While Hollywood remains moribund because of the pandemic, the noncommercial film world plows ahead. This year the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be available to everybody through VOD. Starting on June 11 and ending on June 20, it offers documentaries on topics that go to the heart of the current crisis, ranging from immigration to the rights of indigenous peoples. I have seen five of the films and could easily nominate any one of them as best documentary of 2020 for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in December. We still don’t have word on whether this will happen or not in light of Hollywood’s shutdown. Unlike most of my colleagues, I review films that are as doggedly uncommercial as my politics. In this batch, you will meet real supermen and women far more compelling than any fictional character.
When Máxima Acuña and her husband used their hard-earned savings to buy a few acres of land in the Peruvian highlands, they sought nothing more than to grow food for their own consumption and sell some of her handmade clothing on the streets of a nearby town.
It was their misfortune to begin farming on land that the Conga gold and copper mining company targeted for expansion. Conga was an environmental disaster from its start, discharging cyanide into the groundwater and ripping mountains apart. Overriding the objections of his own ministers as well as nearby farmers, the nominally pink tide President Ollanta Humala gave it the green light in 2012. He broke his campaign promise of “water over gold” and gave his military the illegal powers they needed to suppress opposition.
Out of the blue, Conga’s goons raided her land in 2011. In clear defiance of her deed, they destroyed crops, burned her hut, and beat her daughter into unconsciousness. Only five foot tall, Maxima—as her name implied—was in no mood to bow to illegal authority.
She took her case to the local court that decided in her favor, a decision that Conga ignored. Why would they care about this puny opposition when it had muscled aside hundreds of farmers in the past? Like many indigenous peoples in Latin America, she retained the fighting spirit of her Inca ancestors.
Despite the nominal ownership of the mine by Peruvians, it was a wholly-owned operation of Newmont Mines, the largest gold-mining company in the world, whose headquarters are in the U.S.A. Despite Maxima’s fame (she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, no connection to the Wall Street crooks), Newmont continued to use mafia gangster tactics against her family.
Like most extractive industries, including those owned by Charles Koch, Newmont has extravagant pretensions of being “green”. In reviewing the board of directors, I discovered a Harvard professor named Jane Nelson, who symbolizes the bad faith Jeff Gibbs ripped in “Planet of the Humans.” Director of the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at the Kennedy School, Nelson was also a senior associate with the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University and track leader at the Clinton Global Initiative. I emailed her after seeing the film, mostly to keep my head from exploding: “Harvard’s connection to this filthy mining company carries on the tradition of its connections to the slave trade. Shame on you. I hope the money you make doing PR for Newmont helps you sleep at night.”
Like Máxima Acuña, the subjects of this documentary are seeking a return to the past. In her case, it is subsistence farming that exists outside the framework of capitalist accumulation. In “Gather,” we meet North American Indians who believe that their salvation in part involves a return to the food systems that served them well for millennia until the colonists arrived.
The film relates the experiences of three very representative, if not iconic, tribes. (This is the word the Indians use to describe themselves in the film.) The Lakotas hope to bring back the buffalo, the Apaches eschew processed food and restart farming and cooking techniques their forefathers used, and the Yuroks of the northwest struggle to keep salmon fishing alive against incursions by the white power structure.
Among the Indians director Sanjay Rawal features is a buffalo rancher named Fred DuBray, who came to the conclusion that “We have to restore the buffalo if we are going to survive as a culture.” While the “we” refers to the Indians, it includes all of us as well. When the colonists arrived, the Indians of the northern plains, the bison (a more proper term for the beast that are inspiring to behold in the film), and the prairie grasses were in ecological balance. To make the land profitable, all three components had to become extinct. With the cattle, grain and commercial ranching that replaced them, the west became impoverished ecologically. Speaking dialectically, as part of our socialist future, we must return to the past.
This documentary will introduce you to Carmen Aristegui, who hosted a popular radio show on MVS radio in Mexico that held the feet of PRI politicians to the fire. You might compare her to Amy Goodman if she broadcasted from WABC rather than Pacifica. Known and admired by millions of Mexicans, she never feared being gunned down by a sicario. Instead, it was the PRI that silenced her in March 2015 after she aired an investigative report on the wretched President Enrique Peña Nieto. He signed a sweetheart deal with a state contractor for the construction of a high-speed railway. As a reward, the contractor would build him a mansion for free. This kind of corruption had become part of the PRI for most of the century, and something state-owned media overlooked. After Aristegui’s report aired, the PRI gave MVS orders to fire her.
Not taking the illegal firing lying down, she began broadcasting over the internet and challenging the government in court. She also continued to put the spotlight on Peña Nieto, who comes across as a platitude-spouting Ken doll. In one of the priceless moments in the film, he responds to Aristegui’s report on how he plagiarized about a third of his law dissertation. Standing in front of a hand-picked television studio audience, he claims that the copied and pasted portions were “accidental,” the same excuse we heard from Doris Kearns Goodwin and other academic ne’er-do-wells.
Belly of the Beast
In this film’s title, the belly refers to the womb of female prisoners, and the beast refers to the California prisons that subjected them to illegal sterilizations without their knowledge. The film focuses on two courageous women, just like Carmen Aristegui and Máxima Acuña. One is attorney Cynthia Chandler, the co-founder and director of Justice Now, the prison abolition legal aid organization. The other is Kelli Dillon, a black female prisoner, who at the age of 24 underwent a hysterectomy without her knowledge. The two teamed up to end a practice that was rooted in a eugenics plan to cut costs. Despite its liberal veneer, California saw poor women, and especially women of color, in prison as a burden on state finances. Politicians believed that they would have baby after baby to take advantage of the welfare system. When you remember that Ronald Reagan began his political career in California, that is no surprise.
Both Chandler and Dillon are riveting figures and deserving of the kind of big-budget film that Hollywood makes about a crusading attorney and a victimized client. You know the kind. Julia Roberts, George Clooney and all that. But, who knows, maybe Hollywood will stick to solidly bankable stories about Batman or Superman when the pandemic ends. In the meantime, you’ll find the heroic efforts of these two women far more interesting than any fiction.
With four charismatic young immigrants in two iconic metropolises—New York and Berlin—director Christina Antonakos-Wallace has great material with which to work. Even better, she has captured them in key moments as they wrestle with the question of what it means to be an outsider. Ultimately, the four view themselves as world citizens, a perspective that humanity must adopt if we are to survive.
We meet Akim in Berlin, where he is both a graffiti and conceptual artist. His parents were boat people who left Vietnam in 1975, bringing Akim with him. One of his projects is a conceptual interpretation of that precarious flight when so many left that beleaguered nation. For the most part, Akim is not interested in politics but much more in the state of being rootless.
Sonia Mattos left Bolivia with her parents and came to New York when she was very young. Despite living here for just about her entire life, she remained “illegal” as a result of her parents suffering the same obstacles to citizenship. That did not prevent her from a successful academic career (she was one of my wife’s students at Fashion Institute) and steadfast activism on behalf of other young people like her who hoped that the Dreamer legislation would offer a pathway to citizenship. We see her protesting on the streets and working part-time to keep body and soul together. Like the people out on the street now protesting against the murder of George Floyd, she is the future of the U.S.A. con papeles o sin papeles.
Returning to Berlin, we meet Miman, a Roma from Macedonia who is in the same predicament as Sonia. Unless he becomes a German citizen, there will be continuous obstacles to receiving the benefits of being “legal”. Identity is very important to him. We see him being tattooed with the image of a wagon-wheel, the symbol of Roma culture. He will wear it in defiance of the growing hatred and violence directed at his people in Germany as fascist forces gather strength across the continent. It is difficult to determine how far the current protests over the murder of George Floyd will go, but for how they have the ultraright knocked back on its heels, thank goodness.
Sonny Singh is a citizen of New York but, like the others documented or undocumented, is in an uphill struggle to fit in. He is a Sikh who, like all Sikh men, wears a distinctive beard, long hair, and turban. Despite belonging to a religion poorly understood by most (they have been gunned down by racists confusing them with Muslims), he feels at home in New York’s musical scene. For a time, he was a member of Outernational, an eclectic band of the kind that performed at the Knitting Factory. When a member of the group wrote a song deriding a belief in god, he resigned and eventually ended up as a member of Red Baraat, a band that mixed Punjabi Bhangra with funk and ska-punk. Suffice it to say that this cross-cultural sound evokes the spirit of all four subjects as well as the director who explained why she made the film:
Many things in my personal story drew me to make this film, including years of activism and some surprising firsthand encounters with xenophobia in Europe. Raised within the Greek-American community, I struggled to reconcile the tension between tradition and change in my own community. Ultimately, these experiences led me to believe that to create the multiracial democracies we hope for, we need narratives that speak directly to the unspoken beliefs of who does and doesn’t belong.