Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: ‘Habibi’ + ‘The Invisible War’

Habibi (2011)

Two films at the Human Rights Watch Festival New York focus on the oppressions men impose during wartime.

Habibi (Habibi Rasak Kharban)

Director: Susan Youssef
Cast: Kais Nashif,Youssef Abu-Warda, Maysa Elhadi
Rated: NR
Studio: E One Entertainment
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-16 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

The Invisible War

Director: Kirby Dick
Cast: Helen Benedict, Anu Bhagwati, Susan Burke, Kori Cioca, Elle Helmer, Ariana Klay, Hannah Sewell, Kaye Whitley
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinedigm
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-18 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

Screening early at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, Susan Youssef’s Habibi is a tragic drama about imprisonment and fatalism. Premiering at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on 16 June, it puts two young lovers in a place where it’s hard enough for people to live an average, humdrum life, much less one of highly romantic drama: the Palestinian Territories.

Qays (Kais Nashef) and Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) fall in love while attending school on the West Bank. Stuck back at home in Gaza, they're kept apart by Layla’s middle-class parents, who don’t approve of the scruffy, poetry-reciting Qays or Laya's interest in engineering. They're determined that Layla marry a dull, thickheaded doctor who is likely to keep her locked away as a baby-producing drone. It’s not the most original brand of conflict, but hardly without promise, particularly when the additional element is introduced of Gaza’s self-appointed moralists who take it upon themselves to ensure the unmarried couple is acting properly.

But even as it seems to have all the elements for a powerful and topical drama, Habibi is afflicted by board-stiff performances, too-obvious screenplay, and general air of artistic immaturity. The script relies too much on clunky happenstance, particularly in a scene where a character is shot at random, supposedly by an Israeli settler (this even though settlers were evicted en masse after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza). It also has a penchant for high-school theatrics, including long scrawls of immature poetry and florid declarations (“Let poetry break the Occupation”), instead of an organically developing story.

Just about the only thing that impresses in Habibi is Elhadi. Although she’s far from a seasoned performer, the honest energy with which she emotes her increasingly frantic, pressure-cooker realization that she is living in some seaside prison (between her family and the local Hamas thugs, there’s no shortage of people to tell an unmarried young woman like her what to do) makes more of an impact than all of Qays’ eye-rolling verse.

Also appearing at the Festival, Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War, is one of those few films one sees in a year that deserve the label "important." Dick's output so far has trended more toward the slick and clever (Outrage, This Film Is Not Yet Rated), but this time, instead of zeroing in on one particularly salient and of-the-moment topic, he goes broad and takes in the daunting subject of women in the modern-day American military. More specifically, this film -- which 18 June screening will be followed by a discussion with Dick and producer/interviewer Amy Ziering -- is about the shocking levels of sexual violence many female service-members are forced to endure, and, equally disturbing, the lack of professional, official recourses they have in the aftermath.

Invisible War (2011)

The numbers are surely alarming. Twenty percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted. Moreover, 80 percent of sexual assaults in the military go unreported, even according to the Department of Defense. Forty percent of female homeless veterans have been raped. One percent of male service members in the past year were sexually assaulted. It goes on.

The Invisible War makes these figures visible, both by providing particular stories and also, remarkable storytellers. Woman after woman tells of being drugged and assaulted, raped by multiple assailants, raped with loaded .45s held to their heads, raped by their commanding officers, screaming while nobody in the nearby rooms came to their aid, raped and then punished for daring to report it. These stories -- along with others provided by advocates and lawyers, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers -- lead to the film's conclusion about the system in place, damning and difficult to deny.

Not only has every branch of the American military failed miserably to adjust to the fact that thousands of women are entering its once all-male bases, but their reactions to the epidemic have been a mixture of soul-numbing bureaucratese and vengeful, self-protective violence. More than one woman says that the worst part of the ordeal wasn’t the assault itself, but the closed loop of denial and ugly retaliation that followed.

Many recent films have excoriated the Pentagon for its laissez-faire attitude towards too many of its soldiers when they’re off the battlefield, and sometimes even while they’re still serving. (The heart-rending Semper Fi: Always Faithful is one of the better examples.) Rarely, though, has there been an exposé like this, with its ranks of beleaguered soldiers trying to make sense of their PTSD-shattered lives and seeing little hope for the future. All of them have been attacked, not by an external enemy on a battlefield, but by a man or men they once considered their brothers.

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