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    Image from Kabuli Kid at the 20th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival. in Human Rights Watch Film Festival
    Image from "Kabuli Kid" at the 20th annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

    Postwar stories

    The 20th Human Rights Watch Film Festival recognizes the importance of something that's often an afterthought — the aftermath of wars — with films about what happens to widows, weapons and war criminals when the fighting has ended.


    Like America during the Bush administration, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival has uncovered a subtle truth: War is easy; postwar is hard.

    Walter Reade Theater
    Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam
    (212) 875-5600

    When writing about film festivals, I am always tempted to identify a common theme among the films, however varied the connections. But in the case of this year's HRW festival, the whole program really is dominated by films about this one subject — what happens after a war. And fittingly so at this moment, when war has clearly proven itself not the answer to the world's problems, while ending and recovering from the decade's wars now daunts us.

    One of the most striking films is "My Neighbor, My Killer," a documentary that goes to a Rwandan village to observe the misery-drenched reintegration of Hutu men imprisoned for genocide in the same community where they once killed off the Tutsi men and boys.

    "Remnants of a War" goes to Lebanon to document the effect of cluster bombs that litter the country after Israel's disastrous war there in 2006. It's an issue that has been gaining awareness around the world in the last few years — you don't need to see many legless children and adults before you understand the moral issue involved. But international efforts to curb the weapons are being stymied by a few of their most prolific users, specifically Israel and the United States.

    Image from the Bosnian film Snow. in Human Rights Watch Film Festival
    Image from the Bosnian film "Snow."

    A couple of fiction films also dramatize the effects after war. "Kabuli Kid" (pictured above) is about a taxi driver's discovery in Kabul, Afghanistant. And "Snow" is a beautifully filmed Bosnian film about widows and children struggling to survive in a small village, whose poverty puts them at the mercy of their wartime enemies.

    I missed press screenings of two of the highest-profile films, but both have already gained notice before their release. "The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court" traces the effort to create justice for the wars in Congo and Sudan. And "Afghan Star," on what seems initially to be a lighter note, follows an Afghan version of "American Idol," in which women's right to live freely is put to a test.

    Five archival films are also getting repeat screenings, including two that fit the postwar theme. "Regret to Inform" was made by an American who lost her husband in the Vietnam War and is inspired to travel to Vietnam and meet some of that country's own war widows. And "Iraq in Fragments," one of the best documentaries of the past few years, presents photographically intense impressions, mostly through children's eyes, of the effects of the Iraq War on the Iraqis themselves.

    What I wrote above bears emphasizing, because it's an important lesson for us as Americans. Look in any bookstore, watch any movie channel, listen to veterans reminisce, and it will be obvious — people can spend 100 hours telling stories about war for every hour they spend thinking about the time after the war. War is intense; postwar is tedious. And yet, the war is about nothing until it is later shaped into something. Not only do the winners win and the losers lose; the very future is created when the war is over.

    It is impressive how many creative people are now looking at questions of what kind of life is left amid the destruction, the ashes, the graves, the remaining souls. Is righteousness restored? Are broken lives ever repaired? Are enemies ever rejoined? This year's Human Rights Watch festival is something of a marvel for bringing life to those questions through such a variety of places and experiences.

    JUNE 16, 2009

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