I fought with lions and wolves.
—Murtaza, Back Home, Tomorrow
“I’ve been far away from Africa for so long,” sighs Mrs. Goundo of Philadelphia, PA. “I miss my homeland.” Here, though her husband works, it’s hard to support a family on one salary. “You can’t let your children play outside,” she says, “Someone might take them… Over there, it’s more entertaining. Here, there’s cold and work.” Under her narration, you see shots of village children scampering, looking warm and happy indeed. But even as she yearns to return to Mali, Mrs. Goundo cannot, for the sake of her two-year-old daughter Djenabou.
As Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter reveals in its first moments, Djenabou’s grandparents hope for the family to return, so the child can be circumcised. Her mother is seeking political asylum in the United States; having undergone excision herself, she has another future in mind for her girl. “I want her to go to university,” she says, watching her pink-jacketed baby push herself down a slide in the park. “I want her to be a doctor, someone important.” Even as Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s documentary presents the arguments from both sides of this conflict, it’s clear where its sympathies lie. As the Goundo kids jockey for space in their tight row house bathroom, back in Mali, excisor Guisse Maimouna explains, “I was born to this job. From our ancestors to our grandmothers, to our mothers, down to us. They handed us the knife.” The camera pans children’s faces as she lays out their fate, that men will only marry women who have been cut. In Mali, the film notes, “as many as 85% of girls have all or some of their external genitals removed,”
The number is large and startling, but the film maintains an intimate, effective focus on one family’s story. In this is it is typical of the other compelling films on offer this weekend at the 20th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Each grapples with a broadly consequential dilemma—from anti-Semitism to genocide to emergency medical care for children in remote and war-torn lands—and yet they make their cases through deeply personal perspectives. Anne Aghion’s My Neighbor, My Killer looks at the efforts by the Rwandan government to achieve reconciliation following the 1994 massacres, via the Gacaca tribunals. Beginning in 1999, local officials gathered together victims and their “neighbors” in order to share accusations, confessions, and, frequently, denials of specific crimes. As young Welars Muyango says at the start of the film, “My opinion of Gacaca is criminals must be punished in an exemplary way,” in order to ensure that everyone comprehends that “Killing is a bad and reprehensible thing.” But he cannot see the logic of leaving Tutsi survivors to face their families’ killers: “To release them so they live among us, for me, it is impossible.”
The film focuses on the tensions brought on by the presence of two killers in particular. Even as Rwamfizi insists he is not responsible for the murders of “Felicite’s children nor the death of Faissa’s husband,” the women identify him repeatedly, and describe his actions in grisly detail. No one can feel at peace in this process. The film notes as well the absurdity of its own process, in a scene where two women shake their heads in dismay, inside and away from the glinting sunlight. “I saw them coming, like they were coming out of mass, like it was a homecoming,” says Euphrasie Mukarwenmera. “I don’t know how they left or returned. Please don’t ask me that, I know nothing of their rights.” As she and Bellancilla Kangabe contemplate their own bleak futures (“We wander I solitude”), they look at the camera. “These whites ask us if we’re unhappy,” they sigh. “These whites ask the strangest questions.” These questions can’t begin to frame the pain. “For us who carry our wounds inside,” says Felicite Nyirasangwa, “There is always a point when out thoughts take us underground, to the realm of the dead… In your heart, the time of mourning is never over.”
My Neighbor My Killer
Another look at the endless effects of genocide is on display in Look Into My Eyes, a look at anti-Semitism around the world. Former rabbi Naftaly Gliksberg provokes his various subjects with pointed questions about what it means to be Jewish or just how it feels to hate others for the sake of tradition, or racial purity, or fear. Situating his questions in a personal framework (harassed by racist bullies when he was a child, he says, “Within seconds my mouth was filled with sand. That taste of sand has been shaping my identity to this day”), Gliksberg probes the experiences and rationales of bigotry, repeatedly looking back at himself. When he confronts anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, Gliksberg notes he is “playing a part in a play that I’ve written unwittingly,” as the “appointed unofficial representative” of a combined Jewish and Israeli outrage, the easily recognized opponent in an ongoing war. And when he speaks with a German neo-Nazi named Mahler, he notes their physical resemblance. He listens patiently as the black husband of a Jewish woman asserts how Harlem is changing: “Most of the realtors in New York are Jewish,” he says, as the camera turns to watch her face, as unemotional as she can make it.
Smart and moving in a very different way, the 10 films in the remarkable international shorts program, Youth Producing Change, includes subjects as diverse as “Thoughts in a Hijab,” about Sahar, an Iranian-born high schooler who thinks through her choice to wear the veil in the United States, and “In My Shoes,” produced by 12 youth filmmakers from Urban Arts Partnership, looking at the experiences of homeless teens in New York City. In “Just a Normal Day,” British boys discuss how it feels to be profiled by police, stopped for no reason and harassed; Alcides Soares tells his story in “I Live in Mozambique”: orphaned when both parents died of AIDS complications, now he looks after a woman in a wheelchair in exchange for room and board, attending school and hoping to make his world visible to the outside. In Aquafinito, Annalise Littman examines the myths, waste, and corporate profits of bottled water industry, and in Sako, a 13-year-old Armenian boy works in a gravestone factory to help support his family.
Like the films in Youth Producing Change, Back Home, Tomorrow (Domani torno a casa) makes a broad argument by looking at details. Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Paolo Santolini’s astonishing documentary, winner of the 2009 Cinereach Award, begins with a seemingly simple structure, alternating between two stories. Each is framed by the work of the Italian aid organization, Emergency. Fifteen-year-old Yagoub lives at the Mayo Refugee Camp in Khartoum, Sudan: here he suffers daily discomfort from a life-threatening heart ailment, while his family faces the impossible cost of surgery, $5,000. In Kabul, 10-year-old Murtaza arrives at an emergency room, his hands blown up by a mine.
While the children’s struggles are surely compelling in themselves, the documentary’s immersion in their perspectives is inspired. As doctors explain procedures to parents, the boys’ faces—as well as those of their fellow patients—convey their own efforts to understand their difficult circumstances, at once extraordinary and, sadly, too common. The Afghan hospital is set in the city, surrounded by traffic and women in burqas; as he recuperates, Murtaza is simultaneously of and removed from this busy world. As he regains his energy, he explores the hospital, meeting a young man who has lost his leg to a mine, as well as children whose stumps look like his own. Afraid at first, the kids find their back to emotional as well as physical health, racing on wheelchairs and sharing their stories in a lovely sequence that has them circling on a playground merry-go-round, their faces hovering as their backgrounds spin.
Yagoub’s survival depends on the existence of a new hospital where the heart specialists will perform his operation for free. Literally built as he waits to be selected for surgery, the place is gleaming white—so brightly white in some images that his slender form and face are almost lost in the hyper-illumination. Standing in hospital doorways, watching other patients through windows, both boys accept their fates even as they wonder how they have come to these strange and seemingly magical places, where excruciating pain and bloody injuries are visible alongside shy smiles and hopeful glances. Subtle, inventive, and wise, Back Home, Tomorrow grants insight into experiences that no child should have to endure.