Reel Real World
The 12th UNA International Film Festival brings depth and song to hard topics.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
At the movies, there is often Disney escapism… and at the far opposite end of the spectrum, there is the 12th Annual International Film Festival presented by United Nations Association (UNA) in Monterey, which broaches many of the world’s pressing socio-economic issues over a span of four days.
Don’t be daunted by the gravitas of these flicks – nor the multitude of languages in which they play. (They are all equipped with subtitles.) And don’t just read these movies. Listen to the warm, inviting, West African French in films like Sarabah, which is also partly in German, English, Wolof and Diola (languages of Senegal). Or the variations in pacing and intonation of the Spanish spoken by the children from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, as they make their way north on top of trains with the lush foliage of rural Mexico behind them in Which Way Home.
This festival is rich not just in lessons, but in language, story, scenery, and song, whether it be the jazz tunes echoed in Strangers No More by child refugees at a unique international school in Tel Aviv, which educates children first in Hebrew, and then in several other subjects, or the rap of Sister Fa, a hip hop artist who rails against genital mutilation of girls in Senegal in Sarabah.
“I seek to reconnect with young people through music,” she says, “to talk with them about human rights and try to explain to them that it would be also the same right for their own future children, to grow up with their full body, and this turned out to be a very strong approach.” Given that the New York Times reported in October that ritual cuttings in Senegal are now declining, it’s not hard to extrapolate that Sister Fa’s message is beginning to have the desired effect.
A few of the films tell stories about the consequences our consumer decisions have on the lands where products we purchase are made. Blood on the Mobile captures the tragic tale of children in the Congo who mine the rare earth minerals essential to cell phones. The Darker Side of Chocolate follows child workers in Mali and the Ivory Coast who sustain the cocoa harvest. Triangle Returns tells the story of a Bangladeshi garment factory where workers perished in a fire with circumstances chillingly similar to that of the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy, which became the precursor to the American Labor Movement a century ago.
Some of the films explore continuing tragedies of age-old institutions. The Price of Sex follows young women, many from rural regions in Moldova, as they follow job leads to Turkey, Greece and Dubai for what at first seem to be legitimate overseas employment, but turn out to be one-way tickets into the sex trade.
“Poverty, poverty and poverty are the reasons most of these girls are so vulnerable to offers of employment from those who sell them into slavery in the sex trade,” says filmmaker Mimi Chakarova, who grew up in the Moldova region, now scavenged by those searching for gullible young women who can be resold in cities like Istanbul or Dubai.
“Under Communism, we were like caged animals, safe but limited,” she continues. “But after the fall of Communism, the cages were opened, and some did very well, some did not.”
She spoke while packing for a flight to Kiev to attend a dinner for nominees of the Daniel Pearl Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting; she later won. “More than 95 percent of the women I have met in the sex trade would do some other type of work if it were available. Many begin this line of work during a crisis – a sick child, a husband who has abandoned them – and believe they will only do this work for a short period of time, but then get stuck in the industry, and can’t get out.”
The joblessness underlying The Price of Sex is also a problem in Haiti, according to film producer Bryn Mooser, whose film Sun City Picture House follows the construction of a movie theater in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 that killed at least 70,000. (Thousands more remain unaccounted for.)
“The Sun City Picture House cost $4,000 to build, currently functions as a community center during the day, and has been followed by the construction of four more picture houses around Haiti,” Mooser says. “The most recent one was completed with solar panels.”
Viewing his film, one can only wonder where more than $2 billion in aid raised from North American and European nations landed. Evidence of those funds hasn’t surfaced yet in Haiti, more than a year after the disaster, even though rebuilding could supply many of the desperately needed jobs in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
“We made this film because we wanted people to see the beauty and warmth and resilience and power of the people of Haiti,” Mooser says. “Currently Haitians are struggling against a cholera outbreak (brought to the island by Nepalese soldiers), with more than 200,000 reported cases and 4,000 deaths. But they have survived much worse in the past and will overcome this as well,” he concludes.
Cholera is a waterborne illness. Interestingly, waterborne diseases account for more fatalities around the globe than wars and violence. Although Haiti has survived its share of disasters, violence and disease, it’s often the dictators who come to mind when the subject of Haiti is raised – or a number of other countries. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is the villain in Benghazi Rising, a documentary about the Libyan uprising which was the beginning of the end of Qaddafi’s rule.
Challenges to repressive regimes also underlie The 10 Conditions of Love, a movie about the Uyghurs in China, told through the prism of a mother-son relationship. In Killing in the Name, one Jordanian challenges the oppressive violence of jihad which killed several members of his wedding party and set him on a mission to Indonesia and other locales, attempting to explain, one Muslim to another, why killing in the name of Allah is dead wrong.
Poster Girl looks at the military in the U.S., by way of its newer practices and problems – the reserves, PTSD and the Kafkaesque struggle to get disability benefits – in a story about a young woman who believed her recruiter when told she could do humanitarian assistance work, only to find herself on duty in the Iraq War. “I hope the film raises awareness of both the difficulties confronted by returning vets from wars, and the lack of clarity as to probable circumstances new recruits will confront,” Robynn Murray says.
Over in the energy sector, Gasland looks at the problems in the U.S. associated with fracking, a technique for extracting gas which many claim forces gas into the water system.
And then looking at more environmental problems on the other side of the world, The Warriors of Quingang confronts pollution of water and fields accompanying China’s hyper-speedy development in many rural communities.
Many of the films, starting with the festival’s opener, Humanity Explored, have exquisite cinematography, bringing peoples of the world not often seen in the mass media into sharp focus. A few of the festival’s filmmakers seem somewhat technically amateurish in composition, but are nonetheless endearing in their role as real-life raconteurs.
UNA President Larry Levine, who has chaired the film festival since its inception, says, “Our purpose has always been to use the art of documentary films to raise awareness in our community of critical issues affecting people around the world. We feel pretty good as a rag-tag group of volunteers.”
The incredible lightness of doing more with less, you might say.
UNA’S 12TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL screenings start 7pm Thursday; 7pm Friday; 1pm Saturday; and 7pm Saturday, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $5/sesssion; Free/students with ID.
Th. Nov. 3, 7pm
Humanity Explored (7 min, many countries) A thought-provoking cinematographic collage of some of the world’s seven billion peoples.
The Warriors of Qiugang (39 min, China) Chinese villagers struggle to survive as their surroundings are poisoned by hyper-growth.
Benghazi Rising (53 min, Libya) Story of the uprising which ultimately toppled Qaddafi.
Triangle Returns (9 min, U.S., Bangladesh) Bangladesh factory fire refocuses questions about the labor movement.
The Price of Sex (73 min, Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Dubai) Moldovan country girls are unsuspectingly sold into the big city sex trade.
Fri. Nov. 4, 7pm
Poster Girl (38 min, U.S., Iraq) One female recruit’s brutal awakening to the realities of war zone deployment in Iraq.
Which Way Home (63 min, Mexico, U.S., Guatemala, Honduras) Children from Mexico and Central America ride atop freight trains to get to the U.S.
Blood in the Mobile (82 min, Congo, Finland) Rare earth minerals required to make cell phones are mined by young people in the Congo.
Sat. Nov. 5, 1pm
The 10 Conditions of Love (54 min, China, U.S.) Twenty million Muslims in China, Uyghurs, and their leader, a Nobel Peace Prize, nominee.
Strangers No More (40 min, Israel) Refugee children of 48 nations find solace in an international school in Tel Aviv.
Killing in the Name (39 min, Jordan, Indonesia) A Muslim man from Jordan campaigns against violent jihad after his wedding is blown up.
Sarabah (60 min, Senegal, Germany) Hip hop artist Sister Fa takes her German band and message against cutting back to Senegal.
Sat. Nov. 5, 7pm
The Dark Side of Chocolate (46 min, Ivory Coast, Mali) Immigrant children harvest cocoa plants for the production of chocolate.
Sun City Picture House (27 min, Haiti) Amongst the devastation from the earthquake in Haiti, a movie house is built.
Gasland (106 min, U.S.) Dangerous effects of fracking explored as natural gas deposits in U.S. are exploited.