When I looked up the touring Human Rights Watch Film Festival in the Reader's online archive, I was reminded that, a mere seven years ago, it screened a dozen features over ten days at Facets Cinematheque. Out of the eight features we reviewed, no less than six of them won that coveted "R" icon, for recommended. That's an extraordinary ratio, but you have to remember that the movies in this festival really matter whereas the majority of movies that pass through Chicago don't matter at all.
Last year the festival moved from Facets on the north side to Gene Siskel Film Center in the Loop, a more prominent venue; the trade-off was that the slate of films diminished. This year the festival returns to Film Center with only five features, screening on successive Monday nights; this isn't exactly an ideal arrangement, but when you're fighting for the powerless, you're probably accustomed to an uphill battle.
The Last White Knight
The festival kicks off tonight at 6:30 PM with Dawn Porter's engrossing HBO documentary Gideon's Army, which profiles three public defenders in the Deep South. Talk about an uphill battle: these people work long hours for relatively low pay, representing people who are poor and sometimes contemptible. Brandy Alexander, one of the movie's subjects, recalls a defendant proudly explaining to her how he went about raping his 12-year-old daughter, and on another occasion, she says, a client unhappy with the outcome of his trial threatened her life in open court. Public defenders must take cases no other attorney would go near, and the reward is often sleepless nights wondering if they've helped a guilty person go free or failed to rescue an innocent one from prison.
One of the movie's subjects breaks before the end, leaving the public defender's office for a less punishing job, but Travis Williams, who's been a PD for less than a year, still has a crusader's zeal: he frames every one of his acquittal notifications, and he wants to get tattooed on his back the name of every defendant whose case he's lost. Senior public defender Brett Willis isn't among the three subjects Porter follows, but he often provides the most knowing commentary. When people ask him how he can defend so many scumbags, he explains, he asks them what their own freedom means to them. His job, he tells them, is "about the sanctity of human liberty, and the cost of it, if you want to take it."
The Act of Killing
Four more features follow in coming weeks. The Last White Knight (Mon 4/15, 6:30 PM) chronicles the uneasy friendship between documentary maker Paul Saltzman, who campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi in the 60s, and Delay De La Beckwith, an unreconstructed Klansman whose father, Byron, assassinated Medgar Evers. For The Act of Killing (Mon 4/22, 6:30 PM), documentary makers Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cyn record the reminiscences of two aging men who took part in the slaughter of more than a million people under the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim's Rafea: Solar Mama (Mon 4/29, 6:30 PM) profiles an illiterate Bedouin woman from Jordan who travels to India for a program that will teach her solar engineering. And for My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (Mon 5/6, 6:30 PM), Nagieb Khaja got around restrictions on foreign journalists by giving mobile phones to rural Afghanis and asking them to record their everyday lives.