What would you do if you suddenly discovered, at 15, that you were adopted, and that your biological parents had disappeared the day you were born? No, it’s not the 1980s weepy young adult novel The Face on the Milk Carton. It’s the plot of the Argentine movie “Cautiva,” actually released in 2003, which is based on real historical events. Between 1976 and 1983, 30,000 dissenting civilians “disappeared” in Argentina during a military dictatorship commonly called the “Dirty War,” and at least 74 children have been creepily “reclaimed” from their biological parents. Though this atrocity occurred relatively recently, it’s all too easy to forget about a painful past. Gaston Biraben’s film re-opens Argentina’s wound, but is content to settle for the moral high ground instead of addressing more complex issues of identity.
The protagonist Cristina (Sof’a to her biological family) is plucked from class to meet with a stern judge. He lets her in on the bad news, and her virginal face registers shock as she realizes her “parents” have been illegally caring for her for 16 years. From that point on, the audience is two steps ahead of the narrative, which favors “CSI”-style dialogue and melodramatic courtroom scenes, including one climactic flashback straight out of a telenovela. Cristina doesn’t believe her biological or adoptive parents and has to resort to her own sleuthing, among other contrivances that nudge the plot along. Though its subject matter is obviously compelling, “Cautiva” fails to develop a complex story about the “disappeared” of Argentina. Eventually, black-and-white moral lines are drawn and Cristina’s adoptive parents become the “bad guys,” but in real life, decisions wouldn’t be this easy. Guess whose side she picks? Yep, you’re right.
“Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams”
By Sophia Kercher
Leaning back in her seat through the reflection of the moving vehicle Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) sees not one but two full moons, rising and coming together, in the Sarajevo night. In the Bosnian film “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic, the moons appear to represent Esma before the Yugoslav war of the 1990s and Esma after the war. Esma is a single mother struggling to raise her feisty teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) in a postwar Sarajevo. As a last resort, to support Sara, Esma has to work into the late into the hours of the night as a cocktail waitress. The less time Esma spends with Sara, the more rebellious her daughter becomes. It is not until a painful confrontation with the mother and daughter violently screaming at each other that Esma is able to take the first steps of overcoming her tragic past and Sara is able to recognize her mother’s hardships. The cinematography displays Bosnia as stark and cold but the characters of the film warm the screen. “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” is a poignant and powerful portrait of present-day Bosnian life.
“Enemies of Happiness”
By Mollie Vandor
With all the press coverage of the war in Iraq, Afghanistan – the first front in the so-called “war on terror” – often gets almost entirely overlooked by the press and in the popular imagination. The 2007 Sundance Film Festival winner “Enemies of Happiness” puts the struggle for democracy in Afghanistan front and center, as it documents 28-year-old Malalai Joya’s 2003 campaign for a seat in the Afghan National Assembly.
Throughout the film, Joya overcomes death threats, detractors and deep-seated opposition as she attempts to convince the people of Afghanistan that her gender is not a good enough reason not to vote for her. The pace is a bit slow and the film is definitely of the no-frills variety, with the contrast between the verbal attacks Joya receives from her opponents and the outpouring of support she garners from the steady stream of supporters who come to seek her counsel during the campaign providing the majority of the film’s plot.
However, the movie’s overall effect is quiet, hypnotic and empowering, and the fact that it doesn’t hit the viewer over the proverbial head with its message is a refreshing deviation from the political documentary norm. This movie might not be as high profile as the other entries in the Human Rights Film Fest, but it is definitely worth devoting the 58-minute running-time to.
“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”
By Tyler Vickers
Perhaps you have heard of the Milgram experiment; it tested the degree to which people would remain obedient to figures of authority even when their actions inflicted severe, even life-threatening, pain upon others. When administering false electric-shocks to actors posing as participants, the majority of true participants continued to administer shocks when prompted to do so even after they heard the actors scream in feigned agony.
Rory Kennedy’s film, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” identifies this experiment as an important psychological precedent when considering what factors contributed to criminal mistreatment and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American troops at Abu Ghraib prison. The filmmakers dismiss the theory that the military police officers acted on some “Animal House” mentality to humiliate these almost entirely innocent people. Instead, they indicate the systemic problem of inhumane torture practices, similar to controversial ones used at Guantanamo Bay, which were directly implemented in Iraq by U.S. Dept. of Justice officials and Donald Rumsfeld.
Besides stirring up some considerable political controversy among the military and the Bush administration, Kennedy’s film treats the subject with equal parts outrage and cold, collected documentary muckraking. It awakens the pertinence of its subject matter, treats the victims with respect and ignites indignation in American viewers that surely causes them to rethink their country’s stance on torture as well as the bounds of their own obedience to authority.