Lessons in how the world works and portraits of the never-ending struggles in places around the globe where power is challenged by populist resistance: such matters are a concern of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Rarely have such conflicts been examined with the depth and power of Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Crude.” Three years in the making, the film looks at all sides of the so-called Amazon Chernobyl case, a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that pits 30,000 Ecuadorean rainforest dwellers against Chevron.
In the film, which premiered on Saturday in New York, the plaintiffs allege that three decades of pollution from petrochemical sludge dumped by Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, have created a dead zone the size of Rhode Island and resulted in skyrocketing rates of birth defects and cancer, especially leukemia. Chevron has fought the lawsuit, claiming the case was cooked up by greedy “environmental con men” and blames the state-owned Petroecuador, which took over the country’s oil production in 1990.
As much as “Crude” sympathizes with the plaintiffs (the film’s hero, Pablo Fajardo, their lead lawyer, once worked in the oil fields), it isn’t a starkly black-and-white David and Goliath story. We hear from scientists, lawyers for both sides, Ecuadorean judges, celebrity activists (Trudie Styler and Sting) and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who has sided with the plaintiffs in a case that may drag on for decades. These real characters and events play out on the screen like a sprawling legal thriller.
There is more than one way for a film to tweak the powers that be. And “The Yes Men Fix the World” goes at it with a raised eyebrow and a droll sense of humor. The festival’s closing-night film, this sequel to “The Yes Men” (2004) follows the screwball activists Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who pose as business honchos, sneak into corporate events and stage pranks that embarrass multinational companies.
Here Mr. Bichlbaum, pretending to be a Dow Chemical spokesman, declares that the company accepts responsibility for the deaths of thousands from the 1984 chemical leak at Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal, India. (Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001.)
A selection of the festival’s stronger films would include “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.” This history of the tribunal, founded in 2002, follows the intrepid prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo over three years as he tries, without police backing, to issue arrest warrants to Congolese warlords and the president of Sudan.
Barmak Akram’s “Kabuli Kid,” is a fictional, seriocomic portrait of an Afghan cab driver in Kabul whose last passenger abandons her baby son in his vehicle. When the baby is rejected by an orphanage and the police, he brings the boy home to his family. The perspective widens, and “Kabuli Kid” becomes a complex examination of Afghan society.
Anne Aghion’s “My Neighbor, My Killer” belongs to her decade-long documentary project chronicling the Rwandan open-air reconciliation hearings called gacacas (pronounced ga-CHA-chas), in which citizen judges preside, as confessed Hutu killers, returned from prison, confront survivors in their communities. The film focuses on Gafumba, a rural village, and it earned Ms. Aghion the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.
Credit: by Stephen Holden, New York Times web service; photo caption: from the documentary "The Yes Men Fix the World;" photo credit: International Human Rights Film Festival