A demonstrator at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, in The Corporation. Photo credit: Zeitgeist Films

Uppermost on everyone’s agenda right now, in New York as in the rest of the U.S., is purging our government of the malignancy that has subsumed it. So at five months and counting to election day, it was with a certain timeliness that the indispensable, perennially popular Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF), rolled out its 15th annual edition from June 10–24 at Manhattan’s Walter Reade Theatre. During two weeks in which breaking events continually vied for the spotlight – like when the congressional commission investigating September 11 refuted any link between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda, negating one of the administration’s remaining pretexts for the Iraq invasion – audiences flocked to HRWIFF looking for entries about Gulf War II or our unelected commander-in-chief, and were rewarded with a rangy, unpredictable selection concentrated on Latin America, South Asia, the U.S. prison/industrial complex and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (1). Yet the surrounding legitimation crisis is so all-pervasive that even Festival films not manifestly about Bush & Co.’s policies were imbued with excess meaning at unforeseen moments, as when, in Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson’s death penalty documentary Deadline (2004), a convicted murderer and his defence lawyer attest to ritualised police brutalisation of suspects – succinctly described by a journalist as “Third World torture on Chicago’s South Side” – the mention of which tore open the still-visceral trauma of Abu Ghraib.

HRWIFF officially opened its doors to the public on Friday June 11, but the night before, it stepped off with a $250-and-up gala benefit screening of Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace (2003), a narcotrafficking drama centred on the eponymous 17-year-old Colombian girl, desperate to escape her impoverished existence, oppressed by her squalling family and righteously fed up with the no-‘count boyfriend who’s gotten her pregnant. With unnerving ease, Maria enlists as a drug mule, submitting to the painful procedure of ingesting dozens of latex-sealed pellets of cocaine for transport in her stomach to New York. Once en route, plans begin to go horribly awry and Maria is thrown back on her native wits and a grassroots network of immigrant solidarity. Everyday folks, including the working-class immigrants depicted in the film, get to see Maria Full of Grace when it opens theatrically in a mid-July platform release, but Gotham’s well-heeled liberals savoured HRWIFF’s preview of a remarkable debut feature overflowing with grace notes. Craftsmanship gleams all around: the lean, suspenseful script was partially improvised by the perfectly balanced non-professional and pro cast; Jim Denault’s limpid cinematography registers a subtle progression from Bogotá’s toasty altitudes to the shadows of a Queens funeral home; the soundtrack jumps with first-rate Colombian salsa, cumbia and vallenato by Los Diablitos, Gabriel Romero and Fruko y Sus Tesos. And Marston has the measure of every scene, his feathery, unsentimental direction capturing Maria’s hard-scrabble home life, a white-knuckle airport customs interrogation, and the frantic hustle of the new Nueva York with equal veracity.

Catalina Sandino Moreno (left) and Patricia Rae in Maria Full of Grace. Photo credit: Larry Riley, HBO Films/Fine Line Features

Above all, there is the breathtaking lead performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno, discovered on a university campus and reportedly cast after hundreds of other auditions, who went on to receive a shared best actress award at this year’s Berlinale (2). Blazing comet-like onto the screen, appearing almost continuously and holding us rapt as if without trying, Moreno is every inch the star. But no less crucial to the film’s achievement are Yenny Paola Vega as Maria’s introverted best friend Blanca, Guilied López as the experienced mule Lucy, and the indelible Patricia Rae as Lucy’s immigrant sister Carla. For beneath the narcodrama in which men control the power, Maria Full of Grace is really about women’s friendships. Until the very end, Maria and Blanca are as thick as thieves; Maria guilelessly seeks mentoring from Lucy, who selflessly provides it; and in the film’s emotional apotheosis, Carla, unaware of her sister’s violent death, tells Maria of her difficult decision to remain in the U.S. to safeguard her children’s future, and how her heart swelled the first time she wired part of her earnings to relatives back home. The film suggests that these bonds of mutual female strength can sustain women through the most daunting trials, perhaps even more than those of family. When Maria turns away from the return flight at the film’s conclusion, deciding instead to stay in New York, the implicit repudiation of her family is startling, not least considering a Bogotá drug don’s earlier promise of reprisals if Maria erred on her maiden voyage. An accomplished work of fiction grounded solidly in the real, Maria‘s factual underpinnings reverberated anew when, five days after HRWIFF’s screening, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) slaughtered 34 coca farmers employed by the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia in the worst massacre since hard-right president Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. The drug war’s waves simultaneously touched New York’s shores, as the NYPD stung a narcotrafficking ring in Queens the very next day, seizing 459 kilos of cocaine worth some $75 million retail. Those viewers who were so inclined could also infer an oblique Iraq allegory in the Festival’s opening salvo: the “quagmire” metaphor frequently used to invoke parallels between the U.S. imperialist wars in Iraq and Vietnam is in fact more accurately applied to the decades-long, spectacularly failed U.S. intervention in Colombia (3).

HRWIFF got started in earnest the following night with a double bill which amounted to its clearest statement against the regime: Persons of Interest (Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse, 2003), a testamentary group portrait of Muslim immigrants’ persecution by the U.S. Justice Department’s post-9/11 campaign of detention and deportation; and Ojos que no ven (What the Eye Doesn’t See) (Francisco J. Lombardi, 2003), a large-canvas, reality-based treatment of a government-toppling scandal with unmistakable overtones of the Bush apocalypse. Comprising an enlightened-liberal documentary with discreet Hollywood cachet and a topical melodrama by a celebrated international festival/arthouse auteur, the opening night program offered a fair scan of HRWIFF’s curatorial compass. Persons of Interest was also, less happily, the first of a handful of Festival selections in which the filmmakers’ honourable intentions outstrip their execution, in this case via an echt-structuralist conceit that proves cumbersome and inhibiting to its vitally urgent subject.

Under the banner of producer Lawrence Konner’s Documentary Campaign and subsidised by the Sundance Documentary Fund, Maclean and Perse issued an open call to New York’s Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrant communities, inviting them to share their experiences of the sweeping arrests, detention, prosecution and in many cases deportation imposed by Bush’s rabid Attorney General John Ashcroft, glimpsed in Persons of Interest delivering the now-infamous “phantoms of lost liberty” speech (4). The immigrants who answered the filmmakers’ invitation convened on the last weekend of Ramadan in November 2002 inside a studio rigged with a set consisting of a bare, chalk-white room, empty except for a bench. The set, carefully designed to appear undesigned, proves an unfortunately lugubrious device, permitting the filmmakers to arrange the 12 speakers and their families as so many compositional elements in the frame; while taking in such sensitive, emotionally volatile recountings, viewers don’t want to find themselves guessing, as many will, whether the next speaker will be posed in closeup, medium- or long shot. Things grow so airless that when one Afghani woman’s children storm in, ricocheting off the walls while she takes a cell-phone call from her deported husband in Jordan, you can hear the balloon burst. Joyously tipping the bench on its side and jumping through the phoney window, the kids’ innocent disruption of Maclean and Perse’s stiff, rarefied scheme is positively exhilarating. The set is obviously intended to function as a space of projection (for viewers if not for the immigrants) within which one can conjure a home, waiting area, holding cell, etc., depending on the details of each speaker’s account. Before long, however, the hiding-in-plain-sight signified of those puttyish walls, evenly staring back as the immigrants nervously take their turns in front of the static camera, becomes apparent. It’s the filmmakers’ own whiteness, and perhaps that of their imagined viewers, that is displaced onto the rigorously “blank” set design, the self-perception of invisibility being one of the white mind’s defining hallmarks. Precisely through this over-emphatic visual neutrality – a compensatory self-effacement that strews traces of the authors’ whiteness everywhere by the very gesture of disavowing its specificity – Persons of Interest subtly articulates a claim to a “universal” consensus regarding the rights of immigrants, and human rights generally, that nonetheless risks stranding the immigrants on the far side of a high-contrast figure/ground relationship.

The filmmakers’ attempt to find a formal solution appropriate to the gravity of the circumstances is laudable, but their ascetic, insufficiently contextualised approach veers into a “dandyism of sobriety” that leaves the viewer roiled but impotent (5). One opening-night audience member’s forlorn Q&A entreaty, to the effect of “So what can we do?”, pinpointed the film’s isolating and inadvertently immobilising effect. Despite fastidious bullet-point intertitles (over 5,000 detained, not one conviction related to 9/11, etc.), from watching Persons of Interest you’d never know about the class-action litigation challenging the administration-sanctioned pogroms, or intuit anything of the grassroots political and social-service mobilisation undertaken specifically in support of Muslim immigrant communities (6). Nor does the pristine minimalism betray any signs of historical clutter – say, a passing glance at the 1996 immigration law “reforms” that quadrupled the already-existing population of immigrants in detention; or a peek at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service itself, transformed under the “homeland security” realignment yet slated for major overhaul even before 9/11 (much less any consciousness of earlier immigrant panics like World War II’s mass internment of ethnic Japanese). The shortcomings, however, should not be allowed to overshadow the film’s genuine value. On the bright side, the immigrant speakers themselves are an engagingly diverse cohort – including the sister of a Somalian detainee and the Colombian wife of an Algerian deportee, among several Palestinians and Pakistanis – and their firsthand accounts of armed house raids, solitary confinement and anguished family ruptures are unsurprisingly riveting. And whereas the immigrants’ testimony alone makes Persons of Interest an essential document of the war at home, their generosity of character, unbowed dignity and sheer, irreducible humanity make the film a sorrowful pleasure as well.

Ojos que no ven

HRWIFF’s other headlining attraction Ojos que no ven is the latest feature by Peruvian auteur Francisco Lombardi, honoured at the Festival with its Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award, a laurel previously conferred upon such figures as Ousmane Sembène, Raoul Peck and Ken Loach. Fictionalising recent Peruvian political history, Ojos que no ven‘s narrative also displays a pronounced correspondence to current global events. The film zeroes in on the moment in 2000 when hidden-camera video recordings of Vladimiro Montesinos, director of Peru’s national intelligence agency and chief advisor to ex-president Alberto Fujimori, bribing Peruvian ministers, legislators, military brass, judges, business magnates and other officials were first leaked to the media and televised nationwide, igniting the scandal that brought down Fujimori’s ten-year regime and made him a fugitive from international law. Although the “Vladi videos” scorched the airwaves as they gradually came to light over several months, Ojos que no ven telescopes its narrative into the first few days when the videos’ revelations first breached the surface of public consciousness, dramatising the initial impact of the news and mining it for narrative propulsion. The film’s extensive, if conventional, sampling of the actual Vladi videos and attendant broadcast news footage unavoidably recalls, for the Festival’s New York audience, the comparably seismic impact of the visual evidence of the U.S. military’s Abu Ghraib prison-torture scandal. And the film’s evocation of the Fujimori regime’s unravelling gained even greater unexpected resonance for the Festival’s audience with the abrupt resignation on June 3, one week before opening night, of Montesinos’ erstwhile U.S. counterpart, Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, amid a firestorm of criticism from the September 11 commission and an array of others. However, the film’s most direct link to Bush’s towering inferno, having received scant notice in the U.S. media, may escape the majority of the non-Latino-American audience: the fact that Montesinos, already serving a nine-year sentence, is now once again standing trial for brokering a secret 1999 arms sale to Colombia’s FARC guerrillas via the Peruvian military – a deal allegedly approved and abetted by the CIA under Tenet’s watch (7).

Lombardi is one of Peru’s most prolific and commercially successful directors, and he brings tremendous authority and panache to dramatising the unwieldy, frequently turgid script. Ojos que no ven employs the social-tapestry structure of interlocking narrative lines epitomised by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and popularised by such films as Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). Regrettably, the project is impaired by the performance style of the ensemble cast, a grandstanding approach nearly as broad as the background corruption scandal. A few actors get by on the strength of undeniable charisma, like Jorge Rodríguez Paz as the aged, infirm, but still fiery partisan Don Victor, bellowing from his hospital bed even after his symbolic emasculation by leg amputation. Others manage on workmanlike technique, but more often technique is their undoing, most awkwardly with young Melania Urbina as Don Victor’s doe-eyed granddaughter Mercedes, who indulges, and is indulged, in preening affectations. It’s revealing that the film’s strongest performance is consigned to supporting status. Despite a meagre role, Tatiana Astengo, as Angélica, who works as the makeup artist at the TV station broadcasting the smoking-gun videos and whose bohemian boyfriend Chauca (Carlos Alcántara) just happens to be a reluctant (and inept) thug, plumbs the character’s emotional core and inhabits it with such commitment, honesty and verve that she imperceptibly elevates her fellow players into her own bullshit-free zone. By the time Angélica finally sheds Chauca’s pendejo ass by the roadside and hitches a ride back to her own life, you’re wondering, girlfriend, what took you so long?

I linger over Astengo’s relatively insignificant role here not only in order to appreciate her contributions, but for the way her robust presence throws into stark relief the film’s otherwise appalling treatment of women – a disheartening downturn after the sisterhood-feels-good vibe of Maria Full of Grace. Although written by two serious ladies, Giovanna Pollarolo and Milagros Tuccio, Ojos que no ven is thoroughly machista, often lapsing into blatant misogyny. Exhibit A is Helena (Patricia Pereyra), the hysterical wife of Antonio (Miguel Iza), a whistleblowing forensic anthropologist bent on exhuming mass graves filled with state’s enemies. Whereas Lombardi stages Antonio’s point-blank assassination with tasteful restraint, he spins Helena’s plight into a gratuitous spectacle of victimisation. First, she’s beaten and raped by the porcine thug who will shoot her husband. Waking the next morning, she changes into her clingiest heather-gray tracksuit to go for an invigorating jog – wouldn’t you? – right down the middle of a busy highway, just so that a speeding car can send her flying like a ninepin. Her unborn baby is snuffed in the collision, and by the time she’s drowned herself in the grim finale, you’re actually relieved the film can’t heap any more abuse on her. But wait, the menu also features the bloody defilement of drugged, semiconscious, 16-year-old Mercedes, plus a gallery of vapid trophy girlfriends, brittle executive secretaries, silently long-suffering mothers of terminally ill sons, picturesque indigenous mothers of murdered sons who wail on cue – in short, no end of objectification, degradation and disparagement. The fact that, within the film’s own terms, none of this woman-hating merits the slightest comment (apart from a mild sweat broken over Mercedes’ violation) makes it all the more deplorable.

After a wobbly takeoff, HRWIFF quickly and firmly got back on track with Deadline (Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson, 2004), one of several documentaries in this year’s edition, along with Persons of Interest and Juvies (Leslie Neale, 2004), to explore the political dimensions of incarceration in the U.S. A persuasive, tautly paced inquiry into capital punishment in the U.S., Deadline chronicles the circumstances under which the former, single-term governor of Illinois George H. Ryan, a self-described conservative Republican and longtime death penalty advocate, underwent a moral reawakening and came to commute the capital sentences of 167 men and women from death to life imprisonment, three days before leaving office in January 2003. The story is set in motion by Northwestern University undergrad journalism students when their reconstruction of a crime scene disproves a death-row conviction, prompting the inmate’s exoneration and exposing deep structural flaws in Illinois’ capital-punishment system confirmed soon thereafter by Chicago Tribune reporters (8). Publicly outraged and privately perturbed, Governor Ryan decrees a moratorium on executions, appoints a blue-chip policy-review commission and orders clemency hearings into every capital case in the state, giving himself the remainder of his term to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation and reach a decision about the fate of this class of prisoners. Galvanised by Ryan’s actions, death penalty opponents and supporters alike throw themselves furiously into organising, hoping to sway his judgment. The countdown to Ryan’s exit gives Deadline a rock-solid armature around which the filmmakers construct their nuanced arguments about factual innocence, racial bias, derelict lawyering and other septic malfunctions.


Swift and cutlass-sharp, thanks to ace editors Carol Dysinger and Kate Hinson, Deadline briskly lays out its premise before opening an historical sidebar on the U.S. Supreme Court’s divided jurisprudential record on the death penalty, cutting between archival footage of the landmark rulings which in 1972 abolished the death penalty (then reinstated it in 1976) and contemporary interviews with now-aged ex-prisoners exonerated by the earlier decision, to striking effect. Indeed, many of Deadline‘s most surprising felicities spring from its historical consciousness, such as a fleeting but depth-charged reminiscence of the late Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice; or the unexpected appearance of the mother of Emmett Till, a black youth lynched in an infamous case, at a conference of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation; or, in a sinister vein, an archival-footage cameo by the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Speaking of sinister, our unelected president – who hovers at the edges of so many films in the Festival – rears his monstrous head in Deadline, which duly records that during his term as the Scythe of Texas, Bush was responsible for 152 executions, by far the largest number of any state in the U.S. Along the way to the foretold conclusion, the filmmakers generate real suspense and fold in some rousing sequences, like a 37-mile walk staged by wrongly convicted men from a correctional facility to Chicago, to hand-deliver an 11th-hour plea for clemency to the governor’s office. Deadline ends on a note of heavily qualified optimism. Governor Ryan’s blanket commutation is the best of all possible outcomes to this particular story, and the filmmakers sculpt a fitting crescendo around it, but they’re also quick to remind us that, in other states enforcing the death penalty such as Florida, Georgia and of course Texas, the lot of death row prisoners remains dismal. Appearing with the production team at HRWIFF before a standing-room-only audience, former Governor Ryan was every bit as magnetic in person as on the big screen. Gregarious and at times comically blunt, Ryan stumped for the film like a pro, traded statistics with a rep from New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, took the opportunity to good-naturedly inveigle against a Tribune reporter whose remarks in the film he called “erroneous”, and laddishly asked composer Dan Marocco how he managed to “break the glass ceiling” of the otherwise all-female crew. By the time the Walter Reade theatre staff finally pried this gang offstage and cleared the house for the next (over-schedule) show, it’s safe to say Ryan had the entire audience snugly in his pocket.

Already on a high from Deadline, HRWIFF then scored an unqualified coup de cinéma with the local premiere of The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003), which opened theatrically a fortnight later at New York’s Film Forum. Based upon writer/co-producer Joel Bakan’s book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the film efficiently summarises its deceptively simple argument – that the corporation is “today’s dominant institution”, ubiquitous, unbridled and intrinsically harmful – and spends the following two and a half hours elaborating this premise into a mammoth exegesis of symphonic amplitude (9). The documentary’s literary provenance is evident in its intricately ordered tabular structure and encyclopaedic scope, but Achbar and Abbott’s iconoclastic zeal and formal bravado make The Corporation an impassioned, enthralling and almost unreasonably enjoyable epic. Things start off with a wry gloss on official attempts to deflect the malfeasance of Enron, WorldCom, et al. onto a few “bad apples”, a manic prelude which perhaps betrays an anxiety to hook ambivalent viewers into the film’s frankly eggheady project. Soon enough, however, the filmmakers ease into their stride, sketching the historical ascent of the corporation as an entity endowed with the legal stature of a “person” before breaking out their calling-card conceit. Psychoanalysing the corporation as if it were a person, using a checklist of actual diagnostic traits (deceitfulness, incapacity to experience guilt, etc.), they identify an innate criminal pathology, substantiated via case histories of sweatshop labour, synthetic chemical poisoning and environmental devastation. Achbar and Abbott fashion a digitally animated interface, scanning and clicking through a multihued grid of subcategories (e.g., Harm to Animals: Habitat Destruction, Factory Farming; Harm to Biosphere: Clearcutting, CO2 Emissions, Nuclear Waste), to establish that the examples shown are culled from an apparently limitless multitude. Now confident of your full attention, the filmmakers move on to trace ever larger patterns, vaulting from the Renaissance-era demarcation of boundaries upon the earth’s previously shared commonwealth to the 21st century privatisation of outer and inner space, claiming not only the air we breathe and the water we drink as commodities for sale, but pirating the ingredients of life itself with DNA patents, even as biotech, nanotech and cloning experiments bring us previews of tomorrow’s nightmares today.

The Corporation mirrors late capitalism’s mythic superabundance with its own formal excess, giving us more in every department. A fearsome brain trust of no less than 40 speakers (whittled from 70 interviews) is drafted to elucidate The Corporation‘s arguments, including the right-wing, Nobel-decorated economist Milton Friedman; squirrel-cheeked Naomi Klein, journalist and author of No Logo; and the excitable Vandana Shiva, the Indian feminist ecologist, beguilingly captioned here as a “seed activist”. There’s even an industrial spy, or “competitive intelligence professional”, the real-life counterpart to Diane (Connie Nielsen) in demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002). Left eminence Noam Chomsky, characteristically impassive but presumably happy to catch up with Achbar after the success of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992), contributes dependably cogent analysis. The image track is a shimmering cyclone: Cold War-era social-guidance films, crass industrial promos, airbrushed commercials, original verité scenes, B-roll scoured from what must be every footage library on the planet, and all manner of jetsam are emulsified in one big, funky blender. Three cheers for Jennifer Abbott’s exceptionally agile, dialectical editing, which gives The Corporation so much of its plastic appeal, not to mention coherence; montage is truly her fine care. Although Achbar, Abbott and Bakan wrapped The Corporation before any of Gulf War II’s lessons of darkness could be added to its syllabus, it’s but a short step to imagine how mega-raptors like Chevron Texaco, Occidental Petroleum, Bechtel and of course Cheney’s own Halliburton are harvesting the spoils. And the potential “externalities” involved in outsourcing warfare became piercingly real when two private U.S. military contractors (Arlington, Virginia-based CACI and San Diego, California-based Titan) were implicated in the Abu Ghraib debacle (10). Yet for all the atrocities stored in its database and surrounding its release window, The Corporation refuses to concede despair, much less defeat, to the Leviathan, instead salvaging genuine optimism from such examples as the hard-won people’s struggle in Cochabamba, Bolivia to rescue its water supply from privatisation by a government-contracted multinational; an alliance of workers, peasants and indigenous people repelled the Bolivian military and police – at the cost of six civilians dead and 175 wounded – to wrest back control of the state water infrastructure, now under their democratic self-management. Naturally, such popular movements are The Corporation‘s bona fide heroes, but many viewers will sooner recall the inspirational Roy Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, who holds forth the consoling possibility of personal redemption. After reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson woke up as the boy with green hair, having undergone what he describes as “an epiphanal experience… a total change of mindset, and a change of paradigm” for his business, drastically overhauling its operations to minimise environmental impact and mandating a deadline for achieving full sustainability (11). HRWIFF’s urbane audience may have savoured the paradox of an anti-corporate manifesto with a CEO hero (if not what it meant that two of the Festival’s best films thus far effectively starred affluent white patriarchs), but for audiences everywhere The Corporation will have the aleatory effect of defamiliarising relationships taken wholly for granted, sending viewers back into the world with radically altered eyes and a fresh sense of outrage. Good morning, revolution!

Following The Corporation‘s awesome treatise on transnational corporate hegemony, HRWIFF soothingly narrowed the focus down to the more digestible dynamics of transnational labour migration with Alex Rivera’s digitally enhanced documentary The Sixth Section (2003). A marvel of concision at 27 minutes, The Sixth Section is a conceptually sophisticated, formally inventive portrait of a Mexican migrant community inhabiting a transnational space between the village of Boquerón, Puebla and the postindustrial suburb of Newburgh, New York. The Poblanos who formed a niche enclave in this Hudson River town to enter the workforce as model proletariats, ready to supply their labour in menial occupations scorned by Anglos, utilise the Internet and basic telecommunications technologies to maintain active roles in Boquerón’s everyday affairs to an extent unimaginable for 20th-century generations of U.S. immigrants. Having come north with the avowed intent of supporting families back home, Newburgh’s Poblanos shrewdly consolidate their efforts into Grupo Unión, an unprepossessing benevolent society (headquartered in a backyard tent) dedicated to public-welfare projects in Boquerón, one of several hundred such groups across the U.S. In a series of lively vignettes, Rivera leafs through Grupo Unión’s jaw-dropping portfolio: the construction of a 2,000-seat baseball stadium; purchase and delivery of an ambulance for the village clinic (sitting mordantly unused for lack of an able driver); instruments for a marching band; completion of an abandoned, half-dug well; and more – all done from upstate New York.

Thus, the village of Boquerón, which is divided into five districts or “sections”, expands through a new transnational temporality to encompass the “sixth section” of Newburgh. The film concludes on a note of heroic uplift, as the state government of Puebla is goaded by Grupo Unión’s example to fast-track a long-dormant plan for a paved highway to Boquerón; the transnational circuit of labour migration and remittances thereby retroactively catalyses the village’s belated physical linkage to the rest of the world. Rivera is an avid student of social history, and The Sixth Section could serve as a textbook illustration of scholarly tracts like the “Transnational Suburbs” chapter in Mike Davis’ Magical Urbanism, or Mexican New York by Robert C. Smith; indeed, Smith makes a cameo in the film (12). But The Sixth Section alchemises its theoretically informed précis into purely cinematic bounty, and marks an important maturation for Rivera, some of whose earlier videos were too smitten with their own virtuosity. Here Rivera benefits from a restrained application of his digital arsenal, graphically visualising the simultaneity of the Poblanos’ transnational existence (“like quantum particles in two places at once”, in Davis’ phrase) and saving the made-u-look animations for maximum effect, like when he smoothly morphs a close-up of Benjamin Franklin’s puss engraved on a U.S. C-note into the proud visage of the Mexican peso’s Mesoamerican Indian, beneath bilingual supertitles reading: “Mexicans in the U.S.A. send 10.5 billion dollars to Mexico every year. / For Mexico, this income is second only to the export of oil”.

From transnational hegemony and migration, HRWIFF moved on to transnational terror with Marie-Monique Robin’s Death Squadrons: The French School (2003), another entry in the Festival’s beefy Latin American slate, paired with the Nicaraguan journal The World Stopped Watching (Peter Raymont and Harold Crooks, 2003). Death Squadrons: The French School is a far-reaching exposé of the French influence on the Southern Cone’s military regimes of the ’70s and ’80s, focused specifically on French collaboration in Operation Condor, the transnational covert operation launched in 1975 by Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil to pursue and murder political opponents across state borders. Although the Southern Cone’s dirty wars are a potentially oversubscribed topic, the 1998 arrest of General Augusto Pinochet reignited worldwide interest, and the long process of disclosure and accountability continues to inspire such outstanding films as The Pinochet Case (Patricio Guzmán, 2002) and Los Rubios (The Blondes) (Albertina Carri, 2003). Fastening onto a neglected aspect of the topic, Marie-Monique Robin mines the hidden vein of French culpability, demonstrating in a volley of meticulously detailed research drawn in part from recently declassified intelligence files how techniques perfected by the French army during the colonial war in Algeria – including abductions, internment, torture, executions and disappearances – were systematically transferred from the École de Guerre in Paris to the Escuela Superior de Guerra in Buenos Aires for later deployment in Condor. Moreover, the film probes the French role in training U.S. armed forces, covetous of the Europeans’ superior expertise, on counterinsurgency methods later unleashed in Vietnam (and it hardly needs to be said that the shadow of Abu Ghraib looms largest here).

Death Squadrons: The French School

By some sorcery, Robin managed to persuade a number of the progenitors of this terror to sit for interviews, including most impressively General Manuel Contreras of Chile, former chief of the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA) and the architect of Operation Condor itself. Their forthright testimony is a serpent’s kiss – absolutely blood-chilling. Asked by Robin about French training in electrical torture, Argentine Gen. Albano Harguindeguy, currently fugitive from an international arrest warrant, clarifies, “[The French] didn’t teach it, they explained its function. Then, little by little, we adopted the technique”. Provocatively, Robin incorporates extensive hidden-camera footage, apparently shot from a spycam mounted in a tie pin or brooch; the viewer’s awareness of the potential risk posed by the camera’s discovery gives these scenes an extra frisson. Robin, who inserts herself into Death Squadrons in full Diana-goddess-of-the-hunt mode – vamping her elusive quarry via speakerphone or striding up to some colonel’s door with cameras rolling á la Michael Moore – is a formidably lucid guide through the blood-soaked catacombs, and when the killers are squarely in her sights she radiates the intensity of a mongoose about to feast on a king cobra. As in The Corporation, Death Squadrons yanks the ripcord right out of the gate and sets off at a furious clip, but unlike Achbar and Abbott’s masterfully calibrated passages, Robin keeps the pedal to the metal, scarcely coming up for air (quite literally: the offscreen narrator can be heard sharply drawing breaths between perorations). Wasting little time on such niceties as script polish or continuity editing, Robin barrels through a few whiplash-inducing transitions (the narrator barking “Back to Argentina” or “What about Chile?” over shock cuts), and at one point an interview suddenly bursts into a cubist cluster of camera angles. But her urgency is understandable. Besides the underlying concern to hold Pinochet, Contreras, Jorge Videla and the other elderly murderers to account while they’re still physically and mentally capable, Robin is eager to contribute to the accelerating international movement of survivors, victims’ families, legal actors and indeed nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) like Human Rights Watch to finally obtain justice.

HRWIFF lurched to a close with a documentary double bill of the insufferably snarky The Yes Men (Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith, 2003) and Sabiha Sumar’s For a Place Under the Heavens (2003), an idiosyncratic feminist critique of Islamism in contemporary Pakistan. Addressing an implicit Western spectator, Sumar proposes to measure women’s rights and freedoms in the distance between today’s radical Islamist groundswell of Sharia law, multiplying madrassas (religious campuses) and jihadist campaigns, and the more secular Pakistan of her Jinnah-era childhood. Sumar’s inquiry is predicated on a potent nostalgia, indexed by her family’s 8mm home-movie footage of a 1956 constitutional parade in Karachi, or an impossibly quaint nightclub cabaret act. To hammer home the temporal contrast, Sumar dissolves from an 8mm reel of a children’s birthday party, in which her mother and family friends appear relaxed, modern and emancipated, to a staged gathering of anonymous women cavorting on a beach, each one covered head to toe in hijab and plain, conservative garments. Yet the film lacks a strong centre, and in lieu of a formal strategy commensurate to her unwieldy subject Sumar cobbles together three distinct, roughly joined strands. First and most effective are interviews with ordinary Pakistani women and their families, augmented by crisp observations of public women’s gatherings (most disturbingly, a seminar on how to prepare a woman’s corpse for burial). Secondly, there’s a round-robin discussion between Sumar and three academic/NGO colleagues, trading woolly prognostications on a concrete rooftop terrace. Third and most unfortunate is an expository setup in which Sumar and one of the above colleagues reconstruct a timeline of Pakistan’s history by tacking newspaper clippings and website printouts onto a clothesline strung up in the parlour of Sumar’s comfortably appointed family home. At first glance one hopes this might develop into a comment on “women’s work”, but it’s just a harebrained gimmick that collapses into parody.

Derived from a predetermined set of ideas, For a Place Under the Heavens at least has the basic sense to refrain from pat conclusions, but neither does it yield new insight. Too bad more time wasn’t devoted to the frustratingly one-dimensional interviews. We are introduced to previously secular women who’ve adapted to fundamentalism, others reared entirely within it, and one young woman who openly embraces a Westernised secular modernism, yet Sumar’s vague questions can’t break through the wall of propriety, and their inner lives remain opaque. At one point a sardonic mufti even ridicules her faux-naïf approach, countering, “Tell me, where on earth is power not in the hands of men? Isn’t it in men’s hands in America?” Which inadvertently points to the film’s strange elision of Benazir Bhutto, not only the first woman prime minister of Pakistan (1988–90 and 1993–96), but of any Muslim-majority nation; instead of examining the circumstances enabling Bhutto’s rise to power, however, Sumar simply dismisses her by rhetorically asking, “Why is it that no leader, not even Benazir Bhutto, has been able to reverse the trend of Islamisation?” Still, there’s a silver lining to be found in For a Place Under the Heavens‘ latent value as an example of ijtihad, the Islamic tradition, long in eclipse, of independent inquiry, interpretation and reasoning. This potential comes into focus through an encounter with Shaheen Sardar Ali, a former provincial health minister in Pakistan and presently a metropolitan intellectual in residence at University of Warwick, England, whose feminist interpretation of the Quran points a different way forward. Ali’s pertinent debunking of Islamist claims for Quranic endorsement of women’s subjugation is very much in the dynamic, independent spirit of ijtihad, which waits to be reclaimed, perhaps by other filmmakers of the kind championed by HRWIFF, as a wellspring of inspiration, reasoned debate and illumination.


  1. See Philip Shenon and Christopher Marquis, “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie”, New York Times, June 17, 2004. In presenting this “finding”, the September 11 commission merely conceded what those in the antiwar majority have been arguing for the last two years, since the war machine was shifted into high gear; see e.g. Stephen Zunes, “The Case Against War”, The Nation, Sept. 30, 2002, p. 11. Lest anyone seek encouragement from the commission’s actions, we should note that this select group – perhaps best remembered for its closed-door, off-the-record chat with Bush and Dick Cheney, constituting their official testimony – is chaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a business partner in the Delta-Hess joint venture with Khalid bin Mahfouz, brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden.
  2. See Jay Kuehner, “Hail Mary: Maria Full of Grace”, Cinema Scope, no. 18, Spring 2004, p. 46.
  3. See “FARC admiten autoría en masacre de La Gabarra”, El País (Cali, Colombia), June 18, 2004. Analogies between U.S. intervention in Colombia and Vietnam are discussed in Mario A. Murillo, Colombia and the United States, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004, pp. 178–180.
  4. “To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends”. Attorney General John Ashcroft, testimony before U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, December 6, 2001.
  5. The phrase is Thomas Elsaesser’s, from “The Dandy in Hitchcock”, in Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzalès, British Film Institute, London, 1999, p. 3.
  6. The spearhead litigation is the class action Turkmen et al. vs. Ashcroft et al., brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. See Chisun Lee, “Exposé Energizes Court Battle”, The Village Voice, July 22, 2003; or Tom Hays, “Government’s Report Bolsters Abuse Claims by Arab Detainees”, Associated Press (wire article), June 23, 2003. New York City’s post-9/11 grassroots mobilisation in support of immigrants was joined by a wide array of groups working perhaps beneath the radar of Konner, Maclean and Perse, including Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Third World Within, the Coney Island Avenue Committee and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
  7. The CIA’s authorisation of Montesinos’ FARC arms sale is alleged by Atef Halasa, Chief of Protocol for the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Jordan, quoted in Gabriela Bocagrande, “And These are the Good Guys”, The Texas Observer, February 13, 2004, p. 16.
  8. Among the articles in the investigative series triggered by the Northwestern students are Steve Mills, Ken Armstrong and Douglas Holt, “Flawed Trials Lead to Death Chamber”, Chicago Tribune, June 11, 2000; and Steve Mills, Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong, “Shadows of Doubt Haunt Executions”, Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2000.
  9. Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Free Press, New York and London, 2004.
  10. See Ted Bridis, “Human Rights Groups Sue Over Iraq Abuses”, Associated Press (wire article), June 10, 2004; and Robert Scheer, “When We’re the Evildoers in Iraq”, The Nation, May 17, 2004. On the limitations of U.S. military outsourcing generally, see James Surowiecki, “Army, Inc.” The New Yorker, January 12, 2004, p. 27.
  11. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, HarperBusiness, New York, 1993.
  12. See Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, Verso, London and New York, 2000, pp. 77–89; and Robert C. Smith, Mexican New York: The Transnational Lives of New Immigrants, University of California Press, Berkeley, forthcoming.

About The Author

Ioannis Mookas writes regularly on film for Gay City News.

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