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June 15, 2001 Arts

'Human Rights Watch Film Festival': No Rose-Colored Glasses in Lands Ravaged by War


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Motion Pictures

If you're searching for rich, complicated reality in movies instead of the usual escapist fluff, you need look no further than the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The most morally engaged, socially far-reaching annual film series to play New York, the festival, which opened its 12th season last night with a benefit screening of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," offers a different kind of global tour, conducted without the usual rose-colored glasses and tourist distractions.

Tonight, the documentary-heavy festival at the Walter Reade Theater will have two screenings of Stephanie Black's "Life and Debt," which begins a weeklong commercial run tomorrow at Cinema Village. Both screenings of the film, which examines the economic woes of Jamaica, will be prefaced by a live musical performance by Ziggy Marley.

The themes of most of the festival's selections are predictably heavy, and many deal with war, oppression, injustice and intolerance. One of the most remarkable selections, "Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujahedin," by the Italian filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Giuseppe Petitto, follows the building of a hospital in war-torn Afghanistan. Working under grueling conditions in a country reduced by 20 years of war to a near-wasteland, where education has all but ceased and millions are hungry, a team of international health workers construct and begin operating the institution with medical supplies trucked in from Italy.

But this small triumph of human cooperation and ingenuity seems dwarfed by the immensity and savagery of the holy war being waged by the Taliban. The movie is casually gruesome. Countless innocent civilians, many of them children, have been mutilated by land mines that litter the countryside, and the camera doesn't flinch before the sight of children with stumps for limbs and doctors performing amputations on the newly injured. This gripping film, once seen, is unforgettable.

B. Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado's film "Promises" is a portrait of Jerusalem and its environs viewed through eyes of seven articulate children and their families. The film is essentially a study of indoctrination. Whether Palestinian or Israeli, most of the subjects are passionately convinced of the righteousness of their side of the struggle. Watching these bright, attractive youngsters, you have an uncomfortable feeling that the seeds of future violence have already been carefully sown and that these very same children may end up killing each other as adults.

When the festival concludes on June 28, it will have shown 38 films and videos from 15 countries. A number of the films focus on the Middle East. From Lebanon comes "Around the Pink House," a postwar reconstruction comedy-drama. "The Closed Doors," from Egypt, is set during the Persian Gulf war and examines the psyche of an Islamic teenager torn between incestuous longings for his mother and the lure of religious extremism. Rassul Sadr Ameli's "Girl in the Sneakers" has been called an Iranian "Romeo and Juliet."

The closing-night film, acclaimed this year at the Sundance Festival, is Sandi Simcha Dubowski's video documentary "Trembling Before G-D." The film examines the anguished plight of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who come out as gays and lesbians and whose sexuality is unequivocally and bitterly condemned by their religious communities.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs through June 28 at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center. Admission: $9; $5 for Film Society members; $4.50 for 65+ at weekday matinees. Information and schedule: (212) 875- 5600.

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