programs will be capsule-reviewed in the RFT's "In Review" section in the following weeks.)
There's not a mediocre, superficial work in this entire festival. And ironically, though the HRWIFF's subject matter is always sobering, the unfailingly insightful consideration of the diversity of topics leaves you not depressed but heartened, knowing that so many talented, courageous citizens of all countries still fight the good fight and refuse to cower, turn away or capitulate. This is what it means to be alive. (DC)
Photographer. With a camera confiscated from a Jewish prisoner and a supply of Agfa's newly developed color slide film, Walter Genewein, the Reich's chief accountant, documented the quotidian reality of Nazi Germany's "achievement" in the Lodz Ghetto. In 1987, some 400 of Genewein's slides were found in a bookstore in Vienna. Those images, along with contemporaneous accounts and interviews with Dr. Arnold Mostowicz, a Lodz survivor, make up Dariusz Jablonski's Photographer. Proceeding by the accretion of detail, Photographer presents a riveting picture of the bureaucratization of atrocity. Finding horror in the discrepancy between events and their documentation, it is also a meditation on how, and why, we record. The film's flaws -- a bombastic score, some stagy added footage -- seem the result of attempting to heighten the drama of a story that doesn't need it. The last image of Genewein's that we see, his final slide, is artlessly devastating. (JH)
House of the World. Determined "not to restore the past but to tear it open," director Esther Podemski accompanies a small group of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants to Poddebice, Poland, near Lodz. Through black-and-white archival footage and music, old photographs juxtaposed with contemporary color footage and on-site interviews, Podemski discovers that Jews and the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe have been all but erased. Podemski honorably memorializes the dead and reclaims history, knowing "every cemetery is a house of the world, where the living and the dead keep company." (DC)
Odds Against Tomorrow. Forcefully dramatizing the self-destructiveness of racial prejudice, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) pits the bigoted, moody, volatile ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) against the cool, wary jazz musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte). His ex-wife and daughter threatened because of gambling debts, Johnny agrees to an upstate New York bank heist, masterminded by David Burke (Ed Begley), an angry ex-cop dismissed after refusing to testify to the State Crime Commission. John Lewis' remarkable jazz score, location shooting contrasting New York City with small-town Americana, and cinematographer Joseph Brun's gorgeous black-and-white compositions make this the last, great film noir and the first with a black protagonist. Themes resonate with social issues: racism, McCarthyism, economic apartheid, anti-integration animosity and an aging veteran's nihilism. Producer Belafonte hired blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky, with civil-rights activist John Oliver Killens credited as Polonsky's "front." The concluding action and dialogue are devastating. (DC)
Photographer and House of the World play at 7 p.m., with an introduction by Linda Woolf, coordinator for the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, and Odds Against Tomorrow plays at 9 p.m. Feb. 1 at Webster University.