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Thursday, Jun 10, 2010
This sharp-eyed new documentary from the directors of Jesus Camp tells the story of an abortion clinic and pro-life center locked in combat in a Florida town.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s opening night film came from HBO Documentary Films, showing again why they’re possibly the best producers of nonfiction film currently in the business. This powerful piece of work is by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose 2006 film Jesus Camp still stands as one of the great documents of the modern evangelical movement. Taking place entirely on one street in the town of Fort Pierce, Florida, 12th and Delaware tracks two utterly opposed viewpoints and the people who inhabit them: an abortion clinic and a pro-life center, located just across the street from each other.


Divided almost equally in half between the battling camps, Ewing and Grady’s film opens on the pro-life protestors, who pace in front of the clinic all day every day. They wave provocative signs (many covered with gruesome photos), pray the rosary, and try to talk the young women entering the clinic into changing their minds. The protesters are mostly older women, with one frightening exception: a bullet-headed biker type barely able to control his rage who seems on the verge of showing up on the evening news.


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Thursday, Jun 10, 2010
Behind the mullahs' pontifications and saber-rattling, an expressive triptych of Iranians aching with dissatisfaction at what their nation has become.

The Teacher, The Dead Khan, and The Wandering Poet. Through these three distinct sections of film, director Davoud Geramifard presents a small but loud chorus of dissent against the oppressive dictates of Tehran. In the first, a scholar of an especially secular jollity harangues his students into questioning their surroundings and assumptions. Anywhere else, his actions would be simply the daily work of an effective teacher, but under the looming gloom of Iran’s theocracy, they carry an extra weight of life-risking rebellion.


Geramifard’s middle segment is its most beautiful and also its quietest. The oblique narration and long, wind-swept silences tell the story of the country’s Ghashghai tribe, an entire nomadic culture swept away by the ruling mullahs after the 1979 revolution against the Shah—their Khan executed and people scattered in a program of extirpation that the narrator (his family tending their small herds of sheep in the desert vastness) likens to the Native American genocide.


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Thursday, Jun 10, 2010
"Is it a sin to be born a farmer? No one cares about us. No one notices" So says one old Indian man, unsure why the forces of modernity are arrayed so imposingly against him.

All too often the type of activists who end up with documentary crews following them on their activist rounds are a telegenic bunch eager to sell their message by any means necessary, alternating stern lecturing with self-deprecating humor to remind the listener of their approachability and humanity. No such desire seems to animate Indian rural affairs journalist P. Sainath, who barrels through Deepa Bhatia’s brisk, chilling film with no time for niceties. Once he lays out his primary cause, it’s easy to see why.


Since 1997, some 200,000 Indian farmers (read that number again) have committed suicide, mostly because of their crushing debt loads. In recent years, some rural districts saw several suicides a day. The chilling Roman historical anecdote from Tacitus quoted by Sainath that gives the film its title almost pales in comparison to the woeful stories that he reports on day after day.


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Wednesday, Jun 9, 2010
"The country is ours. The enemy is ours. The dust is ours."

Director Carol Dysinger’s story of one lonely Afghanistan fort emerges as one of the most poignant films to have come out of this seemingly endless conflict. Dysinger captured about 300 hours of footage in Camp Zafar / Victory, an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the western province of Herat between 2005 and 2008. The film that she culled from that footage shows the tour of duty for one Oregon National Guard unit at Victory, as well as the end of the tour for the unit they replaced, and the start for the unit that came after them—through it all, the Afghans stayed.


The Americans work at the frustrating job of training the ANA recruits, a beaten-down lot who mostly grew up in Pakistani refugee camps and are looking for a paycheck (when not selling out their fellow soldiers to the Taliban). The recruits seem to barely even have the trust of their own government, and are sometimes forced to train without ammunition, shouting “Bang!” Officially, the Americans are there as “mentors,” and are not to engage in combat. This distinction is sometimes arbitrary (such as when one of their own is killed in an ambush) and sometimes preposterous (particularly when they’re expected to advise men like the weather-beaten old warrior Gen. Sayar, who’s been in uniform since he was thirteen, having fought the Soviets and the Taliban).


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Wednesday, Jun 9, 2010
Guilt or innocence is almost beside the point in this stunning documentary, which pulls back the curtain on a Mexican legal system that seems more comedy of oddity than system for dispensing justice.

The form of Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith’s documentary is a well-utilized one. In this instance, the subject is Tunio Zuniga, a young man arrested in Mexico City in 2005, charged with the murder of a man he claimed he never knew, much less shot to death. He is then sentenced to twenty years in jail on the most arbitrary of evidence. The work seems pretty cut out for Hernandez and Smith, as they follow Zuniga’s fight to get his case re-heard: show us that this unjustly accused man is innocent.


Now, it’s not that this would be an unwelcome subject for a film. A miscarriage of justice like this is a horrific mistake whether it happens once or a thousand times. But what elevates Hernandez and Smith’s film from its sometimes-sketchy beginnings (some chintzy animation and a wandering, gap-filled narrative) to a different realm is its wider take on the system itself. That, and the baffling manner in which Zuniga’s new trial is handled, a procedure seemingly de rigueur in Mexico.


The “courtroom” is a tiny little space, little more than a glorified office cubicle, into which the prosecutor, judge, witness, and Zuniga’s defense team are packed cheek-to-jowl while Zuniga himself (a mild-mannered sort who relaxes in prison by breakdancing) has to watch the proceeding from behind a barred window. It seems as though the fix is in, with the judge issuing frequent orders by fiat, seemingly for no other reason than to stymie the defense, and the prosecution simply reciting the baseless accusations from the original trial.


This whole circus would be shocking in most countries, but in a nation where over ninety percent of defendants never even see a judge, and only about five percent are found innocent, it’s par for the course. If there weren’t a man’s life at stake, the strange, ritualized proceedings would have avant-garde, Borgesian comedy stamped all over them.


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