10 December 2011

Vienna's 4th Human Rights Film Festival - This Human World



In the age of giant multiplexes, it is always a pleasure to discover independent film houses where young ushers actually wish you a "wonderful projection"! Although a great fan of independent film, it is a love that sort of developed abroad and as such, it was the first time that I actually set foot in any of Vienna's indie (and actually oldest) cinemas like Topkino, Stadtkino and my personal favourite so far, the Filmhauskino which is ideally located at one of the most beautiful and intimate Christmas markets each year.

Comrade Duch [pronouced Doyk]
… is a portrait about the high-level Khmer Rouge commander who was the head of the internal security branch and in charge of torture and execution at the infamous Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison, basically the Khmer Rouge version of a concentration camp. Today, there are literally not more than 10 living survivors from that prison which is now a museum that eerily reminds me of Mauthausen.

The documentary is sort of told from the perspective of author Nic Dunlop (the author of The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge) who drove from village to village in rural Cambodia to track down Duch who had been living in hiding under a different name after the regime fell. It is terrible and revolting to learn that he used to work for the ARC, the American Refugee Committee without them knowing who he really was.

The movie also shows clips from the televised UN-backed tribunal to prosecute war crimes from the genocide and also interviews with Duch's French co-defense lawyer (whom he sacked on the last day of the trial). Tearful witness accounts of Cambodian survivors who relived the worst moments in their lives, of expat witnesses whose friends were tortured for being considered 'foreign spies', and of Duch himself whose remorse is doubtful. And of course, the uproar by many people in Cambodia at the verdict which would set the now 69-year old Duch free after a reduced sentence of 19 years.
The film was a bit unevenly paced and the cutting seemed a bit disorganised to me. Since I couldn't find a trailer either, I assume this is not the final version of the movie but apart from that a quite interesting documentary.


Im Jahr des Hasen
… is a touching portrait of a bright, kind and reflective young man whose fragmented identity drifts between Cambodia (where his biological parents are from and which he visits for the first time in the course of the movie), Paris (where he grew up after he was adopted by a French couple out of a refugee camp in Thailand; he is now estranged from his adoptive mother), Finland (where he lived for a while), Oslo (where he spent several years with his girlfriend; he hates Oslo), and Vienna (where he meets his biological parents again for the first time in his twenties; they have been living here since the mid-1970s).


I definitely recommend the movie and also voted for it to get the audience prize (a cash reward of 2000€ for the winner). In the movie, there is a scene where Arnaud (the young man) watches Titanic, is caught crying on camera and is asked why. Elaborating from his actual answer, he reiterates the whole underlying question of the film about him, namely: can one be so touched by and connected to something that isn't part of one's own life?

And indeed, I thought to myself how bizarre it is that as I watch Arnaud (basically a stranger) and learn about his life, I realise I actually want to meet him in person because something about him echoes in myself, his (worse) uprootedness somehow resonating in my own deterritorialised, transnational, bicultural identity, in my own discontent in the place I am now and my own family issues.

I am not the only one. An Asian-looking woman in the audience in her early 30s perhaps with an Austrian accent who later revealed she was from Steyr (in rural Upper Austria) where she was the only foreign-looking kid in her class, agreed that she felt the movie was very accurate in displaying the identity issues and that she could relate to it very well herself.

Even more surprising was for me that the director was actually an Austrian woman who had the idea for the movie when she was on a plane back from Angkor to Vienna and befriended two Cambodians in the plane who live in Vienna and who are now her 'two best Cambodian friends'. In the cozy and insightful Q&A, she said that she initially wanted to shoot a movie about the Cambodian community in Austria, then only two people and finally it was just Arnaud. It nearly didn't happen as her sponsors preferred her to make a movie about the African or Eastern European community instead. Needless to say, I am glad she got the funding anyway and that Southeast Asians finally get represented in Austrian media – part of the reason why I tried to see many movies about Southeast Asia was to demonstrate that there is demand in the audience to see those movies and acknowledge them through royalties as much as I can (apparently, 'underpaid intern' is not a category that merits discounts for cinema tickets).

Amnesty! When they are all free


As a former volunteer for AI, it was of course very interesting for me to watch the movie. Since I had bought and read SOAS lecturer Stephen Hopgood's book about Amnesty as soon as it got out, I was a bit doubtful as to whether the film would actually tell me anything new. I didn't quite like the visual style of the movie and the narration (it seemed rather 1990s and even doomsday-like to me, like a documentary about WWII) but the historical video footage was intriguing nonetheless: Early video recordings of Amnesty's HQ back when it was still a tiny office in Covent Garden where everyone ran and assembled around the Telex (the height of technology back then) as soon as it started typing and making noise, and important markers in history where Amnesty was present: Haiti, Cairo, Pinochet.... It also showed exclusive witness accounts of the early members and volunteers that contributed to what would become the biggest human rights movement world-wide and Stephen Hopgood himself.

Great was of course that the film was followed by a discussion with the Head of Amnesty's Austria 'Section' (as the country offices around the world are referred to internally) and Manfred Nowak, Head of the University of Vienna-based Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights and former UN Special Rapporteur for Torture.

Manfred Nowak revealed that he co-founded or joined an Amnesty group in New York where he was studying at Columbia at the time. Back then, it was the Cold War and Amnesty was kind of seen or branded in the US as a Communist organisation. Therefore, most meetings and activities took place in sort of Marxist underground restaurants.

A second interesting fact I learned was that he used to call up the International Secretariat (IS) a lot when he was preparing a fact-finding mission in times when he was still Rapporteur and he was always amazed how they always compiled a very accurate list, sometimes within two hours (!) and not just any material they had but a list specifically tailored to him: Prisons or other places which he should be looking at, names of people who were missing/potentially disappeared/held incommunicado. Given that I happened to defend Amnesty's standards of research earlier this week, it was immensely gratifying to have someone like him acknowledge and praise that.

Some of the other interesting comments and questions from the audience revolved around the dangers of raising awareness (a young Iranian girl who grew up in Austria and was doing Facebook and leaflet campaigning and got into quite a bit of trouble when she visited family in Iran last time; some of her family in Iran who had been active of their own accords had been detained for days, weeks even), an elderly yet lively guy who wanted to know more about Amnesty's ways of navigating neutrality when say, commenting on Israel and Palestine. He referred to criticism against Israel often being dismissed as 'anti-Semitist', a woman in her thirties who asked about global population growth, poverty, climate change and the universal applicability of human rights. Strangely, she also conceived Amnesty as a US-American (!) organisation for some reason ("Freedom und so... das scheint mir ein amerikanisches Konzept" were here words, I believe). Finally, there was a guy who works in child protection for the UN and basically came to harass Nowak about omitting something in a report on drugs the latter wrote.

Halaw (Ways of the Sea)



Cinemalaya 2010 Winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film and Best Editing and winner of several other awards, including Special Mention at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011.

It is not everyday that a native movie about the Philippines is screened in Vienna (or any non-Asian film festival for that matter) or that my mother displays interest for movies off the popular Filino mainstream script of boy meets girl or the other popular genre featuring notions of reconciliation and forgiveness between the wayward sheep in the family and its elders.

Several characters are literally in the same boat when they pay smugglers to take them from the Southern (predominantly Muslim) Philippines to Malaysia bearing hopes for a better life abroad. A brother and his child sister who hope to reunite with their mother; an old woman; a female 'commuter' in high heels, suggestive clothes, gold jewellry and Louis Vuitton bag and a young woman who gets raped by one of the smugglers in the middle of nowhere on one of the islets along the way, to the fury of the other "What where you thinking?? You have now reduced her value!". You also see some of the common persuasion tactics to trick young girls into taking the trip which often ends in forced prostitution: Images of prosperity ("There are so many jobs in Malaysia! You're gonna get a job INSTANTLY once you arrive and can send money to your family in the Philippines!"), promising a more exciting life ("Here, you're gonna get married, have children, live in your family's house. You will grow maize and sweet potatoes and will sell that at the market every day for the rest of your life. Do you really want that?"), talking them into guilt ("Oh my, you changed your mind? The guy who was so generous and helped you pay for your trip will be angry. You're putting me in a tough spot. What am I supposed to tell him?"). The dynamics among the smugglers are also explored to some extent.

The joy of introducing my mother to another visual angle to explore her country and (sort of) my own, was a bit dampened by the fact that the screening took place at the Schikaneder which revealed itself as a dingy student bar with equally decadent clientele, the kind of which I hadn't seen in a long time. I was slightly amused yet also concerned to scare my mother off future indie film screenings by this unlucky first experience. My mother took it all with grace at first and remarked that this place looked like the kind of shady bar in the Philippines where people met for sex and that the toilet like where people exchange drugs. Once we entered the cinema, she commented loudly that the cinema smelled awful and the carpet looked all dirty. If they ever cleaned the place at all?! While I silently wished for her to relax and take it with humour instead of making a scene, she started itching all over and said that there probably were bugs and cockroaches everywhere and not even the worst Filipino cinema were that infested. She couldn't sit still and for the first 30 minutes just shook herself or shuffled with her feet. Although the place didn't look exactly like satisfying health and safety standards to me either, I thought she was overdoing it until I indeed spotted a fruit fly on her collar (I didn't tell her though). She again associated the filth with "you know, the kind of cinema where people have sex!" As if on cue, a girl in front of us jumped onto her boyfriend's lap as soon as the lights went back on after the screening and started making out with him as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have foreplay in public in front of people who could be your parents. I can only imagine what went through my mother's mind.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi – Lady of No Fear



Finally, the above is a really really promising trailer for a documentary about Burma's recently (re-)released leader. It features interviews with her, her friends from Oxford, footage from her husband and I hope, interviews with people who used to know her from her SOAS days (I've heard she used to have the reputation of being an 'ice queen'). Sadly, I was ill but I hope to get my hands on a DVD. By the way, there is a very active Facebook group for the movie.

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