MIFF wrap

By Pia White, Lizzie O’Shea, Sam Ryan, Sonia Nair, Maya Borom and Christie-Anna Ozorio

The Melbourne International Film Festival is done for another year, but Right Now was there to review the human rights-themed films to keep an eye out for.


Watchers of the Sky | Edet Belzberg

Watchers of the Sky posterHistory is littered with horrific occasions of what we now recognise as genocide, but before 1944 they had not yet been ascribed a name, nor recognised as being unified by particular defining characteristics.

Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky ambitiously but deftly examines the evolution of the international legal status of the crime, recent and historical instances of genocide, the relative ease with which such atrocities are committed and the difficulties in bringing those responsible to justice. Different perspectives are offered via the commentary of both survivors of genocide and active human rights campaigners including that of the current Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo.

At the heart of the documentary however, is the story of Raphael Lemkin and his campaign to bring about acknowledgement and condemnation of genocide by the international community. Lemkin recognised the necessity of defining and legislating against genocide long before he personally lost a number of family members during the holocaust, only narrowly avoiding becoming a victim himself. Post-war, he dedicated himself fully to the task of realising the inclusion of genocide as a class of international crime through tireless and solitary campaigning at the United Nations.

As a young man Lemkin asked: “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” Arguably Lemkin would still be searching for a satisfactory answer even today. One of Watchers of the Sky’s great accomplishments is the way it reminds us that despite the great progress of international law since the Second World War, the global community has maintained a staggering capacity to idle in the face of genocide.

— Pia White

The Case Against 8 | Ben Cotner, Ryan White

The Case Against 8 posterThe Case Against 8 is a fascinating portrait of the difficulties and excitement of running major public interest litigation.

The story revolves around Proposition 8, a plebiscite that was put to the Californian people in response to the legalisation of gay marriage. The plebicite passed – in a bittersweet moment for progressives on the same night as Barack Obama won office. This meant that couples who had been married were suddenly stripped of their status. The scene was set for a legal show down that started at a local level and years later, eventually went before the Supreme Court.

The characters were already cast, with the plaintiffs who challenged the prohibition of gay marriage chosen carefully for their appealing natures and down to earth qualities. Watching the process of selection was a rare insight into this kind of litigation; it is clear that the filmmakers had cultivated considerable trust and access. The two couples who became plaintiffs, and their families, were accessible and charming, giving the film a sense of personality that might otherwise be lost in legalities. The third love story (as one of the co-directors described it in a Q&A) is the relationship between the two lead lawyers, Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies. Previously, they were adversaries in the Bush v Gore litigation, but the two teamed up across the political divide for the ‘Case Against 8’ which transformed the prospects legally and politically.

Some of the ideological complexities and tension of the case were lost, particularly the criticisms of marriage as an institution and the leadership of the case by a profoundly conservative lawyer, who would otherwise fail to share the views of many in the campaign. This raises interesting questions about building alliances and designing objectives within movements which were left unanswered. But this was perhaps a necessary omission, the purpose of the film was to render a picture of legal case work and how it can be both meaningful and challenging. This task it performed very well – the film showcased the commitment of the entire team, from the plaintiffs to the lawyers to the film makers themselves. Aspects of the story telling were also creative, with the filmmakers having plaintiffs and lawyers read the transcript of their testimony or submissions, when courtroom footage was not available. This was pleasing to watch; authentic but at the same time the viewer saw those reading their own words reflect upon the experience, years after the actual event.

The Case Against 8 sets a high benchmark for effective legal story telling, while also managing to remain exciting (which is impressive, given that most audience members will already know the outcome). It gives hope that other film makers might follow the example and find ways to tell important, but complex legal stories in accessible ways. Film making remains a very important way of demystifying the law, and humanising those who work on such cases as well as those who are directly affected by the outcome.

 Lizzie O’Shea

Concerning Violence | Göran Hugo Olsson

Concerning Violence poster

A mother sits on a hospital bed, her right arm blown off, a dressing gown covering only her shoulders as her baby, also having just lost a limb, feeds from her still, straight body. Her face is motionless and seemingly expressionless, but it is full of a subtle, powerful emotion. The feeling of having almost nothing left to lose. She is the image of the colonised.

Concerning Violence is a visualisation of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial The Wretched of the Earth, with Lauryn Hill reading passages from Fanon’s text over and between archival footage and interviews of African struggles againstcolonial powers through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

It seems a contradiction, but the film, shadowing Fanon’s book, concludes that great violence is the only way to achieve decolonisation, while also advocating a greater humanity.

Powerful and still all too poignant despite the decades-old vision, the film breathes a new potency into a piece of literature that itself hasn’t lost any relevance.

The idea that great violence is a necessary tool of decolonisation is an uncomfortable one, but director Göran Hugo Olsson is prepared to challenge the audience bluntly before delving deeper and exploring the true nature of Fanon’s message.

The West’s recent history is built on the suffering and displacement of native Africa. The only solution for the colonised is to turn society on its head, placing the first last and the last first. Yet the greater aim is encourage the colonised to find their own way.

“For many among us, the European model was the most inspiring. But when we search for humanity in the technique and style of Europe, we see only a succession of negations of humanity and an avalanche of murders.”

This is not just a manifesto for the colonised but important, uncomfortable viewing for Europeans and their descendants who enjoy the spoils of centuries worth of oppression, not just in Africa.

— Sam Ryan

Macondo | Sudabeh Mortezai

Macondo posterCentred on an 11-year-old Chechen boy named Ramasan, Macondo paints a frank portrait of the plight of asylum seekers – in this case, pushed to the fringes of Austrian social life in an immigration settlement on the outskirts of Vienna.

Ramasan is the man of the house as he looks after his grieving mother and his two precocious younger sisters. However, their peaceful existence is inadvertently disrupted by the arrival of a Chechen ex-soldier who claims to have known Ramasan’s father and Ramasan’s increasing rebellion as he falls under the influence of delinquent children in the settlement.

The film delves into the difficulty of gaining refugee status, as one scene deftly underlines the preposterousness of asylum seekers being asked to prove that they are fleeing persecution – in this case, Ramasan’s mother is asked to provide a death certificate for her husband, even though it would endanger her to do so.

Director Sudabeh Mortezai utilises the child-like lens of the curious and emotionally confused Ramasan to cumulative effect, as the camera lingers longer on scenes that Ramasan finds hard to comprehend. The film’s considered and contemplative approach would have been harder to recreate with an adult lead at the helm, or without the mesmeric performance of the young lead at the centre of the film.

A suspenseful take on the often traumatic refugee experience, Macondo casts a non-judgemental eye on a young boy’s metamorphosis as he maneuverers the rigours of adolescent life without a father in a country that does not want to accept him as a rightful citizen.

— Sonia Nair

Point and Shoot | Marshall Curry

Point and Shoot posterFilmmaker Marshall Curry’s documentary about ex-Gaddafi prisoner and self-styled freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke is both mesmerising and disturbing. VanDkye is well known for being captured by Gaddafi forces during the Libyan civil war and for his choice to remain in Libya and re-join the National Liberation Army rather than return back to the United States.

Curry has certainly chosen an interesting character – VanDyke left the comfort of middle class America after graduating from a Masters at prestigious Georgetown University to travel across Africa and the Middle-East on a bike in a bid to find his identity. After a return stint back in the US, and with his experiences still fresh, the political situation caused by the Arab spring saw him return to take arms as a revolutionary fighter in Libya working to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

Idealistic and with a penchant for posing on camera in cameo, VanDyke films his every moment fighting to overthrow the Gaddafi government and it’s precisely this that makes for engrossing but sometimes uncomfortable viewing. The film raises very important questions concerning the role that foreign fighters may have in conflicts around the world, particularly in light of recent allegations of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

It is legally and morally wrong for a citizen of another country to take up arms against another government? Where does one draw the line if it is viewed as acceptable to be a revolutionary fighter in a foreign war, but not acceptable if you’re wanting to fight for the state? Interspersed with interviews with VanDyke Point and Shoot is a must see for those interested in the events in Libya and for those interested in the psychology of foreign fighters.

— >Maya Borom

School of Babel | Julie Beruceelli

School of Babel posterModern Australia is a nation blossoming with multiculturalism, yet in terms of cultural and ethnic variety it is leagues behind its European counterparts. We teeter on a societal and bureaucratic tightrope when it comes to issues of national identity, xenophobia, and racism, which permeate through policy-making, crime, and education to name but a few.

School of Babel thus held a special significance for its MIFF audience.

The documentary is the brainchild of director Julie Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left, The Tree), who immersed herself in a Parisian secondary school “adaptation class” or “classe d’acceuil” for an entire academic year. The final product is stirring and heart-warming without sacrificing a didactic gaze. The students, ranging across twenty-four nationalities and from ages 11-15, all have a common goal despite their varied backgrounds: assimilation into French society. This adaptation class is their cultural and linguistic doorway into doing so. The children explain their alienation by native Parisian students in various interviews throughout the year, identifying the cultural-linguistic chasm that separates them as the reason as to why they are perceived as outsiders. These social undercurrents exist in all modern multicultural societies to varying degrees, but Bertuccelli’s decision to explore this issue through the relatively open, untouched minds of children revealed much about the metamorphic capacity of education to pierce the walls that adults often construct around their ideals of ethnic, cultural and religious identity. While learning French, the children are probed about theology, culture, language, faith, war, and morality, and the audience is exposed to their extraordinary thoughtfulness and sincerity on these issues.

From a human rights perspective, the children are diverse yet embody racial/political/social/domestic strife, from an asperges Irish boy who moves after his mother loses her job, to a hot-headed Sudanese girl who is beaten by her father’s family who seek to marry her off at the tender age of thirteen, and a Serbian youth who stoically explains how he fled from persecution by Neo-Nazis due to his mother’s Jewish descent. The French auteur explains the founding for her interest in depicting the students’personal histories:

I wanted to convey the turmoil that exile represents, especially at this key age, when childhood is close to an end. I wanted to know more about what they’d left behind – their culture, their beliefs, their memories, their hopes, as well as disillusions.

School of Babel is an enlightening and engaging film, and I dare any to try not to laugh or cry at one point or another for its duration. Yet what Bertuccelli really succeeds at is critiquing the effectiveness of a western society that deems itself pluralist. France is a leader amongst poor company, and Australia can definitely learn from its social politics. The education system is our tower of Babel, and this film shows how important it is for us all to celebrate difference while uniting through commonality.

— Christie-Anna Orozio


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