SB Human Rights Film Festival Review


Aisa Villanueva
Staff Writer
Photo Courtesy of: Arts & Lectures

Blockbuster movies possess siren-like beauty that calls out to our humanity. We cheer for their heroes, the chosen few graced with the lion’s courage and the tin man’s heart, because to vicariously experience “good winning over evil” or “love conquering all” even for just two hours, is alluring, addictive even.

I’ve become disgustingly cheesy with the warm, tingly butterflies that mainstream films have fed me with. To deviate from the popular norm, I keep a look out for the agonizing beauty that their not-as- commercially-known documentary and independent counterparts present. I’ve found that the uncut suffering and ambivalent emotions woven in these films make me feel even more human than blockbusters.

Last week, I hit the gold mine with the 6th Annual Santa Barbara Human Rights Film Festival. With Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s 12th & Delaware, I couldn’t help but situate myself frighteningly in the middle of the on-going debate regarding abortion. Grady and Ewing, makers of 2006’s Jesus Camp, are back to take their audiences to Fort Pierce, Florida’s 12th & Delaware street corners where, ironically, a pregnancy care clinic and an abortion clinic stand directly facing each other.

By following the lives of Anne and Candace, the women who run the pregnancy care clinic and the abortion clinic, respectively, the mirror shines back to the real-world relationship that America has with abortion and all the issues overlapped with it – religion, politics, secularism, and women’s rights.

From a scene where pro-life protestors are pleading in Spanish to a Hispanic woman to not abort her seventh child in exchange for money and clothing for her growing family to another where a crying woman admits to Candace the pain and guilt that haunts her every night in even thinking of aborting her unborn baby, my emotions ran high throughout the entire film.

Pro-life advocates adamantly proclaimed every single day, in front of Candace’s A Woman’s World Clinic, that pro-choice women and proponents should not kill God’s blessings and side with “the enemy.” Their lives revolved solely on swaying people’s opinions and making their message heard to the point that they traced the identity of the perpetually covered abortion doctors. The film’s urgent attention to those doctors’ safety and the subtle hint of religious-driven violence sent flashbacks of Timothy McVeigh and September 11 rushing through my head.

In the same way, I couldn’t help but be frustrated at seeing the often teenage-unplanned mothers who entered the pregnancy care clinic come out in shock and confusion with the information that Anne rained their way. These women should not have to find out these facts about their bodies and babies after finding out that they’re pregnant. Where are more accessible information hubs that tackle sex education and maternal health? Why must women who already belong to a day-to-day subsistent socio-economic class suffer even more because of information that people like me take for granted?

I could not help but feel a jarring desire to pick a side. Grady and Ewing make you want to choose through the careful attention that they put in their film’s nuanced details – from the pounding silence spoken by abortion-choosing women who never once showed their faces to the lenses’ zoom ins to the miniature fetuses held by pro-life protestors. What they show and what they leave to your imagination have been well-chosen to add into the whole debacle on abortion.

The unbending truth and passionate anger unveiled by each side brings forth the reality that, unlike many Hollywood films, this is a truth that will remain hanging in the air – staunch and uncompromising.

Roman Baratiak, the Associate Director of UCSB’s Arts and Lectures, says, “We opened the film festival up [with 12th and Delaware] in the USA to show that you don’t have to go far to find issues that speak to different audiences.”

Nonetheless, I came thirsty for other voices and did not want to discriminate as another film’s message spoke to me and flew me into the African continent. Through Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don, I was plopped in post-Civil War Sierra Leone, where, because the war don don (“war is over”), the world’s third poorest country is in the middle of implicating Revolutionary United Front (RUF) former general, Issa Sesay. Cohen’s film brought me into the convoluted world of the United Nations, international law, and the corruption that oils dictatorships and post-dictator governments.

The trial was important to demonstrate respect and the importance of law, even in a country where the state of law is fragile,” says Barbara Morra, graduate student in Global & International Studies.

A farmer irately shares that the UN, instead of spending millions to build the towering and pristine Special Court gated compound made for the war trials, should instead be spending money on helping farmers like him rebuild and raise themselves out of destitution. As he talks, the camera pans out to the shining Special Court compound that stands out like a swollen bruise compared to its impoverished shanty town neighbors.

I was brought back to past class discussions regarding Rudyard Kipling’s A White Man’s Burden upon seeing all these Westerners from Europe try to make sense of the trial placed at their hands. These were people who, before the trial, learned about Sierra Leone’s Civil War only through books and film footage. Not having experienced it first hand and not having a full contextualized background on Sierra Leone’s painful history, I couldn’t help but wonder how these Westerners were suddenly thrust with the power to arbitrate and decide on a supposed guilty party’s fate.

You question the length of such trials and the responsibility that they [UN representatives] have to heal wounds,” said Baratiak.

Moreover, I would like to know, who gave those people the power to heal wounds and push for solutions? The blatant power dynamic in the United Nations that has tilted towards the Western world since day one bites the audience in their behinds through crafty scenes that show the varied ways as to how the trials are viewed.

In the Special Court, the room for the trial often has White Westerners filling its pews. Move in to another scene, and a man is commentating beside a minute TV that has been placed in heart of one of Sierra Leone’s packed shanty towns. He explains with a hoarse voice the need for Sierra Leoneans to understand the impact of the trial and that they simply raise their hands if they have questions or clarifications regarding the trial. Who has the right to communicate to a suffering people what is fair and what is not? Who should represent and obtain justice for them?

It’s a good movie because it places you in the shoes of people with very different and harder lives than you,” said Verena von Oetinger, graduate student in Global and International Studies.

Each time I finished watching any of the festival’s films, I left Campbell Hall feeling high-strung and better than I would from Hollywood movies. I didn’t feel as manufactured-tingly, but I felt alive.

Knowledge communicated through films, can make a difference. It’s kind of like traveling, which isn’t just about going to other places; but about going home and putting things back to a bigger perspective,” said Baratiak.

Sure, I won’t stop watching saccharine-injected Hollywood movies, but I will also not stop watching documentaries and independent beauties. I’d like to keep expanding my perspective and continue breaking down self-imposed barriers. It’s exciting to be moved and want to represent a cause or two that has spoken so loudly to you through the films you’ve seen. I want to be driven and march on in my life like that, because I think this is where all the true action is.