THE BLOG
06/17/2013 12:46 pm ET

Human Rights Filmfest: 'It Felt Like This World Was in Heaven'

About what country does this newly-escaped border-crossing refugee marvel?

A) The United States
B) North Korea
C) Mexico
D) Canada

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Camp 14 - Total Control Zone

"I saw people running around freely, talking, laughing; they weren't under surveillance; nobody had to salute the police officers when they walked past. They were all wearing colorful clothes -- clothes they liked wearing. It felt to me like this world was heaven."

About what country does this border-crossing refugee marvel?

A) The United States
B) North Korea
C) Mexico
D) Canada

Of course it couldn't be the United States, because he said he was NOT under surveillance -- sorry, that's a bad joke during a time when we need to either make real citizens of ourselves, or choose to go back to sleep, because, (to reference two chestnuts) all governments lie (I.F. Stone), and in a democracy, people get the government they deserve (Alexis de Tocqueville). But we can only live in a democracy if and when we decide to participate regularly.

The correct answer is "B", which of course, begs the question "Where did he come from, if North Korea seems like "heaven"? His name is Shin Dong-Huyk, and he was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp -- a place where, at the sight of a rat, his family would immediately shut all doors (to prevent its escape) and thank their lucky stars that there would be meat for the evening's meal; where the jealous heart of a very young boy unable to understand why his mother gave his older brother a little extra rice because he was planning on escaping, led to a tragic betrayal; a place from which he escaped, suffering major burns, as he climbed over the electrified body of his escape partner ensnared in the prison's fence.

Following Shin as he stares at walls of fresh groceries in a Hong Kong supermarket, or speaks with reporters after giving a speech at a human rights conference, we understand that his is a life of anguish amidst unshakeable absurdity. Of equal importance, we see the flip side to his prison camp reality, when we hear the life-story of one of the prison's guards, whose recollections of creating hell on earth affirm the power principle. This guard's testimony reminds me that this year's HRFF is also screening The Act of Killing, which will likely be short-listed for the academy award for best documentary.

Note on aesthetics: We are in an age when animation is being used increasingly in documentaries, and while it is sometimes very beautiful, its misuse/overuse is at best, crassly literalist, and at worst, potentially reductive. I earnestly recommend this film, yet, to my mind, given the absolute power of a first-person account of being born in, raised in, and escaping a prison camp in the most secretive nation on the planet, the use of animation for parts of this film is a case of the latter. The animation is beautiful and powerful, yet the power of beauty is ironically reductive in the service of conveying hell on earth. Perhaps it would be different if it was all animation, instead of alternating from live-action to a cartoon.

Extra-credit historical viewing:
The Laughing Man (which would make a great double-bill with The Act of Killing). Also, Triumph of The Will reminds us that North Korean pomp and statecraft is not really something to laugh at. It represents the total subjugation of a "citizenry".

The Undocumented

This film opens with one human chasing another in the middle of a desert, (I was oddly reminded of Pasolini's Porcile) namely, the Sonora in southern Arizona/northern Mexico. This relatively granular event, this micro-confrontation between migrants and border guards, set against the backdrop of a thousands-of-miles-long border, emerges (perhaps because of the camerawork, which is liminally reminiscent of The Office or Reno 911) as tragicomedy.

Of course, this isn't really any different than what we see on bounty-hunter or cop reality-TV shows. What is different is this film's story of the migrants who are neither successful nor apprehended, and die mid-journey, and the undertakers and activists who endeavor to, whenever possible, deliver unto these death-ennobled desert-sun-frozen Pompeiians, Robert Frost's version of home.

Despite being repetitious at times, The Undocumented serves as a kind of cultural anthropology, circa now, examining and detailing the deceased's possessions and clothing (which often have sewn-in pockets into which are stashed the phone numbers of next-of-kin, in anticipation of a mortal event) as well as their sun-desicated corpses (or body parts) which have the leathery, layers-dark complexion of a ham-hock (shorter footage of a much fresher, soaking wet corpse, is completely unnerving).

The particulars of each case study humanize the stats: a father in search of work in order to raise the money to save the life of his child whose kidneys are failing; a grandmother insisting that she accompany her grandson, who is headed north to meet his mother; a mother and daughter dying on or near the daughter's 13th birthday (leaving one to imagine that at one point they must have said to themselves that if all went well they'd be celebrating en el norte.)

Due to the aforementioned repetitiousness, it all starts to feel like the aim of the filmmakers is to scare one straight, and we learn during a volunteer training class organized by one of the activists who reunite deceased migrants with their families, that the design at one border area is in fact to leave corpses which might serve as border-war Psy-Ops, and scare some migrants straight. Irrespective of how one thinks about migrants in this, our highly migratory 21st century, The Undocumented succeeds in correcting its own title, if only for a few souls.

Extra-credit viewing: By way of flipping the script (as it were) I'll recommend a variation on As I Lay Dying, the short film, Lindo Y Querido, by Patricia Riggen, from the omnibus flick Revolución, which screened at the 48th NYFF.

In The Shadow of The Sun

File under: deja-vu review of sorts: In some ways, this film could be summed up by a review done forty years ago by the late, great Amos Vogel. Herewith, Vogel's review of the 1969 film, I'm A Man: "In a symbolic gesture towards self-realization and manhood, a highly sophisticated American Black militant walks through New Haven [CT] in African tribal costume, brandishing a huge spear, and forcing Whites -- for the first time, he feels -- to react to him, instead of vice-versa: the experiment's originality becomes evident in cinema vérité confrontations and interviews."

The body count for this movie may be smaller than some of the other films being screened at this festival, yet its essential reality is equally compelling. In Tanzania and other parts of the world, humans born with a congenital absence of pigment in their skin, hair and eyes, are, if they survive infancy (when many parents abandon or kill them) routinely segregated, and quite frequently hunted and maimed or killed, their body parts sold to witch-doctors.

I'd wager -- albeit, through no fault of our own -- that more of us know about the black market for elephant tusks or rhinoceros horns than about this religious slaughter of humans born with albinism.

In The Shadow of The Sun, however, is more than the story of untenable dominance, persecution. It's the story of Josephat Torner, a bloomin' one-man advocacy group-slash-life-risking agitpropper who enters the very locales and villages where murders of Albinos have occurred, gathers the entire town, asks them questions and invites them to ask him anything they want. Protected perhaps during these teach-ins by the camera and crew, he is nonetheless nearly abducted from his hotel room in the middle of the night, with police arriving just before he is almost wrestled into a vehicle.

In the film's most terrifying scene, Josephat speaks one-on-one with a witch-doctor in the Aboni caves of northeast Tanzania, who tells him matter-of-factly:

"If I took a piece of the shirt that you're wearing, I could bring it down here and declare to the spirits that this is the shirt of an albino. When I leave it down here, you will be knocked down by a car, so that I can take your arm or hair...you could be brought in as a sacrifice anytime and not know what will happen to you. We call you a spirit because a white person like you is the devil."

"You're saying I'm a white devil?

"Yes."

He visits an island where a small community of albinos live, segregated by choice and under watch, with attendance taken multiple times a day to ensure no one's been abducted. Some of the children, like the jovial, tough, teenaged girl Kabula, have been maimed, and yet, they are so seemingly resilient and focused on their life that we don't think of the trauma-induced psychological challenges they must quietly live with.

In another village we meet Vedastus, aka Veda, who devours any and all printed matter. Utilizing cardboard and scrap wires, he builds televisions and satellite dish antennas which don't actually work, yet speak poignant volumes about the human will -- the élan within Kabula and this young man simply, well, makes one cry at the world. We hear him stoically recount how he's been bullied, and we ken his yearning and his sense of isolation. His HIV-positive mother lives in a state of unimaginable angst, knowing that if she should die, her son (who her husband told her to kill before abandoning them) will not survive the day.

After four years of traveling and consciousness-raising, Joesphat decides to literally take his message to the next level, and attempts to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He tells his mountain guides, "Even if you stumble, you are stumbling for those of us that have no peace, and we are trying to win that for them. We shouldn't be refugees in our own land, just because of our color." Amen, brother. I leave the film's conclusion for you to discover.

Information and tickets for the 2013 Human Rights Film Festival can be found
HERE

Random notes

It's always worth checking out the annual Margaret Meade Film Festival, which takes place this October at the Museum of Natural History.

The TriBeCa Film Festival has just announced their 2013 documentary fund grantees, more info can be found HERE

Author, director and war correspondent Sebastian Junger, whose tribute to his late colleague Tim Hetherington, Which Way Is It To The Front Lines: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, opened the HRFF last night, has established an emergency medical training program for war correspondendts, RISC, (Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues). More info can be found HERE