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New York Cool:

The 2006 Human Rights Watch
International Film Festival Reviews
June 9 – 22, 2006
Lincoln Center


Professionally Designed Postcards - $99

Bernadine Mellis's
The Forest for the Trees
Milena Kaneva's
Total Denial

Reviewed by Jessica Cogan

The Forest for the Trees follows the case of Judi Bari, an environmental activist with Earth First who was the target of a car bomb in 1990. After being seriously injured in the explosion, Bari was arrested and charged with being a terrorist: the FBI claimed she was transporting the bomb for her own use. While the charges were later dropped, Bari’s name and cause suffered permanent damage. Although there is strong suggestion that the FBI was more nefariously involved, Bari sued them for defamation. Legendary civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham, the filmmaker’s father, took on her case, and in many ways, the film is as much about him as it is Bari. Cunningham is a touching figure – eccentric, scatter-brained, intelligent and decent. He spent a lifetime battling for civil liberties beginning with the Black Panthers and the Attica Brothers. Now at the end of his career, he works with other aging veterans of the civil rights movement to get Bari her day in court. Finally, after twelve years and Bari’s death from breast cancer, the case finally goes to trial and long-delayed justice is served.

The Forest for the Trees is wonderfully done: well-paced, thought-provoking and moving. It is a love letter to Bari and to Cunningham and a testament to perseverance and fighting the good fight.

In Total Denial, we get a glimpse into the effects of global industry on those who are unlucky enough to live in its path. Filmmaker Milena Kaneva spent five years documenting the victimization of Burmese villagers tied to the construction of the Yadana pipeline owned by Unocal and French oil company Total. The impoverished villagers were forced by the Burmese military to help in the construction of the pipeline. Workers were tortured and abused, women raped and villages destroyed.

To unearth the stories of abuse, Kaneva relied upon the help of Ka Hsaw Wa, a Burmese human rights activist himself a victim of torture at the hands of the Burmese government. Wanted in Burma and Thailand, Ka Hsaw Wa operates in an underground network of activists and has gathered evidence of thousands of cases of human rights abuse. Armed with this evidence, Ka Hsaw Wa and Katie Redford, co-founder of Earth Rights International, brought a landmark lawsuit against Unocal for their complicity in the abuse. Unocal eventually agreed to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum (thought to be several millions of dollars), and Total has agreed to pay approximately 7 million dollars to the Burmese plaintiffs and humanitarian projects in Burma.

Total Denial is a bit too wide-ranging for its length (a little over an hour), and a closer examination of the trial would have been more satisfying. Still, Ka Hsaw Wa is a compelling Robin Hood figure, and the triumph of the meek over the mighty is truly inspiring.

The pairing of these two films at the Lincoln Center’s 2006 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival offers a hopeful and timely look at justice prevailing against the powers of government and big business. And it underscores the importance of vigilant, tenacious individuals to help hold those entities accountable.

Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross’
The Road to Guantanamo
Opens Friday, June 23, 2006

Angelika Film Center
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

First and foremost, The Road to Guantanamo is good filmmaking. Michael Winterbottom is simply one of the best film director’s working today. He has proven this over and over again with the diverse and edgy subject matter he chooses. From Jude to The Claim to Welcome to Sarajevo to 9 Songs, he stuns as a prolific yet potent craftsman.

The Road to Guantanamo is docu-cinema at it’s best. Owing a great deal to the brilliant Battle of Algiers (and what film about injustice doesn’t), the film’s fiction narrative (which flickers as if it were docu-fact) is peppered with the talking heads of the actual boys who were victims of our government’s unconscionable treatment.

Road is the story of three British citizens, on the way to a wedding in Pakistan, who ended up in the hands of the American military and sent to the prison base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held for two years without charges and forced to undergo terrible and torturous treatment. Known in the media as the ‘Tipton Three’. the film chronicles their astonishing journey from Britain to Pakistan to Afghanistan--just as the U.S. began it’s bombing raids and, ultimately, to their incarceration in Cuba.

“You are now the property of the U.S. Marine Corps. This is your final destination, “ shouts a manic Marine as they arrive. The routine torture techniques and tests of will rival anything seen on the fiction series 24. As one of the boys puts it: “It either destroys you or makes you stronger.”

The most outrageous part of the story is that no detainee at Guantanamo, including the Tipton Three, have ever been charged with a crime. But the U.S. government has never bothered to apologize or even explain their behavior, let alone their technique. Recent headlines of alleged suicides of three Guantanamo detainees simply make this film more relevant, more urgent.

Winterbottom, along with co-director Mat Whitecross (who shot the ‘real’ conversations with the ‘Three’) have crafted an important film that moves beyond polemic. It questions human nature. And the answers it discovers are pretty damn terrifying.

Javier Corcuera's
Winter in Baghdad / Invierno en Bagdad
Arabic with English Subtitles

Reviewed by Jessica Cogan

Just before the bombing of Baghdad began, Javier Corcuera was there filming for a Spanish television program. He met a foursome of young boys who like to hang out by the Tigris River and spent some time filming them for the program before returning to Spain. When the bombing raids began, Corcuera saw their former hangout lit up by the blasts and wondered about the fate of those boys. In 2004, Corcuera returned to Baghdad in search of them.

For two months that winter, Corcuera and his crew followed the boys and other Iraqi children and families as they struggled to live amid the rubble and constant threat of injury or death from bombings. The result is a heartbreaking glimpse into the very personal cost of the war not often reported by US media. We see families torn apart, living in rubble without reliable running water or electricity. Children are scared, forced to shine shoes or sell illegal gasoline to feed their families. Others are worse off, crippled, scarred or blinded. Schools are empty; morgues are full.

Corcuera does not engage his subject on a political level but on a personal one. And his focus on the victims of the war as separate from religion and politics is powerful. His subjects are human beings first. In that way, while the film investigates the war in Iraq specifically, it is an examination of the cost of war in general and a moving condemnation of those who wage it.





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