Recording the human-rights struggle: Festival filmmakers discuss their eye-opening documentaries

In 1948, when a majority of the members of the United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they sought to define them, and to hold governments to their promise to protect them. Yet the nature of these rights, who is empowered to ensure them, and how they are to be adjudicated when governments fail in their responsibility, lie at the core of every national and international conflict. Even in free societies where human rights are deemed inalienable, abuses are common. But so are people of conscience who demand injustices be rectified—and, often, journalists and human-rights filmmakers are there to document the ensuing battles. In every society, their work is an exercise in freedom and preservation, a compiling of memory, and an irrefutable historical record.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, in its 22nd year in New York City, continues to celebrate the efforts of these artists with 16 documentaries and two narrative films screening June 16-30. Life, Above All (from Sony Pictures Classics), directed by Oliver Schmitz, is the touching story of a young South African woman’s courage in confronting her neighbors’ ignorance after her mother becomes ill with AIDS. The Whistleblower (from Samuel Goldwyn Films), directed by Larysa Kondracki and starring Rachel Weisz, is inspired by the real-life Kathryn Bolkovac, who stumbled upon a sex-trafficking ring that U.N. employees aided and, in some cases, frequented. Bolkovac, who was working for a security firm in the former Yugoslavia, was subsequently fired from her job. Sex trafficking is also the subject of this year’s Nestor Almendros Award winner, The Price of Sex, by Mimi Chakarova, a Bulgarian photojournalist. In her documentary, Chakarova interviews several women who were trafficked and enslaved.

Women living in extreme circumstances are the subjects of two other documentaries this year. Familia, Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits’ bittersweet tale about an impoverished Peruvian family, follows Naty, the mother of three. She is forced to leave her loved ones behind in search of work abroad. In Tanaz Eshaghian’s Love Crimes of Kabul, audiences get a close look at young Afghani women whose expressions of freedom in that war-torn country are often reported to authorities by their families. The filmmakers’ subjects are women imprisoned in Kabul for breaking the rules of sexual conduct established by Sharia law.

Several of this year’s films document disenfranchisement and human-rights violations in the United States, among them Thomas Napper’s Lost Angels, a look at Los Angeles’ Skid Row; Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s You Don’t Like the Truth —4 Days Inside Guantanamo that includes live footage of interrogations; Kate Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s Better This World, which documents the deterioration of civil liberties post 9-11; and Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s If a Tree Falls, a portrait of the FBI’s number-one target, the revolutionaries of Earth Liberation Front. Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song profiles American performer Harry Belafonte, chronicling his life as an artist and activist.

Four documentaries center on Latin America. When the Mountains Tremble (Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (Pamela Yates, Peter Kinoy, Paco de Onis) are about Guatemala, while Impunity (Juan José Lozano, Hollman Morris) and La Toma (Angus Gibson, Miguel Salazar) recount recent events in Colombia.

Two documentaries are not easily categorized. Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave uses animation as a backdrop for the blog posts and tweets exchanged by Iranians during the 2009 elections that ended in violent protest. These are mixed with eyewitness video footage and interviews to provide an unusual picture of grassroots resistance. Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary portrays the filmmaker’s efforts to reform prison life in Lebanon’s largest jail through the formation of a theatre group.

One documentary, This Is My Land: Hebron, by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, illustrates the continuing strife in that city, and represents a first effort at human-rights filmmaking by both artists. Along with La Toma, Familia and Love Crimes of Kabul, it stands out among the festival’s many excellent documentaries. The directors and producers of these films took time to speak with us a week before the June 16 opening of the event, co-presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Giulia Amati, Stephen Natanson, This is My Land: Hebron (Israel/Italy, 75 minutes)

This project began when Giulia Amati, who is Italian, took a temporary position as a teacher of filmmaking for Palestinian youth living in Hebron, the largest city in the occupied West Bank. Unprepared for the war-like conditions in Hebron, home to 600 Jewish settlers and 160,000 Palestinians, Amati also realized she was in the midst of a conflict not often reported in the press. She called Stephen Natanson, whose documentaries about art and architecture she had edited, and asked him to join her in Hebron to film what would become This is My Land: Hebron.

The two novice human-rights filmmakers achieve a quiet balance in their profiles of the Jewish settlers who believe in their Biblical rights to the land, and the Palestinians who have lived on the same land for thousands of years but who are often forced out by the settlers. Their interviews with Hebron’s residents and business owners, as well as an ex-soldier in the Israeli Army, and an Israeli journalist, are combined with live footage of Palestinians and Israelis in violent encounters. What follows is an edited version of our 35-minute telephone interview from Rome.

How did you maintain your objectivity in the highly charged atmosphere of this city?
Amati: We wanted to explain the truth of what’s happening there. We tried to be ethical and express our experience. We just described what we saw. It was very important for us that every time we put something in the film, we expressed the events cinematically, without narration or music. We also edited the interviews carefully because we wanted viewers and our interviewees to understand that we were not trying to manipulate what we filmed.

Natanson: There is no music because we showed our film to a wonderful musician who composes the scores for my other documentaries and he refused to score this one.

Natanson: He said we did not need it. We tried narration, too, but we felt it did not work. We had many interviews and were hoping to understand more, but at a certain point we could not understand more than we had at the start. It was just the two of us and we did not have any funding. We were working on the documentary when we were not on other jobs. It took us three years, so it was a long and painful road to get as clear and as correct a vision as possible of the situation in Hebron.

You raise many issues in the film related to Israel’s domestic policies, but also to an issue that concerns every country in the world, which is the effect of religious extremism.
Amati: We believe all of us in the world are somehow involved in the situation and it is not something that is just between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Natanson: One thing that’s not difficult to perceive when you are in Hebron, and that we hope comes out of the film, is that the Palestinians don’t have much wiggle room in this debate. Any improvement in the situation will have to come from those who have more power. The Palestinian community can do nothing. The political debate in Israel will have to evolve if it is true that one wants to have peace and justice. It’s been going on for 40 years and it can go on for another 40 years.

Amati: This debate about Hebron will not end by people saying, “We know there are some crazy people there, but they are just extremists.” The Israelis cannot say: “This does not involve us.” I also think the Palestinians can do something. I mean that staying there, rather than leaving, is a way of fighting for their own cause. The fact that they continue to stay is unbelievable. I would have left. There is little hope for the future.

In one scene the Palestinians are heckled by settlers while picking olives, and in another young Palestinian girls are stoned while trying to get to school. Are you saying that everyday life for the Palestinians is a political act?
Natanson: Yes, that’s right. It is, absolutely.

Amati: Israel is very close to Italy, just a few hours’ flight. How can it be possible that this is going on in 2011 just across the border of my country and nobody is screaming? Here is a very strong Western documentary, but when you look inside the Occupied Territories, it’s very different. It is like two countries in one.

Natanson: We made this film not considering the Italian audience, but we have managed to sell it and it has been incredibly successful here and in festivals. People want to know what goes on beyond their borders. When the film is screened, we witness in the audience the same sort of shock we felt when we were in Hebron. In some way, I think we have been able to pass on our personal experience.

Mikael Wiström, Alberto Herskovits, Familia (Sweden, 82 minutes)

Familia is a fly-on-the-wall view of an indigent Peruvian family. Naty, circumspect and resolute, has spent most of her life with her sentimental partner Daniel, also the father of her three children. Daniel, who was born with polio, is aging and unable to earn enough to support their young son or to educate him. The documentary opens as Naty, who is 54 years old, makes the difficult decision to take a job as a hotel maid in Spain, which will separate her from her family for nine months.

Filmmaker Mikael Wiström met Naty and Daniel 35 years ago while on vacation in Peru, and the three have remained friends. Wiström’s still photos of the couple, who once earned a living by retrieving objects from a garbage dump, provide glimpses of their past while Familia, with its unfolding drama, confronts their uncertain future. Wiström, who is Swedish, and friend Alberto Herskovits, who is Argentinian-German, collaborated on the documentary, Wiström handling the sound equipment and Herskovits the camera.

During filming, the two men would arrive each morning at the family’s home and interview Naty or Daniel or their children, and record encounters that felt relevant and significant. Sometimes, they asked to be present at intimate moments, such as when Daniel and Naty said their goodbyes. Naty goes to Spain and the filmmakers follow, but they also stay close to the family members left behind in Peru. Unfortunately, Wiström was not available for an interview; what follows is an edited version of a conversation with Herskovits by telephone from Berlin.

I would like to ask you about these incredibly intimate conversations you were able to film—
Herskovits: You are talking about the “Do you love me” scene?

Yes, that is one of them.
Even after seeing it so many times, I still feel surprised myself. I understand that there is an intimacy there that is very unusual. We knew that Naty was about to leave Peru and the only thing we asked Daniel was to help us organize a moment of intimacy between him and his wife so that they could say “goodbye” without being disturbed by the children. One day he invited us upstairs. We did not know what to expect. I was standing next to them filming and I felt the emotion very strongly. I felt his fear of her leaving, and maybe losing her—his insecurity. It was very touching.

In visits to sub-Saharan Africa and in Central America, I saw many women supporting their families through their handicrafts, yet they also continued to do housework and raise the children. Through Naty, you depict this essential role which women play in so many developing countries, a role not often acknowledged and rarely depicted in documentary films. Did you set out to do that?
Familia is very much a film about the women in the family. I think most women live that sort of life in developing countries. It is a powerful thing to be a woman in poor circumstances bearing the burden of the economy in your country. In Lima, I saw women traveling one and a half hours through the city to get to work. Here, the travel time alone would be a day’s work! It is amazing to do that every day and then get home and take care of the home and family. In some ways, though, it is like that in all families.

Here there is the added dimension that Daniel was born with polio. So the family in a way is not typical. In a Peruvian family, the man would be in charge. That makes Daniel interesting because he has developed a motherly part of himself; he’s very emotional, much more so than Naty. He cries and she doesn’t.

There is that wonderful moment when he admits that he was not a good father to his adult daughters. It was surprising.
Yes, that’s true. If there were any advantages to not leading his family, for him it was a great chance to become the father that many men never see. I think this was a wonderful development for him.

Why do you think Naty finally marries Daniel?
That’s a great question. You can see a film on many levels. A documentary represents a large number of compromises and complications. We did the film together, Mikael and me, and in one way or another we had different approaches to the family. For me, I was always interested in the gap, in representing this family that is full of heart but also doing that realistically, representing the problems.

I think Mikael, being a friend of the family much longer than I, as well as part of the extended family—he’s the godfather of the first-born daughter—maybe he had a harder time seeing things as they are. This is speculation, but to answer the question of why they married, I would say that Naty got rid of the trouble of not being married. I think she responded to some dream that surrounded her. That ideal of love and marriage in this family, or any family—I did not see it as a good end.

I didn’t either.
Good. I must say that this was the biggest conflict we had throughout the editing process. It took over a year. The compromise was that we reduced the marriage scene to the point that it feels as though it might have happened, but maybe not.

It must have been very difficult during the making of the film, given Mikael’s relationship with the family, to stay out of the obvious turmoil of their lives.
Yes, it was very difficult, especially when it comes to a situation when you feel that you have to intervene. It would feel odd or strange not to intervene, for instance, when there was some level of violence. We could not tolerate violence against women, even if it was part of the reality. There were moments when being a person was more important than being a filmmaker. It was difficult all the time, but both of us were clear, I think, about these problems and we discussed them all the time.

Are you influenced by Frederick Wiseman?
Yes, I am. Of course. I wish he could be there at HRWFF.

What do you hope Americans will take away from your documentary?
I would like them to go home and think that in a family that lives so differently than we do—all of us in the West—that we have so much in common with them. That’s the punch line of the film on one level. The image of the poor is that these people are constantly crushed by the struggle to survive, yet there is such a richness in their social interactions. Their problems are very similar to the questions that we discuss in our families. That is something I feel. We are all one in the sense that families are powerful social constructs for us.

That is obvious in the scene when Naty and her daughter Judith speak, after Naty has returned to Peru. Naty is shocked to learn that Judith felt a terrible emotional burden while she was working in Spain.
Yes, Judith has an eating disorder. People think that’s a thing found only in developed countries, but women have much in common. I hope that’s the surprise that people take home with them after seeing the film.

Tanaz Eshaghian, Love Crimes of Kabul (Afghanistan/U.S., 71 minutes)

In Afghanistan, which is a theocracy, it is a crime for a couple to have sex before they are married, and men and women end up in jail if their affair is reported to authorities. Afterward, a trial takes place in which the couple must appear before a judge, a holy man, who assesses their guilt and passes sentence. Some of the women in Tanaz Eshaghian’s Love Crimes of Kabul, set in the city’s Badum Bagh prison, are serving sentences for these “love crimes,” which include adultery as well as premarital sex, while others are awaiting trial. All of them are like young women everywhere—romantic, idealistic, shrewd, seductive and sometimes downright silly.

Originally, Eshaghian, whose previous work includes Be Like Others (2008)—about men who have state-sanctioned sex-change operations in Iran—set out to make a film that profiled women who married against their parents’ wishes. That project turned out to be far too dangerous, and after some research, she discovered the Afghani women’s prison. She filmed there with her camerawoman, Kat Patterson (12th and Delaware), for about two weeks, usually four hours a day, more if the prison guards allowed it. Eshaghian, now an American, is Iranian by birth. She was able to communicate with her subjects in Dari, a language similar to her native Farsi. What follows is an edited version of our conversation; it took place by telephone in New York City. Love Crimes will be broadcast on HBO in July 2011.

What was Kabul like?
Eshaghian: It was a very difficult place to navigate. I had been to Iran two years before when I made Be Like Others. I thought it would be like a town in Iran, not quite Tehran, more like in the countryside. Actually, Kabul is just economically shattered. It’s so poor and you feel it all the time. The streets are not paved. People are traumatized and angry. There is nothing of the social veneer you should find there because culturally they are closer to Iran. There should be these Iranian customs where people would welcome you with a cup of tea, but it’s not like that. That’s all gone.

It was really rough. I was complaining to my Afghan driver about this—he had spent some time in Iran but then returned to Kabul after the Taliban had left—and he said: “You should have seen Kabul five years ago. You could not ask someone on the street for directions. Now it’s better.” They have been through hell.

The film opens with a rather provocative scene. A woman admits that she’s killed her husband and we don’t find out until a bit later that he was a child molester. The head guard, also a woman, laughs after the confession. Could you explain that opening and why you chose it?
I think it captured the flavor of the prison where you have people who would kill their husbands next to a woman who had premarital sex and was pregnant. I thought that was important, to give a sense what a mix of people there are in the prison.

As to the guard laughing, that was the mood in there. I wanted to communicate all of that. At one point, the guard was introducing me to a woman who had helped her husband kill 18 taxi drivers in order to take their taxis and sell them. She was laughing then, too. That was not weird in Kabul. The attitude is that life goes on. People might say: “What are you going to do? Make it a moral issue? Are you kidding? That’s life!”

When you’re watching the trial scene, you can almost imagine the judge as an ideal patriarch. He makes a decision with regard to the girl and her lover that basically supports family values. In some way, he protects the woman involved.
Yes, I see what you’re saying. Patriarchy, ideally, is supposed to protect women. That’s the deal, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s what I mean. It’s at work here, but of course that is only when you consider the mindset of a theocracy, not when you realize that the young woman has gone to prison for having sex or that her family reported her.
Yes, and patriarchy goes wrong and women feel suffocated. It can be protective if you are willing to play by the rules. You have your brother, your uncle and your father and they are meant to take care of you but also are responsible for your purity and honor. If you blemish it, you have shamed them.

So, it’s a system of exchange that you are a part of. There is a place for you. Who you are, what you will become, is predetermined, and that can be quite comfortable. I can see a solid 70 percent of my friends here in America would have fared better if they had that. There’s less anxiety, there is less choice, less room for you to take your life in your own hands and mess it up.

A surprise for me was Aleema, the divorced woman prisoner who refuses to marry a man who is willing to take her as his second wife. That’s after she says she can’t return home either because her family would drown her.
I think she just didn’t like the guy, and she was not the type who could do the calculation that made sense. Aleema is very modern. She is the most tragic of all the women in the film. She had been abused, and was moody but incredibly bright. She has an amazing imagination. Half of what she told me was lies, but those lies were imaginative. There was so much pain there.

You ask a judge at the end of the film what would happen if everyone acted on their desires. What did you think about his answer?
I couldn’t resist. I expected it. I interviewed a mullah for Be Like Others, and I asked him the same question. He said basically the same thing, that if this was not controlled or contained, if the men were not turned into women so that everything is corrected, then there would be chaos. Chaos is the worst thing. There’s this tremendous fear of social chaos in Iran and, obviously, in Afghanistan.

Angus Gibson, Miguel Salazar, La Toma (The Siege) (Colombia/South Africa, 88 minutes)

The 1985 siege of Bogotá’s Palace of Justice by Colombia’s M19 revolutionaries may not loom large in the memories of North Americans, but in its devastating aftermath 94 people were dead, including 11 of the 24 members of the country’s Supreme Court. At the time, the justices were investigating politically sensitive cases, some involving Colombia’s notorious drug cartels. Many of the 150 hostages disappeared, among them 12 cafeteria workers; in news footage, it is clear that all 12 had emerged from the burning ruins alive after the Colombian army, led by Colonel Plazas Vega, stormed the building. The day after the siege, charred remains were removed and much of the forensic evidence destroyed.

La Toma, by South African filmmaker Angus Gibson and Colombian filmmaker Miguel Salazar, marked the 25th anniversary of the event in 2010. It chronicles the 2009 trial of Plazas Vega, convicted for his mishandling of the operation and for the disappearances. His 30-year sentence, as well as the recent conviction of General Arias Cabrales in April 2011 on similar charges, are significant events in Colombia, where there are an estimated 20,000 desaparecidos, victims of the last 30 years of armed conflict between revolutionaries and government troops.

This well-researched and skillfully edited documentary reminds all Americans, North and South, of their shared history and of the continuing struggle to ensure justice and government accountability. Through gripping archival footage of the siege and Vega’s trial, as well as interviews with witnesses, a former member of M19, forensic scientists, politicians, justice officials, survivors and Vega himself, what emerges is a complex picture of contemporary Colombia. Equally important is the documentary’s portrayal of the group of family members of the disappeared cafeteria workers whose indomitable spirit over the past 25 years undoubtedly led to Vega’s conviction.

What follows is an edited version of a telephone interview with Angus Gibson. Unfortunately, Miguel Salazar was traveling and could not be reached.

How did you and Miguel get together, and how did the project first begin?
Gibson: The International Center for Transitional Justice, which is based in New York and Bogotá, knew there was a 25th anniversary coming up of the siege of the Palace of Justice, and no definitive film had been made about it. They found Miguel who, up to that point, had only worked in short documentaries. The ICTJ also thought it might be interesting to have an outsider’s view together with the insider’s view Miguel provided. Both of us have an interest in the history of our own nations. They’re complicated countries.

I found the project interesting because it is a look at the past through the contemporary. What became La Toma was described to me as a six-month project. I went to Bogotá to met with Miguel. As you may know, these partnerships sometimes work and sometimes don’t, but it turned out that I enjoyed immensely my work with Miguel. It felt like it was an incredibly privileged way to get a sense of Colombia. In the end, it did not take six months; it took two years.

You said you had a crew, but tell me how you split the duties of filmmaking.
Miguel did some interviews, and I did others. I don’t have Spanish, so I would talk to the person and Miguel would sit very close to me and whisper the translation in my ear. I am a useless linguist and he is an extraordinarily gifted linguist. He was able to simultaneously translate a very nuanced version of what was being said, and I would forget that there was any kind of language divide.

Do you think Colombians may take away from this documentary the fact that the protests of the families of the disappeared really worked?
We heard that at screenings in Colombia.

But at the end, the family members appear to feel somewhat defeated.
Yes, it felt like there was a long journey to come. However, I think they had taken the important first step. I think that Vega’s trial was a very significant moment for all of them. No doubt about it.

Were they in danger during the course of the trial? Were you and Miguel threatened?
I don’t think I was in danger, partly because I am not Colombian. I think it felt different for Miguel. The prosecutor and the judge are heroic in my view, and they were in danger. The families of all the disappeared have quite regularly been threatened. They have never backed down. I hope that the film communicates that. It is incredible that they have not given up after 35 years, and have become a family. I certainly don’t think that this is the end of their journey. They’ve gone one part of the way.

Ana María Bidegaín, the wife of an assistant justice of the court who was among the disappeared, also received threats. I am wondering if there was any divide between the families of the cafeteria workers and the families of those who had been in higher positions.
Soon after the event, Bidegaín was advised to let it go. She left the country.

She’s from Uruguay?
Yes, that’s right. She left Colombia and moved to Miami. She’s an incredible woman, and will be attending the festival.

The judge in this case was forced to leave Colombia, and the prosecutor, Angela Buitrago, lost her job. Vega is not in jail. Under President Calderon, the Army allegedly killed innocent civilians and characterized them as FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] members. Before seeing your film, my feeling was that the Palace of Justice had not been restored. Is Colombia a military dictatorship?
I don’t think it’s a military dictatorship. I think there is a shift in Colombia. If we had tried to make this film sometime back, we would never have gotten the interviews that we got. People would have been too fearful to speak. I do feel that the trial was one step forward and two backward.

I never expected people from every side of our narrative to speak to us. If you are making a documentary, generally, you are either on one side of the narrative or the other. We would go to court and it would be strange and awkward because we were talking to the lawyers on both sides, the colonel and his wife, as well as the families of the disappeared. People gave us interviews because it was not in their view a local documentary and because there was potential for it to be shown in other parts of the world. For instance, my presence there ensured that.

The combination of Miguel being an insider and me being an outsider really served the film in terms of gaining access to people. For example, the prosecutor had not granted an interview to anybody else and she never did afterward. We hope the film will find an audience outside of Colombia. It screened there for what I imagined would be our most difficult audience, but in fact we got an extraordinarily warm reception.

Has Buitrago, the prosecutor, been able to resume her work, and is she still in danger?
She is working, and I asked her if she was fearful. She acknowledged being harassed, but she is never fearful. She would never admit to it; let’s put it that way. She is an incredible woman. I did an interview with her in her office. I couldn’t get it into the frame but there was this strange plaque on the wall. I asked what it was. She said: “It’s the goddess of war.” The people in her office, on some significant birthday, had given it to her because they think of her as the goddess of war. Really, she is.

Let’s talk about what you would like American audiences to take away from La Toma. The first time I watched it, I was outraged by Vega’s actions during the trial. The second time, I thought I could be in any of a number of South American countries.
I hope the audience in New York will understand the relentless struggle. The families never give up. For me, the spirit of that group of people you meet in the film, the families of the cafeteria workers, their lawyers, the prosecutor and the judge—if you just walk away with a sense of them and what they’re trying to do, and a sense that there needs to be solidarity there, then I would be happy.

The importance of ensuring justice for the disenfranchised is a very strong but underlying theme in the film, isn’t it?
Realize that the film was 50 minutes longer. One of our partners said that it could not be longer than 90 minutes. Maybe it’s a better film, but many things that were in the documentary are no longer there. For example, there was more substantial contextual material; in the earlier cut, you understood more of the broader history of Colombia, as well as the lives of the people who are interviewed. Having said that, I do not feel disappointed in what it became.

I wonder if anything has changed in Colombia in the past 50 years. After watching your film, the answer might be that it has, but I also think that from a political standpoint, it hasn’t. What do you think?
There’s a South African saying, “ja-nee,” which means “yes-no.” I feel that’s what South Africa has in common with Colombia. I think your reaction is a perceptive reading.