As the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians continues in the West Bank, the opening night film at UC Irvine's second-annual Human Rights Film Festival turns out to be a dubious, wrong selection. Produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Oscar-winning Moriah Films division, Richard Trank's In Search of Peace: Part One, 1948-1967 is a mainstream documentary celebrating the birth of Israel and the "right of return" of the Jewish diaspora. Not surprisingly, the human-rights struggles of the Palestinians that Israel booted are given short shrift. After all, the original writers for the film (who were later dumped) complained that the Wiesenthal Center wanted a "feel-good Diaspora jubilee film." While some Palestinians are profiled, and there's an opening clip of Yasser Arafat shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin at the White House, the film mostly ignores the question of "right of return" for those uprooted by the garrison state that has become Israel.
Other festival films are more provocative. Frances Dose and Paul Andrews' Improbable Pairs focuses on two sets of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to find ways out of the conflict spiral. Dr. Jawad Tibi, a Palestinian, and Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli, manage to reach across the abyss that divides them after suffering family losses to find friendship among the bereaved. Indeed, they seem mirror images of each other as they grieve. And Aboobaker Ismail, a former African National Congress general, meets up with Neville Clarence, a former South African air-force pilot who was blinded in a car-bomb attack ordered by Ismail, who is now the chief of strategy for post-apartheid South Africa's Department of Defense.
The short Improbable Pairs echoes the feature documentary, Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman's Long Night's Journey into Day, which is about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa and features Peter Biehl, the father of Newport Beach Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, who was murdered there in 1993. With Peter Biehl's death last month, this festival is a fitting memorial to his improbable work for reconciliation.
On the same shorts program with Improbable Pairs is Lisa F. Jackson's Meeting With a Killer, which is about a grandmother, Linda White, and granddaughter, Ami, who embrace Gary Brown, the killer of Cathy O'Daniel, Linda's daughter and Ami's mother. Seeking closure, the pair even poses for photographs with the convicted murderer in a maximum security prison at Wichita Falls, Texas. This is refreshing in an era in which victims only seem to want monetary damages and vengeance.
The events of Sept. 11 are recalled in the searing "Underground Zero" series of shorts. Three stand out: Robert Edwards' The Voice of the Prophet, a 1998 World Trade Center interview with Rick Rescorla, a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter security chief, that predated the event but makes one understand why it happened. Rescorla's a Vietnam vet who feels "we shouldn't have been deployed there" and that Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap could have united the country. Valerie Soe, in her Carefully Taught, narrates over visual clips from old racist films, railing against jingoism, "unchecked global capitalism," xenophobia and "sinister, mandatory patriotism" and asking us to wake up from our "collective stupor." In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Isaiah's Rap, 14-year-old Isaiah Gage stands within sight of Ground Zero and gives a poetic discourse on what it was like to experience the Twin Towers' collapse close at hand.
Sasha Khokha et al.'s Uprooted: Refugees of the Global Economy from the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights focuses on the effects of globalization and national debt, including a segment on Maricel, a Filipina domestic worker in Hong Kong who follows her boss, a Philip Morris executive, to the U.S., where she earns $2.20 per hour while working long days and nights. Eventually fed up, she helps organize domestic workers to fight for better pay.
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Philip Morris itself is implicated in Thangata, which takes its title from the indentured system of tobacco-harvest exploitation. The short video, which is the prototype for a feature documentary, is the visual companion to a doctorate thesis in cultural anthropology by UCI labor activist Marty Otaez, a budding filmmaker. Otaez calls his agitprop video "a contribution to the anti-corporate globalization as well as a way to make my work more public: a tool for the classroom and for organizing against big tobacco."
His Proposition 99-funded project focuses on Malawi, which he calls the world's "most dependent tobacco economy," with more than 70 percent of its foreign earnings derived from tobacco. Three U.S. companies (including Philip Morris) buy more than 95 percent of Malawi's tobacco. The video—which was still being edited as this piece was written—shows the use of child and bonded labor to harvest the tobacco. My UCI colleague Pauline Manaka provided the clear narration.
Otaez wants his film to spark some local action, so he's also showing it on campus before the festival officially begins, at a training workshop for local activists on the "social cost of tobacco." While the UC system has begun divesting itself of stocks in tobacco companies, he estimates that the separate UCI Foundation—that's where your donations to UCI go—still has some $70,000 invested in tobacco stocks.
UCI Film and Video Center's Human Rights Film Festival at UCI Humanities Instructional Building, W. Peltason & Pereira drives, Irvine, (949) 824-7418; www.humanities.uci.edu/fvc; and at Irvine City Hall, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Irvine. Thurs., May 16-May 18. Call for show times. $3-$5; some screenings are free; Early screening of Thangata at UCI Center for Women & Men, 100 Gateway Commons, Irvine. Thurs., May 16, 3 p.m. Free.