The announcement of the Academy Award nominees last week inaugurated the annual film buff’s ritual of arguing who will win which award on March 24. From professional critics to café blowhards, to coworkers around the water cooler, to people who don’t let the fact that they haven’t seen the movies stop them from expressing their opinion about them, they all will spend some part of the Lent season proselytizing about Russell or Sean or Denzel, Halle or Nicole or Renee, “Beautiful Mind” or “Gosford Park” or “Lord of the Rings.”
Few, if any, will ponder which documentary is most deserving of the award. And for good reason. None of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature has had any kind of theatrical release (and, for the record, they are: “Children Underground,” “Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy Of Cotton,” “Murder On A Sunday Morning,” “Promises,” and “War Photographer”). Few know what these films are about or what rewards they hold.
This weekend the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival will partially remedy that. Of the nine features playing at the Pacific Film Archive Friday through Sunday as part of a traveling program, two are Academy Award nominees.
“Children Underground” (screening Saturday, 8 p.m.) follows a group of orphaned and runaway Romanian children living in a Bucharest train station, Piata Victorei. Ranging in age from 8 to 16 years old, the kids sleep on cardboard, beg for change, bathe by water tap, beat each other up out of fear and desperation, and spend the day high on Aurolac, a kind of paint with addictive chemical fumes that the children huff out of plastic bags.
Without narration or commentary, filmmaker Edet Belzberg followed five selected children with a video camera. It’s similar to what Berkeley filmmaker Steven Okazaki did in the San Francisco tenderloin in his documentary “Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End Of The Street,” or, the more well-known feature narrative “Kids” by Larry Clark where young people run loose and wild in an primal world of their own, oblivious to the rules and customs of the adult world surrounding them.
Romania has had an explosion of homeless youth since former President Nicolae Ceaucescu tried to bolster the work force for his communist regime by banning contraceptives and abortion. And estimated 20,000 unwanted children now live on the streets, with paltry social services to help them.
As we see the shoes of adult commuters walking past sleeping ten-year olds ravaged by filth, Aurolac, and insanity, the film shows us that the streets have an addictive lure that eventually gets under the skin of the kids. The few organizations that offer aide to homeless youth want to help, and the children want to be helped, but the mindset the kids develop to be able to survive on the streets cannot accommodate the rules by which the organizations operate. One director of a residential facility says he cannot accept kids who have been on the streets for more a few months.
The other Academy Award nominated film in the Human Rights Watch festival, "Promises" (Sunday, 3PM) by local filmmakers Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, is also centered on children. Seven Isreali and Palestinian children show viewers the Middle East conflict and the careful art of growing up inside it. The film has been picked up for theatrical distribution – opening widely in cinemas yet to be determined – and the filmmakers will be at the PFA in person to speak with the audience after the Sunday afternoon screening.
The Human Rights Watch is an international non-profit agency dedicated to protecting basic human rights from abuse by governments and regimes around the world. They conduct investigations into suspected abuses with the aim to "embarrass abusive governments in the eyes of their citizens and the world" and advocate intervention. As such, the films in their festival tend to be important – and also bleak, humorless and roughly crafted.
A third film focusing on children as the end recipients of war and systematic abuse is "Behind Closed Eyes" (Feb 23, 6PM), a multi-part film following four young people from different hot spots around the world: an 18 year-old former Lyberian child soldier must be re-trained before re-entering his village, a refugee from Kosovo lives among a sea of white tents, a one-legged orphan in Cambodia goes away to school, and in Rwanda we see the teenaged mother of a rape baby struggle to raise her child with dignity.
These children are not as raw as the lawless kids in the Bucharest train station. They are in various stages of rehabilitation and awkwardly try to learn the ways of the adult world. Whether or not this film deserves to be more hopeful, the kids describe their desires for the future and are working toward a stable home. In the case of the Rwandan teenage mother, her vignette in the film has a soundtrack of a radio program featuring women telling of stories and their sorrows, as a kind of social healing.
Also featured in the festival is the new film by San Francisco filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, a highly regarded documentarian of Latino life whose film "Senorita Extravida: Missing Young Women" just won a jury prize at Sundance.
"Missing Young Women" (Feb 22, 7PM) goes to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, a NAFTA boomtown where young women migrate from all over the region to get factory jobs at the American companies that have set up shop there. Since 1994, over 200 young women have been kidnapped or killed, turning up in the sands of the desert outside the city as skeletons wrapped in tatters of clothing.
Portillo’s film is a gracefully crafted investigation into the mysterious string of murders, and to the inconsistent police response to the crimes. The initial police statements are dismissive, implying it is not unusual by the nature of Ciudad Juarez’s nightlife, then it is suggested the deaths might be a serial killer, or ritual killing. But as the film accumulates police scape-goating, botched evidence, and the victim’s clothing mismatched with their skeletons (identifiable by dental records) the film throws a very suspicious light on the police involvement, possibly even complicity, in the string of grisly killings.