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    Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

    Packing a punch

    The hard-hitting lineup at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival spotlights political and social issues around the world, with sometimes staggering results.


    The Human Rights Watch festival is probably unique among film festivals in that it's often the worst films that are the best.


    Related links: Official site | "Sanpeet" official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 June 13-26, 2003

    Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2003
  • Overview
  • I'm Taraneh, 15
  • Ford Transit
  • Jiyan
  • Madame Sat
  • Pinochet's Children
  • Rana's Wedding

    Other years
  • Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2004
  • Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2001

    Official sites
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Film Society of Lincoln Center / Walter Reade Theater
  • Reporting and dramatizing human-rights issues around the world, the human-rights organization's annual lineup of documentaries and features are among the most challenging — and often uncomfortable — films of the year.

    If one film earns both of those adjectives this year, it's a half-hour documentary from Thailand called "Sanpeet." Sanpeet, whose name means "Poison," is the star kickboxer in his home region, the pride of his village — oh, and by the way, he's only a wispy seven years old. In an often-shocking twist on the issue of child labor, Sanpeet earns a few extra dollars for his family in the ring — as long as he keeps winning.

    This little film is certainly uncomfortable — it's horrifying to see this 35-pound kid risk permanent injury or brain damage in the ring, and even more so to see his calculating father lay down petty bets on the outcome of his boy's bouts. Yet, it's challenging to our American sensibilities as well.

    There are things you can't help respecting about this boxing culture. The kids are no brawlers — they train very seriously, running long distances and developing their skills, and their matches have the feeling of Little League baseball games, the proud papas gathering around the ring and offering good-natured encouragement. Sanpeet's mother, a low-paid factory worker who has some misgivings about her son's boxing, still sees a lot of good in it. The extra cash can help buy the boys much-needed shoes and a little education, and it's a good, constructive pursuit in her view. "I would rather he be a boxer than a drug addict," she says. What are we to make of this frightening sport, our values and these poor villagers' as well, when we see the entire picture?

    As for the full-length features, Middle Eastern issues dominate this year's festival. The outstanding Palestinian drama "Rana's Wedding," about a woman who must overcome all the obstacles of daily life in Israel and the West Bank to get married by 4:00, finds an interesting companion piece in the documentary "Ford Transit," about the rickety Ford vans that criss-cross the occupied territories and the military checkpoints that lead to Jerusalem. Both are by director Hany Abu-Assad.

    "Welcome to Hadassah Hospital" shows the life of a Jerusalem hospital where terror-bomb victims are often treated allongside those who participated in the attacks. And in "My Terrorist," an Israeli woman tracks down the bomber responsible for wounding her 23 years earlier.

    Intersting entries from Iran and Iraq include the drama "Jiyan," set among the children victimized by Saddam Hussein's attacks on the Kurdish population, and "I'm Taraneh, 15," a moving film about a girl whose fiance takes off for Germany, leaving her pregnant in Iran's strict but complex Islamic state.

    A pair of promising-looking documentaries from Latin America proved disappointing, despite their urgent subject matter. "Pinochet's Children," featuring four revolutionaries who sacrificed their own well-being to help bring democracy to Chile, is mildly interesting for its portrayal of what happens to the radicals after their battle is won, but it doesn't ask the right questions. "War Takes" is a self-indulgent home movie by a trio of female TV producers in Colombia, failing to tell any story at all. They seem to be a safe distance away whenever violence erupts in their country's civil war, and the movie focuses on the women's nervousness about what's happening rather than showing any of what is actually happening. There's undoubtedly a story there, but they haven't gone and gotten it.

    Festival articles



    Ford Transit

    "Ford Transit" shows us how the charismatic driver of a makeshift West Bank bus negotiates the treacherous border, and gives an ear to the Palestinian passengers' points of view along the way.


    I'm Taraneh, 15

    It isn't easy anywhere to be a single mother, and Iranian culture adds a few unexpected twists to one teenager's story in "I'm Taraneh, 15," ultimately an affirmation of life.



    A Kurdish-American benefactor arrives in northern Iraq to build a new orphanage, where Saddam's heinous poison gas attack has become Kurds' defining moment, but it's the going forward part that will determine their future.


    Madame Sata

    The story of the Brazilian drag pioneer is no prettified fashionfest — it's a muscular, animalistic romp through the Rio de Janeiro underworld of the 1930s.


    Pinochet's Children

    "Pinochet's Children" revisits four former radicals who helped fight for democracy in Chile, but doesn't tell their story very well.


    Rana's Wedding

    A young woman's urgent, daylong rush to get married by 4 o'clock is made more desperate by both real and figurative roadblocks in the outstanding "Rana's Wedding," a fast-paced personal odyssey through Palestinian life today.

    JUNE 13, 2003

    Reader comments on Human Rights Watch International Film Festival:

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