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99 percent

Films show how “the other half” live
By BLY LAURITANO-WERNER  |  November 8, 2006


All next week, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival will be playing at SPACE Gallery in Portland. The films explain and explore social-justice problems around the globe, with the idea of attracting attention from people who could act to fix them.

Black Gold is a documentary following the founder of a coffee-farmers’ union in Ethiopia, where the coffee industry is worth more than $80 billion, and is 67 percent of the export revenue. The farmers are grossly underpaid, according to the film, leading to nationwide poverty and starvation. Tadesse Meskela, the union founder, fights tirelessly throughout the film to get fair prices for his farmers, but as he says, “the only trade is unfair.” The movie flips between the Ethiopian farmers’ struggles and corporate scenes, including one in which a perky Seattle Starbucks manager says, apparently without irony, “It’s amazing . . . the lives we’re touching!” At one farmers’ union meeting, a father says, “even if I don’t have any money, I can sell my shirt and give the money so that my children can learn and for my country to grow.” Many farmers, whose families have grown coffee for generations, have no other economic options than to dig up their crops and plant khat, a narcotic illegal in the US. “[It is] out of desperation; we want to avoid death,” says a khat farmer. This, the movie notes, is a symptom of a larger problem of economic disenfranchisement of African countries in international trade.

Total Denial is a documentary about the movement for democracy in Burma, and the involvement of French and American oil companies Total and Unocal in Burmese government oppression. By funding a gas pipeline, Unocal and Total are also funding murder, rape, and genocide in Burma, according to the movie. The film follows Ka Hsaw Wa, an activist who has been traveling across Burma recording victims’ stories for the past ten years. He, along with Katie Redford of Earth Rights International, then uses these testimonies in the lawsuit, John Doe v. Unocal. The victims’ stories are horrific and moving. One such story is of a woman who is knocked unconscious, and upon waking finds her baby on fire, too burned to cry. The baby lives, so she travels three days to find a doctor, but the baby cannot be helped and dies two days later. A Unocal representative dismisses these claims as “fabricated.” When asked about the situation in Burma, a Total shareholder replies, “I don’t give a shit. I don’t think enterprises do politics.” Well, whether or not the shareholders think economics and politics are related, this movie shows the emotional and intellection connections between companies and foreign governments.

In the early ‘90s the West African country of Sierra Leone was devastated by a civil war that smoldered for more than a decade, ending in January 2002, after a massive UN peacekeeping effort. Throughout the war, many Sierra Leoneans fled to neighboring Guinea as refugees, where six of them formed a band, whose experiences are the subject of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The musicians combine powerful lyrics of suffering with optimistic melodies from the outset of the film, when they sing around a fire, “When two elephants are fighting, the grass them a suffer,” symbolizing the conflict between the rebels and the government, and the people who paid the price. Members had endured their own hardships: the youngest member, Black Nature, the band’s rapper, had been separated from his parents and had lost hope of ever finding them. Mohamed witnessed the murder of his parents, then was forced to take part: “I beat my child until the child was dead and they came and amputated my hand,” he says in one scene. Throughout the film are bits of war footage, including a handless person cradling blown-off limbs, which are somehow more immediate because they are in a film, rather than on the TV news. The documentary also follows their return to Sierra Leone for the first time in at least a decade, and the recording of their first CD, resulting in their 2005 nomination as best new artist in the country.

Although the subject matter often begs the question of “how can human beings inflict such pain on each other?” the underlying theme is of hope and inspiration, that people who have been through such horrors can continue to fight.
  Topics: Features , Human Rights Watch , Human Rights Policy , Politics ,  More more >
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