I just wanted to post a note for the ongoing Human Rights Watch International Film Festival that is currently playing at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center (NYC) until 6/26. The festival is being done in conjunction with Media That Matters Film Festival which is also presenting some digital films/content online. From what I caught this weekend, I highly recommend My Terrorist and Life on the Tracks which have additional screenings this week (with filmmakers present). Here are my journal notes from this weekend: My Terrorist, 2002 (Yulie Cohen Gerstel, Israel). Provocative, insightful, passionate, and courageous, My Terrorist chronicles Ms. Cohen Gerstel's controversial campaign to win the parole release of a convicted PLO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) terrorist Fahad Mihyi who, in 1978, had boarded and opened fire on a London bus occupied by Ms. Cohen Gerstel and the rest of the El Al (Israeli airline) flight crew, resulting in the death of several of her colleagues and her own severe wounding. A proud Israeli national and military veteran, the filmmaker nevertheless began to examine the complex and difficult situation of the Arab-Israeli conflict from a different perspective after working as a photojournalist in the occupied territory of the Gaza Strip. Witnessing the profound economic disparity and inhumane living conditions that contribute to the cycle of hate, exclusion, and violence, Ms. Cohen Gerstel sought to help bridge the deep-rooted ideological gulf between the Israeli and the Palestinians with a symbolic, humanitarian gesture of interacting with the isolated Fahad, then subsequently, writing a testimonial letter of support for his release. Inevitably, despite the (deliberately) inconclusive fate of Fahad, what emerges is a personal documentary of reconciliation and closure that is both honest, fearless, and profoundly inspiring. Vivisect, 2003 (Marija Gajicki, Serbia). The incisive short film, Vivisect, captures the polarized public reaction in the Serbian city of Novi Sad to a gallery exhibition of Ron Haviv's war photography, a photojournalist who has chronicled a decade of divisive and destructive wars that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Having intentionally left the photographs uncaptioned and instead, providing a blank sheet of paper on the side, Haviv and the museum organizers soon find the papers defaced with impassioned, often vitriolic comments that reflect the country's unreconciled sentiment of guilt, intolerance, and chauvinism, but also a regret for the collective tragedy of war. The Cuckoo, 2002 (Alexander Rogozhkin, Russia). The Cuckoo is an understated, yet enchanting comedy of errors on the human capacity for empathy and community amidst the chaos and senselessness of war. Set in September 1944 shortly before Finland's withdrawal from World War II, the film lyrically recounts a fateful encounter between an injured, disillusioned Russian soldier named Ivan and a talkative, escaped Finnish sniper, Veiko (who was dressed by his unit in a German SS military uniform in order to discourage dereliction of duty), at the remote farm of a lonely and attractive young Lapp widow. Unable to communicate with each other, the three isolated protagonists nevertheless establish a surrogate and affectionate bond as they cooperate to survive in the harsh frontier. Capturing an idiosyncratic, incisive, and often amusing tone, Rogozhkin creates a whimsical, humorous, and acutely observed portrait of man's ability to transcend divisive cultural barriers to find commonality of human experience. Life on the Tracks (Riles), 2002 (Ditsi Carolino, Philippines). Life on the Tracks is a charming, graceful, compassionate, and staggeringly intimate portrait of the everyday struggles of a poor, but devoted (and playfully bickering) married couple named Eddie and Pen Renomeron as they eke out a meager existence for their two daughters and three adopted children (whose parents were killed by a train) in a squatter village in the district of Balik-balik, Sampaloc in Manila. According to filmmaker Ditsi Carolino, there are two social classes that exist in the village: the opportunistic, often politically connected, permanent squatters who built the crude shantytowns alongside the railroad tracks for rental, and the migrant tenants, often from rural provinces, who move to the city in search of a better life. Capturing the poignancy and affection of the destitute villagers as they pass idle time through karaoke, alcohol, card games, and the synchronized dodging of passing trains, and the Renomeron family's attempt to provide a sense of normalcy for their children despite profound physical (the film provides an unsettling glimpse of the inadequacy of health care for the poor through Pen's continued health problems that also resulted in a crude mastectomy) and economic hardship (the children, in turn, dream of a better life abroad, such as a daughter's aspiration to become a singer in Japan), the film is a humbling and indelible portrait of human dignity, resilience, and community. Poison (Sanpeet), 2002 (Giuseppe Petitto, Enrico Pizianti, and Gianluca Pulcini, Italy/Thailand). In an attempt to curb delinquency and drug use among young people in the impoverished area known as the 'Golden Triangle' in northeast Thailand, the government endorsed a policy to promote sports, leading to the institution of youth kickboxing competitions in the region. Sanpeet, a small built, seven year-old boy, is the eldest of three children in the Petnonnoi family. The kickboxing competitions have become a source of supplementary income for the family, as Sanpeet's unemployed father uses his son's deceptive physical stature in order to skew the betting odds in illegal gambling activities that inevitably accompany the tournaments. Provocative and innately disturbing, Poison is a compelling examination of the vicious cycle of poverty, vice, and abuse. Jiyan (Life), 2002 (Jano Rosebiani, Iraqi Kurdistan). A Kurdish-American man named Diyari travels to the village of Halabja, one of the targeted sites of the 1988 chemical and biological bombing of the Iraqi Kurdistan region by the Iraqi military (acting under Saddam Hussein's Anfal genocide campaign against the Kurds), on a personal humanitarian effort to build a facility in order to accommodate the area's high rate of orphaned children. His first encounter with the proud and determined villagers is through a shy, yet affable little girl orphaned by the bombing named Jiyan whose face has been permanently scarred by chemical burns. As Diyari immerses himself in the daily life and continued struggle for survival of the Kurdish villagers - witnessing the area's decimated and poisoned landscape (where the occasional windstorm inevitably results in a secondary bombardment of the deadly airborne materials) and increased rates of infertility, genetic anomalies, and mortality - Jiyan becomes his guide and inspiration to the indefatigable soul of an oppressed people. Reminiscent of Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima in the interweaving of real-life testimonies of actual survivors from the inhumane bombing campaign with the fictional narrative of an estranged native witness, Jiyan is a somber and haunting, yet affectionate, charming, and celebratory portrait of human courage, community, dignity, and resilience.