Human Rights Watch FF: In Their Own Words
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 12-20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
NO LAND’S SONG
In the West, discussions of women in Iran often dwell on the requirement that they wear the hijab. As the documentary No Land’s Song shows, the control of women’s bodies under that country’s religious regime extends beyond the body to the voice. Female singers in Iran are forbidden from performing solo in public unless it is for an all-female audience. In light of these state-enforced restrictions, many women don’t pursue careers in music, and the work of singers from before the 1979 Islamic revolution—and their social impact—is rapidly being forgotten.
In No Land’s Song, director Ayat Najafi follows his sister Sara’s two-and-a-half-year struggle to mount a concert with all-female singers from Iran, France, and Tunisia. That included her encounters with Ministry of Culture bureaucrats—recorded secretly and presented in the film as audio over a black screen. As Najafi explained to FILM COMMENT: “I thought of using animation or drawings or that kind of thing, but from the very beginning I wanted to show the reality of the censorship. I didn’t ask to record these people, which is why you see them being very honest. The system of censorship is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. [With the black screen] the audience can really imagine what is going on, and to concentrate more on the words.”
In addition to these frank conversations—and extremely moving footage of rehearsals—some of the film’s most memorable moments occur in Sara’s back garden, where she gathers with other female singers and music teachers. Their discussions of music double as venting sessions; the women approach the regime’s double standards with a sharp sense of humor, sometimes sarcastically quoting sexist aphorisms to each other. One older singer, Parvin Namazi, astutely comments on the participation of French singers: “Let’s also build a cultural bridge. Why should they always have to do that?” Najafi considers it a crucial observation: “One of the things missing in Iran in general is this cultural exchange. Iran is isolated, unfortunately, from its own government and also from the world outside. So one of the goals is to break that down . . . We really need this cultural exchange, not only to fight the censorship in Iran, but also to create the possibility of collaboration between musicians from different nations.”
Last December, the U.S. Senate released its findings on the CIA’s use of torture in the War on Terror. The 600-page summary, which condensed and redacted material from a 6,000-page report, revealed the brutal, sometimes deadly practices at “black sites” scattered across the Middle East. A shocking revelation was that those who designed and carried out these programs of interrogation were wholly unqualified and, in some cases, had histories of violent crime. Even more shocking, as (T)ERROR rivetingly chronicles: more or less the same thing has also been happening on American soil.
The groundwork for Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s film was laid in 1997 when Cabral, then a photographer living in Harlem, befriended a neighbor who shared some of her political beliefs. One day, four years later, the affable man simply cleared out of his apartment and left for South Carolina. A few weeks later, he revealed to Cabral that he had been living under a fake identity—his real name is Saeed—and that he was actually an FBI informant who’d also been to prison for fraud. For the next 10 years, Cabral kept in contact with Saeed, and he eventually agreed to let her and Sutcliffe shadow him as he targeted a domestic terror suspect in Pittsburgh: Khalifa, an outspoken Caucasian convert to Islam who also had a criminal record. Thoroughly unnerving and provocative, (T)ERROR tracks their unprecedented access without the use of commentary or voiceover.
Post 9/11, the bureau’s directive has been to prevent terror attacks, which is why they’ve increased their informer ranks to nearly 15,000—but they haven’t revised their hiring policies. “That type of question comes up in national-security circles all the time: why don’t they use trained agents to go into these communities to do the work that other informants are doing?” Suttcliffe, the film’s co-director, said in an interview. “The Bureau says that they need people who have connections inside the community that they can’t access themselves. Part of that is that the FBI is predominantly white—there’s very few agents of color and even fewer agents who are Muslim, who would be qualified to have these kinds of conversations with targets.”
But to Sutcliffe, the bureau’s hiring practices aren’t fast-and-loose by accident: “They’re not really looking for trained agents, in my personal opinion. They’re looking for con men.” As the documentary progresses (and, unbeknownst to Saeed, begins to follow Khalifa as well), Sutcliffe and Cabral artfully lay bare a formerly secret process, and ultimately pose the question: does the public really benefit from programs that compromise the rule of law they claim to be fighting for?
Inspired by Dan Tabor’s Rolling Stone exposé “Border of Madness: Crossing the Line with Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Vigilantes,” Matthew Heineman spent four months shadowing the Arizona Border Recon group. Heineman expanded upon the magazine story’s focus to include the other side of the border: Autodefensas, citizens in Michoacán state who were forcibly reclaiming territory from the Knights Templar Cartel. Interviews with the leaders of both groups—Tim “Nailer” Foley in Arizona and Dr. Jose Mireles of the Autodefensas—complicate any easy moral categorization that this Wild West conflict seems to beg for.
“What was so scary about shooting and directing this film was that when I was in the back of a truck in Mexico, I truly didn’t know if I was with the good guys or the bad guys,” Heineman said of the film’s sometimes hazardous production. “And obviously the story ends up in a place that I could never have imagined or dreamed.” The unpredictable shoot influenced the way Heineman assembled the final film. “In the editing process my mantra was always: ‘Let the audience go on that same journey that I went on.’ I want the audience to feel those rug-pulling moments.”
In the case of the Autodefensas, the legal/moral grey area occupied by the subjects expands drastically as the documentary progresses. After Mireles is injured in a plane crash, his second-in-command (whose nickname is “Papa Smurf”) assumes control and proceeds to look the other way as Autodefensa members loot houses and harass women. The behavior pales in comparison to the violence inflicted on the targets of cartel violence—but the Autodefensas also use “advanced interrogation techniques” to retaliate against the Zetas and Templars. One of the documentary’s most harrowing scenes takes place at a facility in which the Autodefensas mentally and physically torture cartel members, their screams echoing down corridors and evoking the worst of Abu Ghraib.
Yet the greatest strength of Cartel Land also raises a nagging ethical weakness. Dropped into the heart of this long-running drug war, Heineman and fellow cameraman Matt Porwoll artfully, successfully convey the gritty reality of shootouts and beatings. Yet these moments of bloodshed are also aestheticized with tension-heightening music and gorgeous post-battle shots of the triumphant, conquering Autodefensas. The ultimate effect of these scenes is closer to an action movie than a journalistic exposé, getting your blood pumping for what might feel like the wrong reasons. It’s a showmanship that seems to run deep: in the course of our interview, Heineman declined to answer some specific questions about the film’s events in the interest of keeping them a surprise for viewers.
3 ½ MINUTES, 10 BULLETS
On the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African-American student, was fatally shot in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white software developer. The accounts of the events leading up to Dunn’s act varied wildly over the next two years, while awareness of similar incidents involving black teenagers only increased. In making 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets—which follows Dunn’s protracted trial—director Marc Silver first met with the victim’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, only a few weeks before the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, which helped give rise to social-media campaigns about racism.
The #blacklivesmatter movement provided Silver and his collaborators a new context for viewing their film as they put it together. “Michael Dunn symbolized something very deep about what blackness means in America, and how ideas about blackness are constructed and spread by the media. As #blacklivesmatter became more prominent, we didn't change anything in the edit—we just started seeing the edit differently,” Silver wrote in an email interview. “We realized we had crafted something that was intimately connected to the beginnings of a potential new movement. The DNA within the film was the same as the cases that were unfolding on a weekly basis—those three-and-a-half minutes could also have been the one-and-a-half seconds it took to shoot Tamir Rice, or the four hours that Michael Brown lay in the street.”
Davis and McBath’s grieving process and their newfound public roles as parents of a high-profile murder victim and political activists form another significant component of the film. Silver likewise wanted to include the experiences of Dunn and his family—but couldn’t achieve the same level of access. “We requested interviews several times with Dunn and his family through his lawyer, and we were always told the family did not want to speak to the media, they did not want to share any emotions with the public,” Silver said, underlining how, in an act of violence like this, nobody wins. “I always felt the film could reveal even more about the destruction that occurred in those three-and-a-half minutes—that both families were destroyed by such an irreversible act.”