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Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Films on Human Rights

1 Jan , 2003  

Written by Chris Cooke | Posted by:

A selection of reviews of films showing at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in Boston this year.

"Last Just Man"

How would it feel to have a nation’s people placed under your supervision, only to watch the worst genocide since World War II erupt before your eyes — and be completely unable to stop it? Steven Silver’s "The Last Just Man," featured at this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF), tells the story of Canadian Brigadier General Romeo Dallaire, placed in command of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in late 1993, shortly before 800,000 people were systematically killed with machetes and machine guns in only 100 days.

Dallaire has it rough from the start. He asks for 5,000 soldiers, but nations are reluctant to supply men after the deaths and is given only half the men he needs. Operating out of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Dallaire quickly assesses the situation. In old Rwanda, the Tutsi herders were often richer than the more numerous Hutu farmers. After World War I, when the Europeans divvied up Africa, Belgium took control, enlisted the taller Tutsis for support, and placed the Hutus in work gangs. When Belgium granted Rwanda independence and installed a Hutu government, racial animosity flared, and Tutsis were driven out of the country. The rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), made up of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, regrouped and invaded. The peace agreements that ensued were fragile at best, and the U.N. sensed its presence was needed.

Dallaire and his right-hand man Major Brent Beardsley soon suspect foul play within President Habyarimana’s Hutu inner circle. Their suspicions increase when a series of brutal murders are staged to look as if the RPF is responsible. When a senior member of the Hutu militia informs Dallaire of a stash of weapons in the headquarters of the ruling party and exposes a well-planned plot to enact the genocide, Dallaire decides to take action. The U.N., however, wracked with uncertainty after their disastrous intervention in Somalia, prevents him from acting. The United States in particular forbids the use of the word "genocide" to describe the crisis that unfolds, unwilling to face the responsibility the word entails.

Silver’s film — a masterful, real-life political thriller — skillfully portrays Dallaire’s despairing paralysis over the subsequent months, as he faces the brewing horror that leads inexorably to tragedy. Dallaire proves, as the film suggests, a just man, one who finds himself powerless to stop the onslaught around him. At once suspenseful and informative, "The Last Just Man" is not to be missed, a haunting, vital film about one of the most significant historical events of its time.

"Justifiable Homicide"

On a smaller scale but no less powerful, is Jon Osman’s excellent "Justifiable Homicide," an account of one woman’s struggles to bring her son’s killers to justice. Antonio Rosario and his cousin Hilton Vega, two teenage boys from the Puerto Rican community of the Bronx, were killed in early 1995 by police officers during a supposed robbery attempt. One of the police officers had been a volunteer bodyguard for then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The newspapers are quick to vilify the boys, describing them as nothing more than common thugs who deserved their fate. But Margarita Rosario knows here son was nothing of the sort. Fighting despair, she begins to press the authorities for answers.

"Justifiable Homicide" details her search, as she eventually finds her way to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent office of the city government. Splicing interviews with Margarita, CCRB staff, and valuable witnesses with evidence from variety of sources, Osman slowly builds up a convincing case against the policemen and proceeds up the ladder of responsibility for the cover up to Mayor Giuliani himself. He juxtaposes this crime story with Margarita’s growing political awareness, as she evolves from a passive Giuliani supporter to an active protestor and founder of Parents Against Police Brutality. Details slowly unfold, evidence builds upon evidence, building momentum all the while. Osman’s film simultaneously evokes both the anguish of knowing that the government is capable of utter wrongdoing and the hope of knowing that citizens will always find ways to resist and expose injustice. "Justifiable Homicide" grips, shocks, outrages, and uplifts — a remarkable achievement. Essential viewing.

"Georgie Girl"

On a far lighter note, we have "Georgie Girl." Not long after he began working at a hotel, George Beyer gathered all the clothes and belongings of his male past and burned them, declaring himself from now on a woman. He became a she, Georgina. Years later, after stints as a sex worker, much humiliation, and a sex change operation, Georgina found herself taking refuge in the small, quiet town of Carterton. Three years later, she ran for Mayor — and won.

"Georgie Girl," a charming documentary by Annie Goldson and Peter Wells, traces the development of Georgina from the shy teenage boy who first makes himself up in drag for a stroll into town to an eventual member of the New Zealand Parliament, the first transsexual ever to be elected to a national office in the world. That she is Maori who wins in a white, right-wing stronghold makes her accomplishment even more staggering.

Compiling interviews with drag queens and denizens of the nightclubs in Wellington and Auckland, supporters from the communities of Carterton and Masterton in which her political career flowered, and, or course, Georgina herself, Goldson and Wells recount Beyer’s struggle with her identity and her eventual, unlikely success. It blows the mind to see elderly, white locals — people you would assume to be staunchly conservative — extolling Georgina’s virtues, as both a politician and a person. And it’s refreshing to see Georgina getting laughs out of her sullied past on the floor of the Parliament. "Georgie Girl" is a unique film, about a unique individual, and the nation that was open enough to raise her to prominence.

… and more

Other films showing at the HRWIFF include the Boston premier of Ken Loach’s "Sweet Sixteen," about a Scottish teen’s efforts to raise money for his ex-junkie mum; "Profit and Nothing But," a look at capitalist greed in Haiti; and "The Pinochet Case," about the legal and political struggles that lead to the Chilean’s eventual house arrest. Several films focus on the Middle East — "Afghanistan Year 1380," documenting the events that took place there after 9/11; "Gaza Strip," an examination of life under Israeli occupation; "Jiyan," the fictional story of a Kurdish American’s return to Iraqi Kurdistan to build an orphanage; and another feature film, "Seven Days in Tehran," in which a fictional film crew travels to Iran to document the changing social conditions. The HRWIFF runs January 23-26, and shows at various theaters throughout Boston.

For more information on the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, visit www.hrw.org/iff .


For more information on the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, visit www.hrw.org/iff .