Postcards From the Edge

Orphaned Cambodian amputees, Bosnian war widows, prepubescent Liberian soldiers, Rwandan rape victims forced to bear and raise the children of their attackers. . . . The upcoming Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (which will travel to Boston, New York, Berkeley, and London over the course of the next few months) plunges viewers headlong into an ocean of misery so vast and so dark, we feel ourselves drowning.

And yet, paradoxically, such a festival gives hope as it brings both perspective and reality--albeit reality in its harsher forms--back to the movies. This is anti-escapism at its best, a collection of probing accounts of people whose poise in the face of calamity is often, to say the least, stirring. Some of these tributes shine a spotlight on the tireless, lifelong labors of renowned figures like United Nations diplomat, civil-rights campaigner, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, whose story is told in William Greaves's straight but vivid biographical movie Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, narrated by Sidney Poitier.

More typically, they relate the lesser-known (and more improvisatory) heroics of people such as Jacqueline Pery d'Alincourt, a modest little bird of an elderly French matron, whose prim white coif and carefully applied lipstick give no hint of her background as the head of code work for the French underground. She is one of the subjects of Maia Wechsler's Sisters in Resistance, which introduces us to Jacqueline's hard-as-nails kaffeeklatsch, the near-octogenarian members of which were, as young women, active fighters against the Nazi occupation of their country. This fact won them the collective honor of almost starving to death at the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Hollywood abuse may have made us suspicious of slogans like "the triumph of the human spirit" and "survival against all odds," but such phrases really do apply in these instances, and not as mere ad copy. How else to understand the somber, almost stoic bearing of Nhom, one of the subjects of Behind Closed Eyes, Dutch director Duco Tellegen's intercontinental study of children whose lives have been ravaged by war?

A 13-year-old Cambodian orphan with a single leg (a land mine ripped off the other), Nhom likes to make kites, though he can't run with them to make them fly. One of the most tender--and, yes, uplifting--scenes in the film comes when he tries on his new prosthesis. His face cracks open into a huge, happy grin as he practices putting one foot in front of the other in a fledgling, loping walk. It's as if he'd scaled Mount Everest, and his temporary exhilaration obscures for a moment the agony of his overall situation. The same boggling sort of composure radiates from another of Tellegen's "characters," a seven-year-old Kosovo refugee, Eranda. With skinny knock-knees and shiny little posts in her ears, she calmly explains that "death is clean compared to war" and later makes plans for the future: "I want to have children when I grow up. I'll give them lots of food. Not too much milk, but plenty of cereal. But later they must learn to eat alone." Indeed.

The danger of seeing all these movies back to back as one does in the context of a festival, or as I've done as I screened a group of the documentaries in advance (the schedule includes several fictional films as well), is that the grief runs the risk of becoming general. When that happens, the anguish depicted comes to seem like a nearly unavoidable aspect of the human condition--an eternal, unwavering state of affairs over which no one has real control. This is, of course, far from the intention of the earnest, committed, entirely commendable festival planners or the filmmakers themselves, but it is a hazard nonetheless.

Tellegen's movie, for instance, takes up a questionable comparative approach and consists of four distinct chapters, each of which revolves around a young survivor of a violent conflict. Among the children whose stories the director tells are Spencer, an 18-year-old Liberian former armed thug, and Jacqueline, an 18-year-old Rwandan orphan. Spencer is enrolled in a rehabilitation program for young veterans of his country's brutal civil war, while Jacqueline must raise, in ignominy and almost total isolation, the daughter of her rapist as she worries that she may have been infected with AIDS by the child's father. Although the two teenagers are certainly deserving of pity, to see Spencer and Jacqueline both as innocent victims of a dreadful yet vague existential reality (as Tellegen appears to) seems a convenient oversimplification. One was hunter; one was prey. In the director's terms, they are equal.

A film like Behind Closed Eyes is saved from this numbing tendency toward apolitical universality, though, by the fierce particularity of these people and their homegrown strategies for survival. The same is true of the festival as a whole: We are haunted afterward not by the experience of an abstract Big Picture but by the registration of a series of piercing, separate images, miniatures almost--real-life postcards from the edge.

Sometimes that edge takes center stage. Such is obviously the case with Afghanistan and Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin. Because of its timely subject matter, the movie has been singled out by the festival organizers for special attention and promotion; it is also one of the only festival films that has been treated to an American theatrical release. But Jung is important for more than topical reasons. It's a potent document on its own unflinching terms and, for viewers strong of heart and stomach, highly recommended.

Directed by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the movie manages to convey in terms both awful and eloquent the terrible scale of the Afghani tragedy by zeroing in on one microcosmic drama: the efforts to found, build, and operate a front-line emergency hospital for civilian victims of the fighting in the north of that blighted country. This is the project of an indefatigable Italian surgeon and English nurse, who are assisted by a veteran Italian war correspondent to win the trust of the local tribal leaders. In graphic and often almost unbearably wretched detail, the movie traces the day-to-day construction and working of the hospital, an undertaking that's brought about with the help of a team of Kurdish doctors and nurses and a staff of Afghan-refugee masons, carpenters, translators, orderlies, and janitors.

The early, expository parts of the film may strike post-September 11 American viewers, by now well-versed in the ins and outs of Afghani history and warfare, as overly familiar (in filmic terms they're also a bit less concentrated than what follows); though to be fair, these explanatory bits were shot well before most people in the West knew or cared much about the situation in Afghanistan. The directors were right to try to offer a bit of background--and in this context the noble ends justify the occasionally blurry means. When these initial sections were aired on Italian television in 1999, viewers wound up donating the money that eventually funded the construction of the hospital and gave rise to the second part of the film.

Gino Strada, the salt-and-pepper-bearded bear of a surgeon whose boundless energy and charisma are the bedrock on which the hospital is built, explains to the camera that this is the "most devastating of forgotten wars." The doctor's mission in Afghanistan is especially moving, in that he sees his work as much more than the dispensing of "mere" medical assistance. He wants, he says, to show the people of this beleaguered land "a different approach to life."

Hany Abu-Assad's Nazareth 2000 would seem to belong in another category altogether. The director's subject--the power struggles between Muslims and Christians in Israel's largest Arab city, his own hometown--is hardly so cataclysmic as that of many of the festival films. So, too, Abu-Assad's lighter and more irreverent tone is an exception in a festival where the prevailing mood is overwhelmingly stark and unsmiling. His focus on the deadpan patter of two wise-guy gas station attendants, Abu Maria and Abu Arab; his flat, bright, comic-book-styled mise-en-scène; energetic editing; and the insistent, folksy oompah-pah that fills the soundtrack give the movie the air of a real-life three-ring circus. (Yasir Arafat and the pope both put in clownlike cameo appearances in the course of the film.)

But the playful surface of Abu-Assad's movie--which he himself has described as "100% documentary and 100% fiction"--is part of its deep intelligence. If anything, one might argue that the director's wryly off-kilter approach to his serious subject makes it all the more effective. Not only is the content of the director's movie worthy (one could say the same of all the festival films), but his form is superior, as is his sense of humor. And keeping hold of that, in the face of the sorrows that this festival charts, is also a kind of triumph.