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Selections from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Back into the light

Unapologetic: “Raptivist” Bella Bahhs is just one of the reasons to check out this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Unapologetic: “Raptivist” Bella Bahhs is just one of the reasons to check out this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

If it seems as though it was just a couple of months ago that we spoke about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, it was. Alas, nothing on this list comes close to topping Talking About Trees (screened as part of last February’s collection) but that’s setting the bar high. Few documentaries watched while under quarantine came close to matching that film’s infectious love of cinema.

The collective theme of the 10 curated selections in this installment is stepping back into the light after what the program notes define as, “a year of unprecedented pandemic and racial adversity.” The festival runs May 19-27. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: hrwfilmfestivalstream.org.

Unapologetic (2020) Not long before the letters BLM became indelibly inked on our collective consciousness, the death of two African American youth, killed by the Chicago Police, forever impacted the lives of another pair of millennials: social worker Janaé Bonsu and fellow revolutionary (and celebrated “Raptivist”) Bella Bahhs. A forward-looking dissenter, Janaé connected with the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an activist organization bent on bringing change to Black communities “through policy and direct action.”

To Bahhs, “Our entire existence is resistance.” She holds her elders accountable for the mess they left for a new generation to clean up. She grew up with a gangbanger for a mother and has a different take on the stigma attached to the mob culture. To people who pin the responsibility for all of the city’s violence on gangs, Bahhs says that gangs teach leadership and organizational skills. That’s more than can be said for the Chicago Police Disciplining Board’s monthly meetings designed to give voice to (mollify?) members of the community. If footage from one such gathering is any indication, emotions bubble over while ineffectual board members look on, arms folded, heads nodding. In her defense, Lori Lightfoot, former top cop and current Mayor of Chicago, argued, “Young people have attempted to impose upon me… a power that I don’t possess. They want any police officer who kills an African American to be fired, stripped of their pension without any due process, any investigation.”

If director Ashley O’Shay has anything to apologize for it’s selective subtitling. The on-the-fly audio recording such as it is makes it difficult to discern some of the more crucial dialog exchanges. Hopefully the version made available will be closed captioned.

A Once and Future Peace (2021) Seventeen-year-old “Andy” enters Eric Daniel Metzgar’s documentary facing four felony charges related to unlawful firearms and a stolen vehicle. Rather than a pixelated mosaic mask to conceal underage Andy’s identity, Metzgar embraces a less traditional approach by animating scenes involving the participation of the minor and his parents. It’s through animation Andy that we meet live-action Saroeum Phoung, a gang-leader transformed who now helps troubled teens get their lives back on course through peacemaking circles and their relation to restorative justice. If Andy can complete the Seattle-based pilot-program — the average restorative reentry circle runs $11,000 compared to the $100,000 a year it costs to incarcerate a teen — his criminal record will be expunged.

As much as one welcomes the prospect of crossbreeding documentary realism with animation, as drawn, it’s difficult to detect much growth and dramatic expression in the deadpan closeups. One guesses animator Reza Riahi had a feature-length budget one one-hundredth that of what it would cost Disney to animate two minutes. This is also an example of a fingers-crossed style of storytelling in which the documentarian, unsure of his film’s outcome, let’s the camera run and hopes for the best. As compelling as it is, the end result is best viewed as a work in progress.

Apart (2020) Since Nancy Reagan kicked off her inefficacious war on drugs, the number of women in prison has grown over 800 percent. The three mothers, all prisoners of the State of Ohio, at the center of Jennifer Redfearn’s documentary orbit individual tragedies with achingly comparable outcomes. Lydia was a devoted soccer mom until a near-fatal car crash left her a Vicodin addict. The day she ran out of pills was the day Lydia’s supplier formally introduced her to heroin. Tamika’s baby daughter thought mommy lived in a college dorm, not a 48-square-foot jail cell. Watching as Tamika breaks the news to the child is one of those moments that’s impossible to unsee. Then there’s Amanda who, in her mind, was born to do time. Drugs were an everyday part of her formative years; everyone in her universe was hooked on something that eventually led to time spent in jail. Amanda followed suit. Our three convicts along with 27 others were chosen to journey outside the prison gate to take part in a program that prepared them for reentry into the outside world. Rare as it is to find a documentary dedicated to mothers behind bars, it’s even less common to end with all three principles better positioned for life and motherhood at the final fade than they were at the outset.

Bajo Fuego (2021) Hopes were high in November 2016 that the peace agreement drawn between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (FARC-EP) and President Juan Manuel Santos would put an end to the longest armed insurgency in the history of South America. With it came the assurance that a dubious “substitution program” (aka the avocado trees are in the mail) was in the works to put the kibosh on the country’s main source of income, cocaine production. (Why sell coffee when a family with a two-acre farm can live for a year off coca plants?) No sooner was the pact established, than the number of robberies swelled. The situation changed the following year when over 14,000 members of FARC-EP fled the territory. With the agitators out, this meant that the peasants could begin work on regaining control of their homeland. Regret set in the moment locals were hit with the hard realization that coke sales put food on their tables. A nostalgic air swept the region: the absence of guerillas reminded people of just how much the bad guys had their backs, particularly when it came to keeping both the military and criminals in line. It gets worse. One half-year later and the farmers have received but one of the monthly checks promised them. Strapped of their resources, the Peasant Guard had no choice but to strike, blocking the Pan-American highway that connects Colombia with Ecuador. It’s a war of sticks against guns and after four weeks of violent confrontation, El Presidente agrees to visit the region. His helicopter touches down just long enough to reverse its course. To his credit, two years after the program was supposed to commence, a handful of avocado trees arrived by jackass mail. If ever a documentary had the makings of a rousing narrative facelift it’s this. See it before Hollywood has a whack at it.

— Scott Marks

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Together Together — It takes a bit for writer-director Nicole Beckwith to clue audiences in on the importance of the job interview that opens the picture. It’s also an audition of sorts, with Anna (Patti Harrison) trying out for the role of surrogate mother to successful app designer Matt’s (Ed Helms) single/surrogate dad wannabe. (He wants a child to help fill the loneliness in his life.) From the get-go there’s a sense of coddling control emanating from Matt’s corner. He enrolls in couple’s therapy, dotes on her diet, and what kind of shoes she should wear while working as a barista. He even goes so far as to accompany her to get an ultrasound. (His Victor Frankenstein-like cry of “It’s alive!” when he sees the baby’s heartbeat brings a smile to my face days later.) He puts more thought into what color to paint the nursery than most parents would in selecting a name for their baby. You’ve heard the term “helicopter parent?” Matt’s needy, highly emotional helicopter sperm donor is enough to cause any expectant mother to miscarry. Could romance be brewing? Note to Beckwith: the only thing worse than your constant stream of TV-safe closeups is a wishy-washy inability to take a stance against Woody Allen, a clear inspiration. Either verbally bash the guy or honor him by using the Windsor font for the credits, not both. Just my luck! The first film I see in a theatre after a 14 month absence is basically a made-for-TV movie. 2021. S.M.

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La Cresta Restaurant stands alone at 1600 feet

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Unapologetic: “Raptivist” Bella Bahhs is just one of the reasons to check out this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Unapologetic: “Raptivist” Bella Bahhs is just one of the reasons to check out this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

If it seems as though it was just a couple of months ago that we spoke about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, it was. Alas, nothing on this list comes close to topping Talking About Trees (screened as part of last February’s collection) but that’s setting the bar high. Few documentaries watched while under quarantine came close to matching that film’s infectious love of cinema.

The collective theme of the 10 curated selections in this installment is stepping back into the light after what the program notes define as, “a year of unprecedented pandemic and racial adversity.” The festival runs May 19-27. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: hrwfilmfestivalstream.org.

Unapologetic (2020) Not long before the letters BLM became indelibly inked on our collective consciousness, the death of two African American youth, killed by the Chicago Police, forever impacted the lives of another pair of millennials: social worker Janaé Bonsu and fellow revolutionary (and celebrated “Raptivist”) Bella Bahhs. A forward-looking dissenter, Janaé connected with the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an activist organization bent on bringing change to Black communities “through policy and direct action.”

To Bahhs, “Our entire existence is resistance.” She holds her elders accountable for the mess they left for a new generation to clean up. She grew up with a gangbanger for a mother and has a different take on the stigma attached to the mob culture. To people who pin the responsibility for all of the city’s violence on gangs, Bahhs says that gangs teach leadership and organizational skills. That’s more than can be said for the Chicago Police Disciplining Board’s monthly meetings designed to give voice to (mollify?) members of the community. If footage from one such gathering is any indication, emotions bubble over while ineffectual board members look on, arms folded, heads nodding. In her defense, Lori Lightfoot, former top cop and current Mayor of Chicago, argued, “Young people have attempted to impose upon me… a power that I don’t possess. They want any police officer who kills an African American to be fired, stripped of their pension without any due process, any investigation.”

If director Ashley O’Shay has anything to apologize for it’s selective subtitling. The on-the-fly audio recording such as it is makes it difficult to discern some of the more crucial dialog exchanges. Hopefully the version made available will be closed captioned.

A Once and Future Peace (2021) Seventeen-year-old “Andy” enters Eric Daniel Metzgar’s documentary facing four felony charges related to unlawful firearms and a stolen vehicle. Rather than a pixelated mosaic mask to conceal underage Andy’s identity, Metzgar embraces a less traditional approach by animating scenes involving the participation of the minor and his parents. It’s through animation Andy that we meet live-action Saroeum Phoung, a gang-leader transformed who now helps troubled teens get their lives back on course through peacemaking circles and their relation to restorative justice. If Andy can complete the Seattle-based pilot-program — the average restorative reentry circle runs $11,000 compared to the $100,000 a year it costs to incarcerate a teen — his criminal record will be expunged.

As much as one welcomes the prospect of crossbreeding documentary realism with animation, as drawn, it’s difficult to detect much growth and dramatic expression in the deadpan closeups. One guesses animator Reza Riahi had a feature-length budget one one-hundredth that of what it would cost Disney to animate two minutes. This is also an example of a fingers-crossed style of storytelling in which the documentarian, unsure of his film’s outcome, let’s the camera run and hopes for the best. As compelling as it is, the end result is best viewed as a work in progress.

Apart (2020) Since Nancy Reagan kicked off her inefficacious war on drugs, the number of women in prison has grown over 800 percent. The three mothers, all prisoners of the State of Ohio, at the center of Jennifer Redfearn’s documentary orbit individual tragedies with achingly comparable outcomes. Lydia was a devoted soccer mom until a near-fatal car crash left her a Vicodin addict. The day she ran out of pills was the day Lydia’s supplier formally introduced her to heroin. Tamika’s baby daughter thought mommy lived in a college dorm, not a 48-square-foot jail cell. Watching as Tamika breaks the news to the child is one of those moments that’s impossible to unsee. Then there’s Amanda who, in her mind, was born to do time. Drugs were an everyday part of her formative years; everyone in her universe was hooked on something that eventually led to time spent in jail. Amanda followed suit. Our three convicts along with 27 others were chosen to journey outside the prison gate to take part in a program that prepared them for reentry into the outside world. Rare as it is to find a documentary dedicated to mothers behind bars, it’s even less common to end with all three principles better positioned for life and motherhood at the final fade than they were at the outset.

Bajo Fuego (2021) Hopes were high in November 2016 that the peace agreement drawn between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (FARC-EP) and President Juan Manuel Santos would put an end to the longest armed insurgency in the history of South America. With it came the assurance that a dubious “substitution program” (aka the avocado trees are in the mail) was in the works to put the kibosh on the country’s main source of income, cocaine production. (Why sell coffee when a family with a two-acre farm can live for a year off coca plants?) No sooner was the pact established, than the number of robberies swelled. The situation changed the following year when over 14,000 members of FARC-EP fled the territory. With the agitators out, this meant that the peasants could begin work on regaining control of their homeland. Regret set in the moment locals were hit with the hard realization that coke sales put food on their tables. A nostalgic air swept the region: the absence of guerillas reminded people of just how much the bad guys had their backs, particularly when it came to keeping both the military and criminals in line. It gets worse. One half-year later and the farmers have received but one of the monthly checks promised them. Strapped of their resources, the Peasant Guard had no choice but to strike, blocking the Pan-American highway that connects Colombia with Ecuador. It’s a war of sticks against guns and after four weeks of violent confrontation, El Presidente agrees to visit the region. His helicopter touches down just long enough to reverse its course. To his credit, two years after the program was supposed to commence, a handful of avocado trees arrived by jackass mail. If ever a documentary had the makings of a rousing narrative facelift it’s this. See it before Hollywood has a whack at it.

— Scott Marks

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Together Together — It takes a bit for writer-director Nicole Beckwith to clue audiences in on the importance of the job interview that opens the picture. It’s also an audition of sorts, with Anna (Patti Harrison) trying out for the role of surrogate mother to successful app designer Matt’s (Ed Helms) single/surrogate dad wannabe. (He wants a child to help fill the loneliness in his life.) From the get-go there’s a sense of coddling control emanating from Matt’s corner. He enrolls in couple’s therapy, dotes on her diet, and what kind of shoes she should wear while working as a barista. He even goes so far as to accompany her to get an ultrasound. (His Victor Frankenstein-like cry of “It’s alive!” when he sees the baby’s heartbeat brings a smile to my face days later.) He puts more thought into what color to paint the nursery than most parents would in selecting a name for their baby. You’ve heard the term “helicopter parent?” Matt’s needy, highly emotional helicopter sperm donor is enough to cause any expectant mother to miscarry. Could romance be brewing? Note to Beckwith: the only thing worse than your constant stream of TV-safe closeups is a wishy-washy inability to take a stance against Woody Allen, a clear inspiration. Either verbally bash the guy or honor him by using the Windsor font for the credits, not both. Just my luck! The first film I see in a theatre after a 14 month absence is basically a made-for-TV movie. 2021. S.M.

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