ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFJFF hits the Smith Rafael Film Center for a long weekend, Friday-Sunday—14 films, great stories, from all over the world

Who would have thought that listening to old fishmongers could be so interesting?  The Russ sisters, Hattie, 100, (L) and Anne, 92, (R), daughters of Joel Russ, founder of New York’s Russ & Daughters, have hit their golden years with their sense of humor fully intact and banter delightfully on screen in Julie Cohen’s documentary, “The Sturgeon Queens.”  Cohen’s doc has its world premiere at the 34 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and screens Sunday at noon at the Smith-Rafael Film Center.  Others docs screening in San Rafael cover topics as diverse as a profile of the creator of the word genocide, a woman who learns her birthfather was black, American-style football in the Holy Land and the story of the son of a Hamas leader who became a spy for Israel’s Shin-bet.   Image: courtesy SFJFF 34

Who would have thought that listening to old fishmongers could be so interesting? The Russ sisters, Hattie, 100, (L) and Anne, 92, (R), daughters of Joel Russ, founder of New York’s Russ & Daughters, have hit their golden years with their sense of humor fully intact and banter delightfully on screen in Julie Cohen’s documentary, “The Sturgeon Queens.” Cohen’s doc has its world premiere at the 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and screens Sunday at noon at the Smith-Rafael Film Center. Others docs screening in San Rafael cover topics as diverse as a profile of the creator of the word genocide, a woman who learns her birthfather was black, American-style football in the Holy Land and the story of the son of a Hamas leader who became a spy for Israel’s Shin-bet. Image: courtesy SFJFF 34

The 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF 34) comes to Marin’s Smith Rafael Film Center this Friday-Sunday for a long weekend, presenting 14 of the festival’s top films.  I’ve attended this Marin segment for the past five years and the savvy programmers understand what clicks with our Marin, Sonoma and Napa attendees—intellectually resonant stories, creatively told.  Bonus points added for food, wine, art and causes we can get behind.  Begun in 1980, SFJFF is the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world and it traditionally kicks off and runs at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre before opening at other Bay Area venues.  This year, SFJFF 34 screened 67 films from 17 countries; 44 of those had some sort of premiere and over 30 visiting filmmakers and international guests attended.  For those of us in Northern California, battling the recently horrendous traffic on 101, the weekend in Marin is the only thing that that makes this beloved festival doable at all.  In our favor, the Smith Rafael Film Center’s offers an intimate setting and unbeatable acoustics and its wise liberal vibe contributes to sharp and sizzling audience exchanges.  All the films in this mini-fest exemplify the humor, warmth, wisdom, angst, and diversity of Jewish experiences around the world and introduce a strong crop of independent filmmakers.  Now, on to ARThound’s recommendations—

Friday, August 8, 8:45 p.m.—24 Days

In “24 Days,” French director Alexandre Arcady re-examines l'affaire du gang des barbares, (the Affair of the Gang of Barbarians)—the 2006 abduction and brutal torture in Paris of the first French Jew, since WWII, to have been viciously attacked for being Jewish.  The suspenseful ransom story is told through the through the voice of a grieving mother, Ruth Halimi, played by Zabou Breitman, who informs the audience that the events they are about to see actually happened.  The film captures the dramatic struggles of the family and French authorities who were at odds with each other over calling this abduction an act of anti-Semitism.  Image: courtesy SFJFF34

In “24 Days,” French director Alexandre Arcady re-examines l’affaire du gang des barbares, (the Affair of the Gang of Barbarians)—the 2006 abduction and brutal torture in Paris of the first French Jew, since WWII, to have been viciously attacked for being Jewish. The suspenseful ransom story is told through the through the voice of a grieving mother, Ruth Halimi, played by Zabou Breitman, who informs the audience that the events they are about to see actually happened. The film captures the dramatic struggles of the family and French authorities who were at odds with each other over calling this abduction an act of anti-Semitism. Image: courtesy SFJFF34

24 Days   U.S. Premiere (France, 2014)  French director and actor, Alexandre Arcady (Day of Atonement (original French title: Le Grand Pardon II) 1992), takes us back to 2006 and astutely delves into l’affaire du gang des barbares (the Affair of the Gang of Barbarians)—the abduction and brutal torture in Paris of the first French Jew, since WWII, to have been viciously attacked for simply being Jewish.  And what a story he weaves, meticulously researched and narrated with a surprising degree of suspense through the voice of a grieving mother.  After Shabbat dinner on January 20, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23 year-old telephone vendor of Moroccan Jewish descent, decides to go out, against his mother’s wishes, and celebrate.  On his way out, he kisses his mother, Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman), who will never see her son again.  Arcady, himself an Algerian-born Jew who emigrated to France at age 15, adapted the story from the mother’s book and police records. She had a gut feeling that her hapless son was abducted because he was Jewish and the kidnappers assumed that all Jews have money, but the authorities stubbornly refused to acknowledge this as a factor in the abduction.  During their three-week nightmare, relived on film, the mother and her ex-husband, Didier (Pascal Elbé), received over 650 insulting, anxiety-producing phone calls.  It turns out that their son was being held in a public housing block in a Paris suburb by a multi-racial gang of French youngsters and at least 30 people knew about it but did nothing, afraid of what the gang’s leader, Fofana (Tony Harrison), would do to them if they snitched to the authorities.  This is such an important story and so faithfully told that the French Ministry of Education had it shown in French schools.  111 min (Screens at 8:45 p.m.)

6:30 p.m. The Green Prince  (Germany, Israel, UK, 2014)  Nadav Schirman’s espionage documentary opened SFJFF 34 at the Castro to a full house on July 24 and won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award (World Cinema: Documentary).  The film is based Mosab Hassan Yousef’s startling memoir, Son of Hamas, and relives how Yousef, the son of one of the leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas, became a spy for Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, while working for his father.  The film’s title refers to the Israeli security agency’s nickname for Yousef, named for the color of the Hamas flag and his high-ranking affiliation with the Islamist organization.   Given the recent violence in Gaza, which we’re all heartsick over, the film’s happy-ending— Palestinian-Israeli friendship—falls apart.  ARThound recommends seeing it later, when it opens in the Bay Area.  99 min (Screens 6:30 p.m.)

Saturday, August 9, 3 p.m.—Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lie (USA, 2014) has its world premiere at SFJFF34 and screens Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center.  Lacey (L) grew up believing she was white and Jewish.  When confronted, her mother, Peggy (R), confessed that she had hidden an extramarital fling with a black man from her and that Lacey was the result.  Image: courtesy SFJFF34

Lacey (L) grew up believing she was white and Jewish. When confronted, her mother, Peggy (R), confessed that she had hidden an extramarital fling with a black man from her and that Lacey was the result. Lacey Schwartz’s documentary, “Little White Lie” (USA, 2014), has its world premiere at SFJFF34 and screens Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Image: courtesy SFJFF34

Little White Lie  World Premiere  (USA, 2014) Harvard Law School graduate Lacey Schwartz turns the camera on herself as she explores how she was raised as white and Jewish and learned as an adult that was her biological father was black.  This relatively short but engrossing doc is about as real as it gets when it comes to confronting one’s long held feelings about identity and race and how those solidify or change with new information.  Schwartz grew up in the mostly white town of Woodstock, New York, and her tawny complexion was always attributed to her father’s deep olive-toned Sicilian Jewish grandfather.  She learned by accident that she was biracial while she was an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  Based on the photo accompanying her entrance application, her contact information was forwarded to its black student association.  When Schwartz confronted her mother, Peggy, she confessed that she had hidden an extramarital fling with a black man from her and that Lacey was the result.   A few years into living with the news, Lacey says this shocking news has not changed the way she sees herself but it has influenced the way she sees the world and, of course, her mother.    65 min (Screens at 3 p.m. with Little Horribles: Mini Bar, a darkly comedic web series that tracks the poor decisions of a self-indulgent lesbian, here trying to resist raiding her the mini bar in her family’s hotel room.)

Saturday, August 9, 4:45 p.m.—God’s Slave

César Troncoso is Ahmed, a Kuwaiti Muslim extremist posing as surgeon and family man in 1994 Buenos Aires in Joel Novoa’s debut feature, “God’s Slave,” (2014), which has its Bay Area premiere at SFJFF 34.   This well-crafted political thriller pits two determined men against one another, crossing paths in the aftermath of the real-life bombings in Buenos Aries in 1994 against the Jewish community.  Image: courtesy SFJFF34

César Troncoso is Ahmed, a Kuwaiti Muslim extremist posing as surgeon and family man in 1994 Buenos Aires in Joel Novoa’s debut feature, “God’s Slave,” (2014), which has its Bay Area premiere at SFJFF 34. This well-crafted political thriller pits two determined men against one another, crossing paths in the aftermath of the real-life bombings in Buenos Aries in 1994 against the Jewish community. Image: courtesy SFJFF34

God’s Slave (Ecsclavo de DiosBay Area Premiere  (Argentina, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela) 90 min)  The  plot sounds familiar—as children both a Muslim and an Islaeli witnessed unspeakable atrocities which have come to define the men they became and the violence they will perpetuate in the name of religion.  Ahmed Al Hassama (Mohammed Al-Khaldi) masquerades as a Venezuelan surgeon waiting until his assignment, a suicide bombing, is revealed to him.  David Goldberg (Vando Villamil) is a cold-blooded Mossad intelligence agent stationed in Buenos Aires, with a relentless aptitude for terrorists’ careers and threats.  Fernando Butazzoni’s screen play, which is set against the 1994 AMIA car-bombing in Buenos Aires, which left 85 people dead, becomes a living breathing portrait of crusaders about to implode in the hands of Venezuelan director Joel Novoa. A master storyteller, Novoa transforms a seemingly open-and-shut political thriller into a moving and nuanced portrayal of commitment and crusade. 90 min (Screens at 4:45 p.m.)

Saturday, August 9, 6:50 p.m.—El Critico

Argentinean film critic turned director Hernan Guerschuny’s comedy, “El Critico,” screens Saturday evening at SFJFF 34 in San Rafael.  Jaded, socially awkward, emotionally repressed, full of himself—film critic Víctor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd) writes reviews for a daily newspaper in Buenos Aires and identifies so completely with the French New Wave, that the voices he hears inside his head speak French.  Newly divorced, he divides his time between watching films and then discussing them at a local dive with his nerdy friends.  All that changes when he accidentally meets quirky Sofia (Colores Fonzi) who seems to be right out of French comedy (and hence perfect for him).  Soon he’s even sobbing and relating to rom-com’s.  Image: courtesy SFJFF34

Argentinean film critic turned director Hernan Guerschuny’s comedy, “El Critico,” screens Saturday evening at SFJFF 34 in San Rafael. Jaded, socially awkward, emotionally repressed, full of himself—film critic Víctor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd) writes reviews for a daily newspaper in Buenos Aires and identifies so completely with the French New Wave, that the voices he hears inside his head speak French. Newly divorced, he divides his time between watching films and then discussing them at a local dive with his nerdy friends. All that changes when he accidentally meets quirky Sofia (Colores Fonzi) who seems to be right out of French comedy (and hence perfect for him). Soon he’s even sobbing and relating to rom-com’s. Image: courtesy SFJFF34

Sunday, August 10, noon—The Sturgeon Queens

Who would have thought that listening to old fishmongers could be so interesting?  Filmmaker Julie Cohen has made "The Sturgeon Queens," a history of the legendary Russ & Daughters appetizing store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Pescatarian pioneer Joel Russ (center) surrounded by daughters (from Left) Hattie, Ida and Anne.  Image: SFJFF34

Who would have thought that listening to old fishmongers could be so interesting? Filmmaker Julie Cohen has made “The Sturgeon Queens,” a history of the legendary Russ & Daughters appetizing store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Pescatarian pioneer Joel Russ (center) surrounded by daughters (from Left) Hattie, Ida and Anne. Image: SFJFF34

 

The Sturgeon Queens  Bay Area Premiere  (USA, 2013)   For New Yorkers noshing on smoked fish and fine appetizers wouldn’t be the same without the venerable Russ & Daughters which celebrates its centennial this year.  .  Julie Cohen, NY Emmy winner and founder of BetterThanFiction Productions, tells the story —100 years, 4 generations, 1.8 million pounds of pickled herring—delightfully.  It’s really a love story of family bonding and fish.  And of a noun called “appetizing”—a Jewish food tradition that is most typical among American (especially New York) Jews and has its origins in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of starting meals with cold appetizers, known in Yiddish as “forshpayz”….modern day translation “the foods one eats with bagels.”  One hundred years ago, workaholic founding father Joel Russ started hawking fine herring on the streets of New York with a push-cart and finally scrimped enough to get his own store on the lower East Side.  This is literally the house that herring built.  His three daughters, the Sturgeon Queens—Anne, Hattie and Ida—helped out their dad and worked behind the counter for decades, pulling their husbands and relatives right along.  In the film we hear from two of the sisters, now grandmas—100-year-old Hattie Russ Gold and 92-year-old Anne Russ Federman who still banter delightfully while reflecting on lives richly lived and customers who passed through their doors.  Their grandchildren, who run the store today,  Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, talk about carrying on the Russ tradition and bringing this institution into the age of computers and author Mark Russ Federman (Russ & Daughters, Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built, 2013) adds more mouthwatering detail.  Well-known enthusiasts of the store add spice—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, chef Mario Batali, New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, and 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer.  54 min (Screens at noon) Will screen on various PBS stations later this year.

Sunday, August 10, 1:45 p.m.—Touchdown Israel

Almost four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker, Paul Hirschberger, started learning all he could about the North American-style of tackle football that is being played in Israel.  “Touchdown Israel” (2014) has its world premiere at SFJFF 34 and explores how the growing sport is bridging cultural gaps in Israel.  Hirschberger will attend Sunday’s screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center.  Image: SFJFF34

Almost four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker, Paul Hirschberger, started learning all he could about the North American-style of tackle football that is being played in Israel. “Touchdown Israel” (2014) has its world premiere at SFJFF 34 and explores how the growing sport is bridging cultural gaps in Israel. Hirschberger will attend Sunday’s screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Image: SFJFF34

Touchdown Israel  World Premiere, filmmaker Paul Hirschberger in attendance with post-screening Q&A   (USA, Israel, 2014)   Israel is the last place you would expect the corn-fed, Friday Night Lights tradition of American football to catch on.  But don’t tell that to the passionate players and coaches in the 11-team Israel Football League, who play for nothing but pride and have had to endure years of matches played on woefully short soccer fields, under bad lighting, with no locker rooms, in front of an indifferent public.  Touchdown Israel is a surprising look at how the gridiron sport has found an unlikely toehold in the Holy Land.  Initially imported in the 1990s by American-born Israelis who deeply missed the scrimmages of their youth, American football in Israel has had to counter not only the vastly more popular appeal of soccer and basketball, but legions of Jewish mothers worried about their grown sons’ injuries. As league macher Steve Leibowitz claims, “Jewish mothers somehow don’t get it, it’s nice to be bruised.” But the documentary has serious points to make as well, as it examines the Jewish-Arab camaraderie (and occasional tensions) within the multiethnic lineup of the Tel Aviv–Jaffa Sabres, as well as the controversial “bad boy” profile of the Judean Rebels, a team composed largely of West Bank settlers. Some rivalries go deeper than sports. (Synopsis by Peter Stein) 85 min (Screens at 1:45 p.m.)

Sunday, August 10, 4:15 p.m.—Watchers of the Sky

Watchers of the Sky  CA Premiere  The term “genocide” was created by the Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and first used in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.  MacArthur Award-winning documentarian, Edit Belzberg, explores Lemkin’s legacy in creating an international framework for prosecuting acts aimed at the intentional destruction of a people.  At Sundance, this smart doc picked up an Editing Award and Special Jury Award for Use of Animation US Documentary.  Inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2013), Belzberg takes you on a very disturbing experiential journey over the past century of genocide intercutting Lemkin’s story with interviews from Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz; journalist-turned-UN ambassador Samantha Power, who covered Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing;  Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who is building the case against Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir over the deaths in Darfur; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide now aiding Darfur refugees in Chad.  Belberg evokes Lemkin’s spirit through quotes from his memoirs and wonderful animation.  This is a must-see primer in human rights awareness and action. Watchers of the Sky will open theatrically in the US in October 2014.  114 min (Screens 4:45 p.m.)

Details:  The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is located at 1118 Fourth Street in San Rafael.  Metered parking is available on the street or chose from several lots close by.  The San Rafael portion of the festival starts Friday, August 8, 2014, and runs through Sunday, August 10, 2014.  Tickets: $14; $13 seniors and students.  Advance purchase is recommended—click on film links below or visit www.sfjff.org or call 415.621.0523. (Rafael passes, CFI Fast Passes or members’ discounts are not valid for these screenings.) The Rafael box office will not sell advance tickets; however, it will sell tickets remaining for various screenings on the day of their screening.

 

Full Schedule, SFJFF 34 at Smith Rafael Film Center, Friday (Aug 8)–Sunday (Aug 10)

Friday

2:10 p.m. Mamele  (dir. Joseph Green, Konrad Tom, USA, 1938, 97 min)

4:20 p.m.  Swim Little Fish Swim  (dir. Ruben Amar, USA, France, 2013, 96 min)

6:30 p.m.  The Green Prince West Coast Premiere (dir. Nadav Schirman, Germany, Israel, UK, 2014, 99 min,

8:45 p.m.  24 Days  U.S. Premiere (dir. Alexandre Arcady, France, 2014, 111 min)

 

Saturday

1 p.m. My Own Man CA Premiere (dir. David Sampliner, USA, 2014, 83 min)

3 p.m. Little White Lie World Premiere (dir. Lacey Schwartz, USA, 2014, 65 min)

4:45 p.m. God’s Slave (Ecsclavo de Dios) Bay Area Premiere (dir. Joel Novoa, Argentina, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela, 90 min)

6:50 p.m. El Critico CA Premiere (dir. Hernán Guerschuny, Argentina, 2013, 90 min)

8:55 p.m. Comedy Warriors Northern CA Premiere John Wagner (USA, 2014) 75 min

Sunday

12 noon The Sturgeon Queens Bay Area Premiere (dir. Julie Cohen, USA, 2013, 54 min)

1:45 p.m. Touchdown Israel World Premiere (dir. Paul Hirschberger, USA, Israel, 2014, 85 min)

4:15 p.m. Watchers of the Sky CA Premiere (dir. Edit Belzberg, USA, 2013, 114 min)

6:45 p.m. Snails in the Rain CA Premiere (dir. Yariv Mozer, Israel, 2013, 82 min)

8:40 p.m. A Place in Heaven CA Premiere (dir. Yossi Madmoni, Israel, 2013, 117 min)

 

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August 5, 2014 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film review: “Earth Made of Glass” 15 years later, Rwandan Genocide Survivors share their unending quest for truth

In "Earth Made of Glass," Deborah Scranton's investigative documentary about Rwanda, Jean Pierre Sagahutu, genocide survivor, is haunted by his father's unsolved murder and has scoured the Rwandan countryside on a 15 year search. Photo courtesy San Francisco Film Society.

Fifteen years after the brutal genocide in Rwanda that pitted Hutu against Tutsi and left 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates dead, Deborah Scranton’s documentary “Earth Made of Glass” is a monumentally necessary film.  In this compelling documentary, Scranton focuses in on Jean Pierre Sagahutu, a survivor of the genocide who has been on a 15 year quest to find out the truth behind who murdered his father, mother, three sisters and four brothers.  Juxtaposed with Sagahutu’s personal quest is the gripping commentary of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President, who has spent the past 15 years on his own quest–trying to bring global attention to France’s active involvement, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in training and arming Hutu militias in Rwanda and Congo, who led massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

Intertwined with Kagane’s commentary is the story of Rose Kabuye, his Chief of State Protocol (and former officer in the Tutsi Rawandan Patriotic Front (RPF), former Mayor of the capital city Kigali and former member of parliament), who was arrested in 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany, on a French warrant, on charges of terrorism.  Her arrest came after a report detailing France’s hidden involvement in the genocide was released.  Kabuye was detained on charges of involvement in the 1994 murder of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who was Hutu, when his plane was shot down, an event seen as a catalyst for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Ms. Kabuye was accused of harboring commandos who shot down the plane.  She waived her right to extradition and was transferred to France, where she spent months in prison.  President Kagame shrewdly used the arrest as an opportunity to launch a counter-attack, denying that Kabuye, and the 8 other suspects, were responsible for shooting down the plane and tried to expose the French role.  The film investigates Kabuye’s quid pro quo arrest, asserting the charges were unfounded.  

Rose Kabuye, Rwandan President Paul Kagame's Chief of State Protocol, was arrested on November 9, 2008 in Germany under an arrest warrant issued by France. Kabuye was suspected of participating in the 1994 downing of a plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana whose death triggered a genocide. Photo: Simon Maina, AFP, Getty Images.

Scranton’s use of two simultaneously unfolding and intertwined narratives is complicated by the fact that Rose Kabuye’s story is not explored with enough depth to fully connect her arrest in Germany back to the charges of her involvement in (Hutu) Habyarimana’s assassination and the beginning of the genocide.   Despite this, President Kagane’s forthright way of speaking about the lingering concerns that face his nation is compelling.  What Scranton has gifted us with is Jean Pierre Sagahutu, an unforgettable hero, who humanizes this event of incomprehensible dimensions, lends raw immediacy and closes the gap between past and present.  Scranton seems to have unfiltered access to Sagahutu’s deepest thoughts and feelings and that poignancy is what anchors this film.  Sagahutu has suffered immensely, losing all nine of his family members, but for the sake of his children and his country, he takes the high road, seeking the truth over revenge.  In so doing, he models a way for a broken nation to heal and for its children to grow up without the scars of their parents.

“Of course you want justice, but before justice, you want the truth,” says Sagahutu early in the film.  “Even if they put the killer in prison for life, for you it’s for nothing …for the someone who killed my brother, sister, my mom, my father, what I want to know from him is the truth– that’s all.”  As Sagahutu’s story unfolds, we learn that he survived the genocide by jumping in a septic tank where he stayed for 2 months and 16 days, surviving on food handed down to him on a dog chain every few days.  When he emerged, he learned that his entire family had been slaughtered.  What ensues is his quest to find out the details of his father’s death. His father was a doctor who had been in practice for 40 years and was a well-respected member of the community.  He was called in to the hospital during the genocide and abducted en route at a road block and never seen again.  His son systematically questions everyone he can find about his father, including those who watched the Gacaca (reconciliation trials) in the village.   He learns that a man was tried for killing a man in the very place where his father was last seen.   As the story unfolds, and he goes on to confront this man in person, we wonder how we would endure if we were in his shoes.   Sagahutu holds on with a special tenacity that few could muster, affording this man a humanity was not extended to his father.  He gives the man the chance to speak, knowing full well that the story he is hearing will likely be a combination of the truth, lies and justifications.  He is patient.    

We also learn that, geopolitically speaking, the Rwandan genocide was infinitely complex–a situation where global politics trumped humanitarian concerns and where humanitarian concerns was the excuse given for lack of international military response.  Scranton devotes a significant portion of the film to France’s role in the genocide but still fails at clearly driving home all the salient connections between France’s vested history in the French-speaking country, its backing of the Hutus and the French-trained paramilitaries in Rwanda and Congo.  If the claims regarding a direct French influence as a factor in creating and sustaining the genocide were laid out more systematically, the film would be stronger.   In the absence of this clarity, it is a very good thing that Sagahutu’s story is compelling enough to assume the lead narrative.  

H.E. President Paul Kagame, Genocide Commemoration speech Nyanza, Rwanda, April 2009. Image courtesy Deborah Scranton.

While the film does not address the American role, it is worth noting that the Clinton Administration was forefront in opposing international action, a highly-calculated political decision which Clinton has recently publicly expressed remorse over.  Shocked by unexpected American military casualties in Somalia and a humiliating withdrawal, Washington insisted that a cease-fire in Rwanda, impossible to attain quickly, had to precede humanitarian aid.  And so there we stood.

While not implicitly stated, the most glaring reason for the international community’s inaction was that impoverished and perennially troubled Rwanda had no strategic, political, or economic significance.  All it had were growing piles of bodies.  If this situation is ever to change, we need more filmmakers like Scranton who are there to drive home the truth.

The road to healing in Rwanda as President Paul Kagame states is “to find a way midway between the need for justice and being held accountable and reconciliation.  Asking someone to put aside legitimate grievances is asking someone to sacrifice.  Forgiving for them is a price they have to pay for a better future but they know that will be made easier by the truth that is gained about what has happened and why it has happened.”  Nearly one million deaths, immeasurable heart-ache.  Never again, we hope.

“Earth Made of Glass,” Director and co-Producer Deborah Scranton; co-Producer, Reid Carolin; Music, Johan Söderqvist; Cinematography, P.H. O’Brien.   87 minutes, English

 Screens: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 7pm,   Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema. One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level

Following the screening, an engaging panel discussion will address the functions, roles and processes of documentary film as a form of investigative journalism. Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large at the San Francisco Chronicle,  will moderate a discussion with director Deborah Scranton; Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and Mathilde Mukantabana, president of Friends of Rwanda. 

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Film Society review: “Munyurangabo” Lee Isaac Chung explores Rwanda’s Lost Generation, screens Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco, June 12-18, 2009

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo."  Image courtesy of Film Movement.

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo." Image courtesy of Film Movement.

It has now been 15 years since the tragic genocide in Rwanda which in 100 days claimed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi lives at the hands of Hutu power.   As abstract and distant as that event may have seemed to outsiders, the pain has lingered in Rwandan society and the young children who suffered the traumatic massacre of parents, relatives and friends are now young adults and are still grappling with issues of loss, vengeance and healing.      “Munyurangabo” is a compelling feature film that follows two Rwandan young men– roommates and best friends—one Hutu and one Tutsi– who are part of that lost generation as they set out on a journey with a ominous mission of retribution that quickly turns into much more for each of them.   The fact that the film was co-written and directed by Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung, who must have been a youth himself when the genocide occurred and that it was shot on location in less than two weeks with non-professional actors makes it all the more intriguing.  It is also the first narrative feature in the Kinyarwanda language, a Bantu language which is spoken primarily in Rawnda but also in Southern Uganda and in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The story opens in a bustling open market in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, as Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) steals a large blood stained machete from a vendor and hides it away in his backpack.  He later meets up with Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) who has spent their hard-earned money, that was earmarked for bus tickets, to buy himself a colorful shirt, forcing the boys to hitchhike and walk.   The story unfolds slowly in bits and pieces and parallels the slowness of life that is a reality in Rwandan villages where families labor all day at their small plots and at attending to the very basic necessities of life.  As the boys make their way along the roads and dirt paths of rural Uganda, we are struck by the land’s lush and fertile beauty and at the same time aware that these may have been killing fields.   While their final destination is not revealed, the boys intend to make a brief stopover in Sangwa’s village, which he left three years ago for undisclosed reasons. 

Sangwa’s homecoming is the story on the surface.  His mother greets him with unconditional love, cuddling him and feeding him with a spoon and delights in his gift of fabric and soap.  His father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) cannot contain the flurry of emotion bombarding him and lectures Sangwa sternly about abandoning his family and about the meaning of honor and responsibility.   Later, he forgives Sangwa and praises him lovingly for his work repairing a foundation wall of their mud hut. 

As happy as Sangwa’s parents are to be reunited with their son, old wounds start to fester when they learn that Munyurangabo is a Tutsi.  As his parents instruct him to abandon his trip and to remain in the village and to build a life with them, we can’t help but wonder how they acted during the massacre.  Were they at all complicit with the Hutus who carried out the killings?   This element of doubt is critical to our understanding of the gyrations that Rwandan society went through as friends, families and neighbors turned on each other.  As Munyurangabo is treated more and more as an unwelcome guest, we feel for him and sense his volatility.  He is triggered by the negative vibes coming from Sangwa’s family and equally by the deep love between Sangwa’s family which causes him to mourn his parents, both dead, all the more. 

After very real and raw awkwardness and avoidance, Sangwa tells Munyurangabo that he has doubts about their journey and about accompanying Munyurangabo to find and to kill the Hutu man who murdered his father.   What unfolds is a remarkably real and intimate story, stark and penetrating.  Edouard B. Uwayo’s poetry is masterfully used as a backdrop, conveying what is not said, what cannot be said by these characters who are forced to become men before our eyes. 

Resources abound on Rwanda but Philip Gourevitch’s “The Life After”  in the May 4, 2009 New Yorker is excellent, as is the magazine’s podcast “Rwanda in Recovery.”   JUSTWATCH, The International Justice Watch Discussion List is an online searchable forum which captures daily international news coverage of international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda (and ex-Yugoslavia) as well lively discussion of related issues including the conflicts which gave rise to the tribunals, the International Criminal Court and international humanitarian law (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes).  

“Munyurangabo shows June 12-18, 2009 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco.  Screens at 2:15 pm, 4:40 pm, 7:10 pm, 9:25 pm.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF Review: “The Reckoning” Pamela Yates’ extraordinary documentary on the ICC and war crimes prosecution…prepare to be stirred, shaken

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

Emotions ran high at Monday’s West Coast premiere of  Pamela Yates’ new film “The Reckoning, ” a compelling overview of the first six years of the ICC, International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international court for prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide.  The documentary film, a contender for the coveted $15,000 Golden Gate Gate award announced this Wednesday, is one of two important films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7,  that explore genocide and efforts to restore justice.  Through accounts offered by victims, ICC lawyers, advocates and an active opponent of the ICC, director Pamela Yates has created a compelling and often heartening account of the pursuit of justice and its effects, both direct and indirect, on murderers (frequently in positions of leadership) who formerly believed they could act with impunity.

The ICC came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, came into force and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. The court’s official seat is in The Hague, The Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.  “The Reckoning” explores the history of the court’s establishment and follows ICC Argentinean prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team of prosecutors, for three years across four continents as investigate and pursue Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, track down Congolese warlords, pressure the U.N Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, for the Darfur massacres and pressure the Columbian government to prosecute those at the highest ranks responsible for brutal systematic killings that occurred in Columbia.  Ocampo rose to public attention in 1985, as Assistant Prosecutor in the Argentina’s “Trial of the Juntas“—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that senior military commanders were prosecuted for mass killings.

Watching the film is both an education and an emotional catharsis: we are sickened by the graphic footage of atrocities we have read about.  Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung and Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda are particularly persuasive as they explain their backgrounds and commitment to prosecuting the top criminals who have so far gotten away with horrific crimes against humanity.  As we follow Ocampo’s team along narrow paths to killing fields in four continents, we are taken aback by the contrast–lush fertile landscapes that upon closer inspection are laden with skulls, human bones, and teeth.  The survivors, often women, who were left for dead, and who have agreed to testify, talk about surviving brutal beatings, rape and the systematic murder of their families and neighbors, often by conscripted child soldiers.  We are sickened further by the frank descriptions of massacre given by former conscripted killers, abducted as young children and trained to kill.  The common thread in all these killings—to obliterate by the swiftest means possible.   We are also sickened that the U.S., which was instrumental in setting up the fundamental building blocks of the court, pulled back under the Bush Administration and refused to become a signatory.  We listen as renowned American lawyer and diplomat David Scheffer who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, during President Bill Clinton’s second term lays out the arguments in favor of U.S. participation and multilaterism in this important endeavor.   His explanation resonates at a very deep level with the principles of justice, leadership through example and intolerance for impunity honored by most Americans.  Scheffer led the U.S. negotiating team in the United Nations talks on the ICC and while he signed the Rome Statute hat established the ICC on behalf of the U.S. in 2000, he was critical of many aspects of the court and the negotiation process itself.  He particularly opposed the prohibition on any party making reservations to the Rome Statute and the manner in which the Statute structured the court’s jurisdiction.

If Yates’ film can be faulted, it is in this important segment which is not thorough enough in laying out the multilateral approach endorsed by Scheffer versus the unilateral course of the Bush Administration.  John Bolton,  Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is captured reading from his famous 2003 memo rejecting US participation and later in inflammatory bluster and the meat of the argument against U.S. membership takes a backseat to our immediate distaste for Bolton’s combative style.   The main argument that the U.S. has made against joining the ICC is that as the world’s superpower, it is frequently called upon and expected to take on a dominant policing role which puts it in a high liability situation.  The ICC would put the tiniest players on the world stage–Benin or Trinidad and Tobago– on an equal footing with the United States and the U.S. has feared that could lead to unfounded accusations against U.S. soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in difficult situations.  What global leader would agree to take on such high policing responsibility if the liability isn’t commensurate with the addition responsibility?  China, Russia, India have also refused to sign.  But Washington has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, it has also used its political and economic leverage to undermine the ICC by demanding that states sign bilateral agreements pledging not to subject American citizens to the court.  Those who refuse could be denied U.S. military or other aid.  Scheffer argues persuasively that the court is structured adequately to prohibit such occurrances and if the U.S. were to engage in illegal activities, it should be taken to task.  Moreover,  America needs to align itself again with international law to restore our credibility as a global power.  

IF the ultimate point of this excellent film is to convince us that the US needs to join, Yates has done her job; but if Yates is striving to change the mind of those in power, she has a ways to go.  Fortunately the film is an entre to a 3 year International Justice program IJcentral http://ijcentral.org/initiated by Yates to involve citizens in safeguarding international justice.  Framing a story as complex as this is daunting. Yates’ ultimate message seems to be that despite US objections, the ICC has done and will continue to do important work.   A truly international court though needs the approval and backing of the world’s most powerful states.  What are the circumstances that might bring the U.S. and other powers  into the fold?

As of March 2009, 108 states are members of the ICC.  A further 40 countries have signed but not retified the Rome Statute.  The ICC can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United nations security Council.  The ICC is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.  The main responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is left to the individual states.

“The Reckoning” screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm at PFA, Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment