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Just causes on Film

Highlights from the Human Rights Film Festival. Picked by Victoria Brittain

Simon Hattenstone on Injustice, by Fero and Tariq Mahmood

Victoria Brittain

Friday March 30, 2001

Terrorists in Retirement

Director Mosco Boucault, narrated by Simone Signoret

Seven elderly men in Paris, five Poles and two Romanians, tell their stories of life and death in the Resistance in Paris. Almost all were Jewish and had fled from anti-semitism to eke out a living, illegally, in France. Most were also from communist families.

They were young, 16 and 17, when they volunteered for the underground circle which carried out extremely risky assassinations of German officers, throwing bombs into the restaurants they frequented, attacking their cars and barracks. Reliving those days of more than half a century ago, these modest old men have no regrets, except perhaps that they did not do enough, they did not kill enough Nazis. "I'd willingly kill more Nazis today," says one.

The centrepiece of the film is the execution in 1944 of 24 men from the Resistance group led by the Armenian poet Manouchian. This was the tragedy which has marked these survivors of the same heroic circle. This film created a scandal in France, where it was initially banned from television because of its shocking thesis that these foreign Jews were deliberately sacrificed by the French Communist party in a struggle for power, ahead of the end of the war, between the communists and General De Gaulle. The modern-day anti-communist historians of this theory come over as something of a contrast to these strong, old men who lost everything except their political convictions.


Director Raoul Peck

This is a true story, warns the voice-over as the film opens on a dead man being manhandled towards the destruction of his body in acid and fire. The dead man was Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, betrayed by the colonialists who had reluctantly granted independence to the country but who plotted to hold on to its riches through their proxies in the province of Katanga.

"I came 50 years too soon, what we wanted for the country others did not," says Lumumba in his last letter to his wife as the film ends on the same image of the dark night in Katanga where Belgians shot him after he had been beaten ruthlessly by his Congolese enemies.

This exceptional film tells a dramatic story from nearly half a century ago which today could be mistaken for highly coloured fiction. But Peck has done history proud. He shows us the crude racism and arrogant double-dealing of the Belgians - which was one trigger for the chaos which engulfed the country; and the second which was Mobutu's move for power encouraged by the American ambassador.

Eriq Ebouaney as Lumumba is uncanny in his accuracy. Every gesture seems to come straight from the iconic old photographs of him in the brief glory days of independence, then in the horror of his humiliation. Don't miss it.

Jung, In the Land of the Mujahedden

Directors Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati

This is an Afghanistan few outsiders have seen, but after watching this film you'll never forget it. Immense horizons of snow-topped mountains hang over dust plains emptied by a 20-year war. Desperate fighters of the north talk of the Taliban as the creatures of Pakistan and the English, and want revenge for every child's hand and foot blown off by land mines. Women, beyond desperation, are reduced to begging through their tattered, all-enveloping chadors. "Not even death wants the people of Afghanistan," says one.

The dirt-poor frontline town of Charikar - near the site of one of the greatest art finds in the world, the exquisite Begram ivories from the first and second century AD - was to have a hospital built for mine victims by an Italian medical team. The Italian surgeon chose Afghanistan as "a place where no one wants to go, it's censored from our consciousness". The film-makers, introduced by a veteran journalist who knew the Mojahadeen leaders decades before, found that they had embarked on "an excursion into human grief".

The team came back over three years and filmed an extraordinary achievement against that grief. Charikar was destroyed in a massive offensive which sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into the Panshir Valley. But against all the odds a hospital was built here in the valley, and, amid the unending stream of casualties, a team of Kurdish doctors and nurses have realised the Italian surgeon's dream of a community with the will to withstand the madness of this war.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival opens at the Ritzy Cinema, London SW2, tonight (info: 020-7733 2229). For details of screening times for all films visit



Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001