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Human Rights Watch
International Film Festival
Lincoln Center
June 14 -28, 2007

The International Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is held yearly in New York and London. Here is a quote from the Festival's website: "In recognition of the power of film to educate and galvanize a broad constituency of concerned citizens, Human Rights Watch decided to create the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Human Rights Watch's International Film Festival has become a leading venue for distinguished fiction, documentary and animated films and videos with a distinctive human rights theme. Through the eyes of committed and courageous filmmakers, we showcase the heroic stories of activists and survivors from all over the world. The works we feature help to put a human face on threats to individual freedom and dignity, and celebrate the power of the human spirit and intellect to prevail. We seek to empower everyone with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a very real difference."

The New York Cool film writers reviewed a selection of this year's New York Festival and are posting their reviews on this page.

Chema Rodriguez's
Estrellas de La Linea
(The Railroad All-Stars)
2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Jessica Cogan

The prostitutes working in La Linea, a miserable neighborhood along railroad tracks in Guatemala City, are often the targets of police harassment, violence and robbery. Many have children and have been disowned by their families. In 2004, fed up with persecution by police, abuse by lovers and dismissal by society at large, a group of "putas de la linea" formed a soccer team and named themselves the Railroad All-Stars (Las Estrellas de La Linea).

Filmmaker Chema Rodriguez follows the team as they find a coach, hold practices and enter a local tournament. After their first game against a team of high school girls, Las Estrellas are disqualified from the tournament because of complaints by players and their parents.

But while they aren’t able to continue their movement on the field, off the field the Estrellas garner lots of media attention. With press savvy more often associated with Republicans than prostitutes, Las Estrellas drive home key messages with well-prepared speaking points in interview after interview. Soon they are invited to hit the road and spread the message by challenging other prostitute teams all over the country.

Las Estrellas tour Guatemala and even cross over to El Salvador to play their matches and publicize their cause. Eventually, though, the tour ends and the team slowly disassembles. Some of the Estrellas move away, key organizers leave and the media frenzy dies down.

While it’s not possible to see the team play any more, their legend lives on in Guatemala and beyond. And, more importantly, their messages have left behind an increased awareness of the plight of all Estrellas de La Linea.

Rodriguez paints a moving, intimate portrait of the prostitutes who form Las Estrellas. Their shame is palpable but so too is their resilience and strength. What might have been a depressing glance into lives seemingly without hope is instead an inspired and inspiring portrait of women who know how to fight and what to fight for.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III’s
2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

At this very moment, a lot of very bad things are happening to a lot of people in Africa. Everyone in the West knows this, but the suffering is so intense, so widespread, and so seemingly insurmountable, that most find it convenient, even necessary, to turn a blind eye, at least part of the time.

People shut off the TV when confronted with images of malnourished, HIV-infected children, and the tragedies are so numerous and widespread that – even in this age of mass media – journalists can't seem to cover them all. Despite the best efforts of Bono and the Gap to raise awareness, there are still an untold number of stories begging to be brought to light.

Recently, an impressive number of intelligent and impassioned people have taken advantage of the decreasing costs of digital filmmaking to find these stories and tell them through the medium of documentary film. The challenges they confront are significant (especially considering that many are first-time filmmakers): They have to make a film that’s a specific and compelling story (not just a Save the Children ad) and they have to tell it well enough to engage their audience – and hopefully, stir them to action.

Directors Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III, along with their co-directors Louis Abelman and Lynn True, step up to these challenges beautifully in their engrossing and powerful film Lumo, which takes a unique approach to telling a story about the repercussions of – and responses to -- widespread rape in the Congo.

The title refers to the name of one of the young women staying at the Heal Africa shelter, which treats women who have obstetric fistulas – holes that develop between the vagina and either the rectum or the bladder – which can result in incontinence, infections, and an inability to conceive children. While obstetric fistulas are often caused by botched deliveries or abortions, the vast majority of the women at the Heal Africa shelter received them as a result of brutal rapes, which occur with alarming frequency in the Congo, often perpetrated by wandering tribes of Rwandan soldiers who have crossed the border.

Because of the stigma attached to rape victims (as well as the symptoms of a fistula), most of these young women are disowned by their families and thrown over by husbands or fiancés. As one doctor affiliated with Heal Africa asserts, raping a woman severely enough to cause a fistula is “the worst thing you can do to a human being.” At the Heal Africa facility, the women receive physical and emotional care before and after surgeries to repair the fistula. These surgeries are rarely successful the first time around; some women can have six surgeries and never be fully cured.

When we first meet Lumo, she’s been at the Heal Africa center two years and is awaiting her sixth attempt at the surgery. (Lumo, the directors and co-directors, explained after the screening, was chosen as the focus for the film because she seemed the most willing to talk to and engage with the crew. However, many of the other women sharing quarters with her are also major characters in the story.)

Through the interviews with Lumo, who is at times animated and chatty and at others shy and withdrawn, we learn of her hope of one day returning home and rejoining her mother (the only family member to stand by her after the rape) and her intense longing to have a child. While the details of her story echo those of many in the facility with her, the directors do a good job of balancing the universal aspects of her circumstances with a more individualized, nuanced portrait of a particular woman.

Another of Lumo’s great successes as a humanitarian documentary is that is does not deny the presence of the camera or overwhelm the story with a heavy-handed or unnecessary narrative voice. The filmmakers go light on the talking heads and the explanatory captions; even the interviews are kept to a minimum. They let the women tell their own stories. And they don’t sugarcoat anything ever. While there are many powerful moments of emotional connection and tenderness between the women, there are also petty grievances and rivalries too. There are occasional catty comments and Lumo often expresses jealous anger toward the women who have children, chastising them for not paying enough attention to their babies. These moments make the women more real and relatable for the audience, ultimately making our empathy with their personalities and struggles all the more powerful.

As the women grow more comfortable with being filmed, they begin to have playful interactions, cracking jokes and teasing the cameramen. These are some of the film’s most compelling moments, allowing the women to express their spark and vivacity and transcend the status of mere sob stories or charity cases. In an interesting turn of events, the women begin to put on performances for the film crew; staging a mock marriage and birth – the things in life that many of the women fear they will either lose or never have because of a condition. This strange occurrence raises the interesting question of whether the act of being filmed – of being validated through being chosen as a subject – can be, rather than objectifying or exploitative, empowering and, in some strange way, therapeutic.

The ultimate test of Lumo’s triumph – both as a film and as a piece of humanitarian propaganda – came outside the theater, where volunteers were selling textiles made by the women of the Heal Africa facility. I, for one, didn’t hesitate to buy. Film that not only inspires people to action, but also gives them the means to help – now that’s a cinematic revolution whose time has come.

For more information on Heal Africa, visit

Laurent Herbiet's
Mon Colonel
2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

The New York leg of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival literally started off with a bang with the opening night screening of Laurent Herbiet’s powerful Mon Colonel, an incisive examination of the enduring effects of the war of Algerian independence on the French psyche.

Adapted from a novel by Francis Zamponi and co-written and produced by esteemed political auteur Costa-Gavras (the director of Z and Missing), Mon Colonel begins in the present-day, with the shockingly efficient and deliberate murder of a retired army colonel, Colonel Duplan (Olivier Gourmet). The investigation of his death leads Lieutenant Galois (Cécile De France) on an investigation into the past, to 1957, when Duplan headed a French military intelligence branch in Algeria.

Through flashbacks, Herbiet documents the developing relationship between Duplan and the idealistic young officer Guy Rossi (Robinson Stévenin) who comes under his command. Under the colonel’s influence, Rossi becomes involved in the torture of Algerian citizens, which had been tacitly sanctioned by France’s National Assembly, who in 1956 voted to give military officers nebulous “special powers” to maintain order in the revolting colony.

Mon Colonel is bolstered by the incredibly strong performances of Gourmet and Stévenin, and the scenes between the two men are the film’s finest. Watching the soldier and his superior interact, the viewer gets an up-close-and-personal look at the seductive power of the military hierarchy; an influence so strong it can make even the most principled men do terrible things. Stévenin is particularly affecting, subtly displaying a range of emotions from admiration, awe and uncertainty to disgust, disillusionment and self-loathing.

In comparison, the modern-day story is less compelling, but necessary. De France is an immensely talented actress, and she does her all to make the most out of a role that’s essentially comprised of a lot of sitting in a grey room, reading documents, and looking alternately perplexed and anguished, but ultimately she remains something of an undefined Everywoman figure. The highlight of the murder investigation story is a fantastic cameo by the fantastic Charles Aznavour, who, playing Rossi’s father, eventually solves the mystery of the colonel’s murder. In his sad smile, we see that the colonel died because of conflicting desires to uncover ugly truths and to repress them – desires that keep the sins of the past open secrets we allow ourselves never to fully confront. In his stark, penetrating and unapologetic film, Herbiet perfectly illustrates how this complicated relationship with the past allows us to repeat its most shameful moments, even though we know we’re holding a loaded gun.

Dan Ollman’s
Suffering and Smiling
2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Fela Kuti lived a life that was made for the movies.

This fearless and flamboyant musician and activist invented the Afrobeat style, and his incredible live performances blew the minds of Western musicians from James Brown to Brian Eno to Paul McCartney. The son of a minister and teacher and an anticolonial feminist, he fiercely attacked the corrupt government of his native Nigeria in songs that were both rollickingly danceable and politically incendiary.

Fela's angry and pointed lyrics led to riots and resistance against the government of Nigerian president Olsegun Obasango. For this, he paid a heavy price. In 1977, a thousand of Obasongo's soldiers stormed the Kalakuta Republic, Kuti's commune/recording studio/self-declared independent state. They threw his mother from a window, causing fatal injuries. Fela himself was severely beaten, and, by his own account, only saved from death by the intervention of a superior officer. The soldiers then burned the entire compound to the ground, destroying Fela's studio and all his master tapes.

Fela responded with an unshaken defiance, sending his mother's coffin to an army barrack, and penning two songs about the incident, "Coffin for Head of State," and the brilliant, provocative "Unknown Soldier," a reference to the Nigerian military's claim that the attack on the Kalakuta was the work of a single unknown soldier. Even through months of imprisonment on trumped-up charges of "currency smuggling," Fela kept the music – and the struggle – going.

In later years he became more deeply invested in Pan-African politics and made several attempts to run for the Nigerian presidency, all thwarted by the ruling government. He also practiced polygamy, and denied the severity of the AIDS epidemic – calling it a “white man’s disease” and recording a song discouraging condom usage – even as the illness was slowly destroying his own body. After years of refusing testing or treatment, he finally succumbed to the AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma in 1998.

Such a great talent, a grandiose and electric persona, a life so full of both impassioned determination and startling contradictions almost begs to be committed to celluloid. Jean-Jacques Flori and Stéphane Tchalgadjieff's 1982 film Music is the Weapon (Musique au poing) is considered a classic among die-hard Fela fans, but it's only just over 50 minutes and focuses more on concert footage than an in-depth look at the man himself.) In the hands of the right director, the details of Fela's life, along with the mind-blowing archival footage of his live performances (during which he was accompanied by his band, Africa 70, and astounding array of backup dancers) could make for an incredibly compelling documentary.

Unfortunately, Dan Ollman's Suffering and Smiling is not that documentary. Ollman seems either unaware or unconcerned with the quality of the material available; less than halfway through the film, Fela is already dead, and the remainder of its 65-minute running time drags on interminably as we follow Fela's son, Femi, as he travels the world on a mission to keep his father's music and political dreams alive.

The tedium of this portion of the film is in no way the fault of the younger Kuti, who's a talented musician and impassioned activist in his own right, as well as a devoted father (there are several touching scenes of Femi and 12-year-old son goofing off and practicing saxophone together on tour.) In his performances – both in his adherence to the Afrobeat genre his father invented and his personal style, he's clearly trying to emulate his father's work. However, after watching footage of Fela's dynamic persona – both on stage and off – Femi's more mellow personality can't help but be a bit of a letdown. I, for one, was hoping for more interviews with Fela's daughter, Yeni, who seems to have inherited more of her father's fiery spark and sardonic wit.

The blame for the overwhelming atmosphere of boredom that dominates the second half of Suffering and Smiling rests solely on Ollman's shoulders. Again and again, we watch Femi perform his heart out. Afterwards, on a tour bus or in a hotel room, he exhaustedly vents his frustrations about his inability to use his celebrity or his music to help improve the state of Nigeria. Ollman shows us ten almost identical scenes when one ore two would suffice to make his point, and after a while, Femi's frustrations are mirrored by the audience's impatience with the film. Furthermore, it seems dishonest for Ollman to film Femi attending a UNICEF conference on AIDS in Africa, without making any mention of his father's stance on the disease or asking Femi how he feels about that. (For a fuller, richer, and more complex portrait of Fela, written by someone who knew him, read Peter Culshaw's "The Big Fela" on the Guardian website at

Ollman attempts to make a story about the connection between Kuti family's ongoing commitment to social and political change and the horrible poverty of modern-day Nigeria. The problem is that the story is heartbreakingly simple, and – at least the way Ollman tells it – too short to form the basis for a feature-length documentary. Fela's songs sent people into the streets, yes -- but ultimately they took no decisive action to force the government to make changes. They still remain inert, hoping, as Yeni sarcastically remarks, "that Jesus Christ is going to save Nigeria." Femi wants to help, but he has no idea how to do it. "The problem," he says in an interview, "is knowing how to solve the problem." The sad truth is that, in spite of the best efforts of the Kutis, the state of Nigeria is as bad – if not worse – as when Fela was singing his heart out, screaming for change.

Ollman is clearly passionate about turning the world's attention to the state of affairs in Nigeria – one of the world's most oil-rich countries, it suffers from crippling poverty and the crime and violence that come along with it – but even this compelling and tragic angle is far too drawn out and repetitive. There are too many talking heads rattling off the same problems, and after seeing an identical shot of a child sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the street, the whole segment begins to feel more exploitative than consciousness-raising.

In the end, Ollman's direction does both the Kuti family and the people of Nigeria a great disservice. Perhaps one day a great documentary about Fela’s life will be made – but that dream seems as far away as Femi’s dream of a prosperous, stable homeland.


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