Fifth Annual Human Rights Film Festival at UNCA

If you’re not already all film-festivaled out by Monday after both the Asheville Film Festival and the Asheville Rejects Film Festival—and even if you are—it’s worth noting that UNC-Asheville’s Amnesty International Student Chapter will hold its fifth annual Human Rights Film Festival Monday, Nov. 10, through Friday, Nov. 14. The festival—which has become the largest of its kind in the Southeast—will screen 10 films. Audience discussion, led by a number of UNCA’s most distinguished faculty will follow each screening. The screenings are free and open to the public.

This year’s selections are an impressive and eclectic group—probably the best choices in the history of the film festival. It’s especially interesting—and, I think, a good sign—that a narrative film that addresses human rights, the wonderful animated feature Persepolis (2007), has been chosen for the final movie in the series. If you’ve never seen this film that depicts the coming-of-age of an outspoken Iranian girl, this is an excellent chance to do so. Viewers who think of festivals like this as being made entirely of documentaries that tend to be more “good for you” than entertaining will find this a different approach to much the same end.

More straightforward fare makes up the rest of the festival, and it’s a worthy selection.

• Line Halvorsen’s documentary from Norway, USA vs. Al-Arian (2007), focuses on the American-Muslim family Al-Arian’s efforts to defend themselves against terrorism charges leveled by the U.S. government. In February 2003, University of South Florida professor and pro-Palestinian civil-rights activist Sami Al-Arian was arrested in Tampa, Fla., and charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization. For two-and-a-half years he was held in solitary confinement, denied basic privileges and given limited access to his attorneys. While the Bush administration saw the case as a blow against terrorism, Al-Arian claimed he was targeted solely in the government’s desire to silence his political views and not for any actual wrongdoing.

It’s an interesting and rewarding film that sometimes reveals little things of note in passing details—like the American-reading material (Poe, Twain, Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson) on the shelves of Al-Arian’s son’s room—that hardly suggest the subversive nature of the charges as part of the family’s lifestyle. There is a definite pro-Al-Arian slant to the film, which is hardly surprising. But the facts remain that while none of the charges leveled against the man actually stuck, he was coerced into pleading to lesser charges in order to end the ordeal, only to find himself sentenced to an additional 19 months in prison and deported at the end of that time. The film will be screened Monday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. in Highsmith University Student Grotto.

• Of more immediate relevance to most people—in that it deals with an issue we’ve all faced directly or indirectly in one form or another—is Daniel G. Karslake’s For the Bible Tells Me So (2007), a film that tackles the continuing hot-button topic of the use of religion as a justification for the persecution and demonization of gays and lesbians. The film’s mode is very much in-your-face, beginning with the famous news footage of Anita Bryant getting a pie in the face from a gay activist in 1977. Variety reviewer Justin Chang wrote, “Filmmaker Daniel Karslake lobs a grenade into the culture wars with his heartfelt, provocative and unabashedly polemical For the Bible Tells Me So, which examines the intersection of homosexuality and religion and finds the latter wanting.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing in the New York Times, observes, “There is no denying that the film, however inelegant, fills a need. The inevitable DVD should be packaged in a plain cardboard sleeve, so that viewers can carry it in their pockets and, if confronted by a homophobe, hand it over and say, ‘Watch this, then get back to me.’” As he notes, the film isn’t going to do much for the art of film or documentary-making, but as an answer to—or at least an arguing point with—fundamentalists, the film has a good deal of value. It also has the ability—a worthy one in documentaries—to enrage the viewer over the injustices it presents. It will be shown Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m. in Highsmith University Student Grotto.

• In an entirely different vein is the Dutch film from Klaartje Quirijns, The Dictator Hunter (2007), which details the torture and murder inflicted by Chadian dictator Hissene Habre in the 1980s. The film follows the efforts of human-rights activist Reed Brody, whose mission is to put an end to the situation where a dictator spends years brutalizing his own people and then simply skips across the border into a cushy retirement when the tide turns against him. The dictator in this case is Hissene Habre, who, according to Brody, “ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, who’s accused of thousands of political killings, of systematic torture, of campaigns of ethnic cleansing, and I’ve been working for seven years with his victims to bring him to trial.” Structuring the film so that the outcome of his attempts remains unknown until the finale gives it an immediacy and sense of urgency rare in documentary films. This may be a rare case where the less you know going in, the better the film will play. See it Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 4:30 p.m. in Highsmith University Student Grotto.

• To See If I’m Smiling (2007), an Israeli film from Tamar Yoram, is also a different proposition. The film essentially charts the experiences of six young Israeli women serving in the army in occupied territories (Israel being one of the few countries where conscription of women is standard). It’s a fascinating blend of on-camera interviews and archival footage that serves to illuminate an experience few people can even begin to imagine. Beyond the experience, though, is what the film reveals about the not-always-scrupulous handling of situations involving Palestinians—which implies that guilt or innocence is not a concern, merely being Palestinian is enough in itself. Thought-provoking and worth a look, catch the screening Friday, Nov. 14, at 4:30 p.m. in Highsmith University Student Grotto.

For a full schedule of film screenings, see the “UNCA Human Rights Film Festival” listing in the Xpress Arts Calendar under “Film.”

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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