Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

A guilty man?

Published in The Ukrainian Week, March 2010

Cassie Werber, Den Haag, The Netherlands

There’s a London bus outside the cinema which reminds me (along with the rain) of home. Inside it’s shabby but comfortable. I sip free coffee, and watch a man being beheaded.

This is Upload Cinema, a Dutch group which finds internet shorts and compiles them into unique cinema programmes. They’re at Amnesty International’s Movies that Matter festival screening a programme of ‘activism on the internet’.

The video I find myself watching is the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. Being aware of the film’s existence, I realise what I am going to see before it happens, when Pearl is still talking to the camera. I could, of course, have found and watched this on the internet. But I haven’t, and I leave the bus shaken.

It’s a pivotal moment in the festival, reminding me of the unique power of film: that it goes from eyes to brain or heart without a filter, instantaneously. Reasoning comes later, either in the next moment when the mind connects visuals into a coherent story, or in the following hours and days when it processes them more deeply. The images remain, however, stamped in the psyche. You cannot unsee them.

I ask Upload Cinema about the inclusion of this particular film which, they tell me, was “hotly debated” amongst the editorial team after it was suggested through a vote by Upload’s membership. The decision to include the film was made because it “depicts a type of cruelty that may result from activism…a moment in which activism has turned into a more severe and extreme form of political action, namely terrorism.”

The film was mentioned in introductory presentations and a screen was inserted before showings to warn people of its content (I missed both these precautions). Excluding the film could, Upload tell me, have represented “self-censorship” thereby going “against the spirit of both the Movies that Matter festival and Upload Cinema itself.”

This is one of the problematics of the internet, a medium now intimately entwined – as Upload demonstrate – with film. Once content is online, who is responsible for it? Is refusal to replay Pearl’s murder really self-censorship? And if I choose not to see those images (or wish I hadn’t) am I shirking my responsibility? The question of responsibility hangs in air during the festival as a whole, taking a different form in every film. And it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing.

Who is responsible for a child? In Garapa, director José Padilha spends thirty days with three poor Brazilian families. The timeframe, however, does not impact; it could be a weekend or a year in the monochrome existence which poverty prescribes. Padilha’s footage is grainy black and white, but determinedly resists romanticising its subject. The adults and many children in the film may not be dying of hunger, but they are starving: it is the slow, insidious effects of chronic malnourishment on which Padilha focuses.

While the children amuse themselves as best they can, the camera dwells on eyes alternately inquisitive and vague; on skin rough with sores. A boy of about seven lies on the floor, drinking from a baby’s bottle. From this angle, we can see that his teeth – which have caused him pain throughout the film – are black and rotten. In the bottle, garapa: a solution of sugar and water which is often the only available nourishment. The child’s parents have no money for food or medicines. The state provides assistance, but only enough to keep his family from death. The camera captures, and we, sitting in a darkened auditorium, witness.

Google Baby by Zippi Brand Frank forms a startling contrast, focussing on the elaborate processes involved in surrogacy. Here, couples go to extraordinary lengths, and spend thousands of dollars, to achieve the goal of having their ‘own’ child. Thus eggs ‘donated’ (and paid for) in America are fertilized, flown to India and implanted in surrogates who carry the child to term, deliver via caesarean, then hand it over.

Entrepreneur Doron, himself the father of a child born through surrogacy, coordinates with Skype calls and email. Though the chronology is sometimes confusing, and many angles go unexplored, the film still has an impact. The apparent absence of regulation forces us to ask ‘who owns a baby?’, while the emotional undercurrent involved in women carrying the children of others runs fast and deep.

Two films focussing on African conflicts, meanwhile, raise complex questions about responsibility during war. War Don Don by Rebecca Richman Cohen is a masterful debut, well shot, tightly edited and packed with information. Issa Sesay, (alleged) former leader of the rebel RUF is on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is accused of war crimes including murder, rape and commissioning child soldiers. According to the prosecution, he has ‘no soul’.

On the other side Sesay’s defence, articulate and passionate, cite his role in disarming the RUF and ending the conflict; offer accounts of his protecting civilians; point out the unreliability of ‘insider’ witnesses paid by the prosecution and given every incentive to implicate others.

The film judiciously allows both sides to convince, and Sesay himself comes across ambiguously; he might be a monster, or a politician, or a young man brought up in the army and yet retaining the insight to bring a vicious conflict to a close.  The overarching question is of whether international justice can ever really work: can one person be held responsible for the crimes of many?

‘The many’ are in evidence in Weapon of War by sisters Femke and Ilse van Velzen. The subject is rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the film’s focus being on the perpetrators. This was one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences of the festival, but not only because of the harshness of the subject matter. Though a post-screening panel discussion revealed good intentions on the part of the directors, the techniques which the film displays are questionable: intimate conversations feel rehearsed, and even during the ‘apology’ of a rapist to his victim, we are painfully aware of the presence of the camera, the choices and, possibly, suggestions made by the directors.

Though I want to ask them about this, the panel – uncharacteristically for this festival – lacks an insightful facilitator. I leave frustrated and with another question, about the responsibility of filmmakers to their subjects. There is so much great work at the Movies that Matter festival, such clear commitment to raising awareness and fostering debate, that it is easy to forget that filmmaking is not an objective good. It can be done badly, and it can do harm.

A festival with so many extraordinary documentaries can produce the sensation of falling headfirst into one world after another. I struggled out each time, blinking in the benign light of the ‘city of peace and justice’, clutching a question: is it my fault? Mostly, the films offer no answer. Yes and no. Watch, learn, remember.

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