The Common Good
November-December 1999

Still, Small Voices

by Josh Larsen | November-December 1999

Three films illuminate struggles and hopes

Can movies be disenfranchised? They can if they don’t follow the usual Hollywood formula of babes, bullets, and blood, and they certainly can if they’re also about the disenfranchised in a tough and non-gooey way. It’s a double whammy few films are able to overcome.

Not so with those showcased at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Held each year in New York City by Human Rights Watch, the festival highlights more than 30 films and videos that address issues of oppression and social injustice. Instead of the usual bombardment of Hollywood hoopla, viewers can explore topics such as the struggle for women’s rights in Peru and the revival of chain gang labor in the American prison system. Think of the festival as a refuge for marginalized movies from around the world.

Three notable films shown at the June event have since hit theaters and soon will be available on video. The most prominent of these is Regret to Inform, a personal portrayal of Vietnam War widows scheduled to air January 24 on PBS’ "P.O.V." (Point of View). The documentary follows director and narrator Barbara Sonneborn as she travels to the small Vietnamese farming town where her husband was killed during the war. Along the way, she includes interviews with other widows, including those from North and South Vietnam.

Regret to Inform opens with Vietnamese women singing "Oh husband, where are you?" The rest of the film illuminates the longing that underlies that question. In addition to the interviews, Sonneborn includes family snapshots, military memos, and archival war footage of a conflict described by one refugee as "all gray, like the smoke of the burning villages."

There are many poignant moments, including those in which the widows display pictures of their husbands from about 30 years before; today, they look old enough to be the men’s mothers. "If you weren’t dead, you weren’t safe," one of them bitterly recalls.

In sharing such recollections, Regret to Inform takes on a grand tragedy of human suffering and breaks it down into a number of personal pains. This searing yet ultimately cathartic documentary doesn’t make the Vietnam saga more palatable, only more real.

AMONG THE FICTION standouts at the festival was La Ciudad ("The City"), which opened theatrically in New York in late October and will spread to other major cities throughout the winter. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film consists of four vignettes of immigrant life in New York, separated by short scenes of Latino travelers posing for visa photos before leaving their homeland behind.

Instead of forming a cohesive narrative, the four stories provide private glimpses into the overwhelming struggles and small glimmers of hope that fill the hours of each immigrant’s day. One tale laments the unfulfilled promise of payday at a sewing factory, while another focuses on the letter from home that a laborer keeps delicately folded in his back pocket. Director David Riker spent five years filming in New York’s immigrant community, and the experience lends an authenticity that is reflected both in the use of English subtitles and the determination to stick with a Spanish title for the film.

At its best, La Ciudad gives identity to an immigrant population that is often thought of as faceless. Notably, the visa portraits scattered throughout the movie are not always of the people who "star" in the individual sections, reminding us that there are countless others who are living similar lives. The film’s last scene consists of a series of these portraits, forcing us to address each immigrant face to face and ensuring that the ambition and determination glittering in their eyes stays with us long after the movie’s end.

A more distanced approach is taken by The Port of Last Resort, a sober-minded documentary about the migration of 18,000 Central European Jews to Shanghai, China, just prior to World War II. Scheduled for a short run this winter at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, the film traces the experiences of the refugees from their initial arrival in China to the victory celebrations years later, when word of concentration camps and mass murders finally began to reach the Far East.

Relying heavily on contemporary interviews with former refugees, The Port of Last Resort is a collection of memories more than a comprehensive historical account, but those memories are chilling reminders of how far Hitler’s shadow had spread. "I don’t want to stay in Europe," one man remembers saying when he decided to flee to China. "This is not far enough."

By casting light upon the plight of Jewish refugees in Shanghai—surely one of the least covered stories of World War II—The Port of Last Resort quietly reflects the philosophy that drives the Human Rights Watch festival itself. These films may speak in a voice quieter than Hollywood’s boom, but that doesn’t mean they should not be heard. —Josh Larsen

JOSH LARSEN reviews movies for The Regional News, in Palos Heights, Illinois, The American Enterprise, and for www. allmovie.com.

A traveling version of the Human Rights Watch festival launches before the end of the year. Upcoming dates and locations can be found at www.hrw.org/iff. Video information on Regret to Inform is available at www.pbs.org/pov; for La Ciudad, contact Zeitgeist Films at (212) 274-1989; for The Port of Last Resort, contact Pinball Films at (718) 855-9836.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 1/1/99.

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