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In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.
Like “A Sniper’s War” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in February, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” is set in the breakaway eastern Ukraine and surprisingly compassionate in light of the massive propaganda campaign against Russia. Considering that the film festival is a project of HRW and partially funded by George Soros’s Open Society, it has nothing in common with films made by Ukrainians anxious to make the case for Kiev’s ongoing and senseless war to retake the eastern portions of the country. One of them was “Breaking Point”, a film that swept Svoboda and the Right Sector under the rug. As the title implies, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” is a pacifist film whose title speaks to the feral nature of the fighting on both sides, even though it hardly does justice to man’s best friend who bites rather than bombs.
Like last year’s sublime “The Florida Project”, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” is focused on the day-to-day shenanigans of children, in this case a 10-year old boy named Oleg, the main subject, and his younger cousin Yarik as they spend their days swimming, tussling with each other and even looking for trouble like the kids in “The Florida Project”. The main challenge in an Orlando motel is trying to find ways to kill boredom when there is nothing around you except strip malls. For Oleg and Yarik, the main obstacle to a joyful summer’s day is the constant shelling exchanges between the Ukrainian army and the separatist militias just a couple of miles beyond the village of Hnutove that was unfortunate enough to find itself near the front lines. When artillery can be heard in the distance, the two boys have enough youthful bravado to shrug it off but when the shells land close enough to shake the house they live in with their grandmother Alexandria, the terror kicks in.
Miraculously, Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont gives you both the joys and terror of boyhood in a war zone. Like all the best films about growing up, including Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, the children are both as vulnerable as tots and wise beyond their years. We meet Oleg early on in the film as he pays respects at his mother’s grave. From the minute we hear him, we know that we will be in the company of a exceptional 10-year old who wants nothing more than to live in peace. The director explains how he chose Oleg as his main subject:
In THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS, I follow 10-year-old Oleg, who lives with his grandma in a warzone in the eastern part of Ukraine, under a mile from the frontline. I spent time in the area researching, and I remember the first time I met him. He immediately stood out. I asked if he could describe how it felt to be scared. He looked at me and without hesitation and said, “If you can imagine a hand reaching in and grabbing your heart. When the first explosions sound, after the cannons have fired, the hand starts squeezing your heart. Then it gets all cold, too.” It was then I knew I had found my main character.
“Naila and the Uprising” covers three interrelated subjects. It is first of all a portrait of Naila Ayesh, who has been a leading Palestinian activist for the past 30 years as well as a study of the importance of women in the Palestinian struggle generally. Finally, it is a very sharp critique of the betrayal (a hackneyed term on the left but in this case no other word suffices) by the PLO in the Oslo Accords in 1993 that was made possible in part by the exclusion of female Palestinian leaders.
Naila Ayesh became committed to the Palestinian cause when she was 8-years old. Sitting in a classroom, after she heard a distant explosion, her teacher announced, “The home of Ibrahim Ayesh has been demolished.” That was her father.
Later on, she joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and married fellow member Jamal Zakout when they were studying in Bulgaria. Back on the West Bank, they had to deal with repression on a constant basis. She was jailed for simply being an activist while he was deported to Egypt.
Despite every attempt to quell the first Intifada through imprisonment, home demolition, beatings, and killings, Naila and many other women became instrumental to the movement’s gains. Through the cover of food distribution, newsletters about upcoming protests were smuggled into houses all through Ramallah in breadbaskets.
Besides Naila Zakout, now 60, we hear from other women who were in the forefront of the Intifada. To some extent, they emerged as leaders because so many men had either been killed or imprisoned. But they also asserted themselves to challenge the patriarchal norms of Palestinian society. Among them is Zahira Kamal who was also in the vanguard of the women’s and national liberation movements since the 1970s. Today, she serves as the General Secretary of the Palestinian Democratic Union Party – FIDA, the only female leader of a major political party in Palestine.
To a large extent, the film clarifies why the Palestinians have found themselves in such a predicament today. During the end of the George Bush’s presidency, there was a serious attempt to address the grievances of the Palestinians that received a favorable hearing from the White House—relatively speaking. Bush was so annoyed with Israeli intransigence that he threatened to cut off funding. The presence of radicals, including women like Hanan Ashrawi, in the delegation meeting with Israeli politicians, made women like Naila Zakout and Zahira Kamal feel that Palestinians would finally given a state of their own.
They were then shocked to discover that Yasser Arafat and the PLO had bypassed them and agreed to the Oslo Accords that gave the green light to occupation of the West Bank under the control of the neocolonial Palestinian National Authority.
“Naila and the Uprising” is one of the most uncompromising statements of the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and especially the women fighters, I have ever seen in a film. Highly recommended, especially when the slaughter of Gazans on the border with Israel cries out for a new Intifada that will not be sold out.
Watching “The Silence of Others”, I kept being reminded of Ward Churchill’s point about those who win wars get to write the official history, as well as decide who goes on trial for war crimes. For example, when you visit Germany or Italy you will not find any streets named after or statues memorializing Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini.
But if you went to Spain in the decades following the death of Francisco Franco, you would find monuments to him and his fellow torturers and killers everywhere. That was because the Spanish legislature passed an amnesty law in 1977 that protected them from prosecution. Some of these criminals not only were ministers in Franco’s government but in subsequent governments that were supposedly the embodiment of reconciliation.
The film tells the story of an ongoing attempt to prosecute them in Argentina using the same legal strategy that allowed Pinochet to stand trial in Spain through the efforts of a mass movement and the willingness of Baltasar Garzón to serve as a judge. When Garzón became part of the movement to put the fascists on trial in Spain, he was hounded by the state and the far right, and eventually suspended from judicial duties.
Argentina stepped into the breach and has been key to extraditing these killers and torturers so they can stand trial. Spain and Argentina have much in common that would prompt such collaboration, including the theft of babies from their “subversive” mothers and their adoption by families with ties to the respective dictatorships.
We meet a number of the people who will figure as plaintiffs in the case, including a man who lives on a street named after one of Franco’s top generals. In addition, we see him standing in front of the apartment building where a notorious Francoist torturer nicknamed “Billy the Kid” lives. He asks how it is possible for such a man to enjoy freedom and not be punished for his crimes. When “Billy the Kid” is hauled before an extradition hearing, he is reminded that despite Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, some people are still on a combat footing to see justice served.