Festival Watch: Human Rights Watch film festival, London

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The Independent Culture

Want to feel like your face is being rammed into abarrel of vomit?

Want to feel like your face is being rammed into abarrel of vomit? The annual Human Rights Watch FilmFestival can be a bit like that - and this as arecommendation. From the Balkans to Palestine to theCongo, the festival is a Holiday in Hell for peopletoo busy, timid or broke to set off on a package triparound the world's killing fields.

Ladies and gentlemen, your tour begins with a two-hourrendez-vous with 'Liberia - An Uncivil War'. Yourguides are Jonathan Stack and James Brabazon, and theyare embedded with rival sides in the civil war of2004. This tiny Made-in-America country in West Africawas founded for the freed slaves of the Deep South,and it has been one of the USA's most loyal allies forthe past 150 years. Its reward? Well, Liberia's ColdWar strongman, President Doe - who disembowelled andate his predecessor - was embraced by Ronald Reagan as"a friend". But the Liberian people have seen fewerbenefits, and they now endure the lowest livingstandards on earth. On your right, you can hear a manbegging his toddler - hit by a stray bullet - "Don'tdie yet. Please." On your left, you can hear a youngwoman saying, "No money. No job. I will kill fornothing."

This film thrusts its viewers into a war where nobodyknows what they are fighting for. Some - mainlychildren - think they are fighting for "my fatherCharles Taylor". Most are fighting simply because itis all they have ever known. As the film-makers note,"War gives young men with no future a strangedignity." This is war stripped of romantic ideals orillusions; a dystopian, post-ideological war of pureviolence pursued as an end in itself. Even aftermonths in Liberia, the film-makers still cannotdistinguish LURD fighters from government loyalists."I try to look at the t-shirts or the colour of thebandanas, but it rarely helps," says one. "They justseem so similar."

Liberians have a saying - "When two elephants fight,the grass suffers." Running as a leitmotif throughoutthe film are recitations on Liberian radio of thenames of children discovered by the Red Cross,stripped from their parents: "Rebecca is eight. Shewas discovered in Yoru Village, and she is looking forher mother, Anna. Adam is six. He was discovered inKonzo village?"

In a lachrymose metaphor for Liberian life, the filmshows 30,000 people living destitute in the nationalstadium. They are breathing symbols of how violentconflict has subsumed peaceful competition - victimsof war huddling in a shell of civilian life.

Throughout the film, Liberians beg, "The whole worldhas let us down. We are bleeding. Where are you?"Others - aware that the war is being fought withWestern-supplied arms - demand, "Why do you give themguns to kill us? Why?" The Liberian people pile upbodies outside the US Embassy in a plea for a deus exmachina to rescue them. In a moment uncaptured in thisdocumentary, the Liberians trapped in Monrovia saw theUS flag lower to half-mast one afternoon, and began toweep with joy, thinking it was a signal that help wason its way. In fact, a 100-year old entertainer calledBob Hope had died. The death of Hope indeed.

And then the civil war ended as randomly as it began.Some 15,000 blue helmets - in the largest UNpeace-keeping operation in the world - flooded thecountry, and achieved a brittle peace. (Let theUN-bashers tell the people of Liberia how "useless" itis). But it took a year of killing before the worldacted. Nobody knows how many people died in that time;nobody dares to count.

At the end of the film, fighters from both sides meeton a bridge, and one says, "We were all childsoldiers. You are like us. Forget war." Another holdshis arm against one of his enemies' and say with awe,"Same skin. Same skin." And still - as the end creditsroll - the endless incantation of the names of lostchildren echoes over the Liberian landscape.

Your next stop, Messieurs and Mesdames, takes you toChile and to the other, even more deadly 9/11. Theleft-wing film-maker Patricio Guzmán was expelled fromhis country when the fascist regime of AugustoPinochet liquidated two centuries of stutteringprogress towards democracy in a vicious coup onSeptember 11th 1973. As he was 'processed' along withtens of thousands of other democrats in the nationalstadium (that metaphor again), Guzman determined toprotect the footage he had of the disappearing Chile,the land of lost democracy being demolished all aroundhim.

That footage forms the spine to his elegiac film'Salvador Allende'. Guzman returns more than threedecades later to seek traces of Allende, thedemocratically elected President who shot himself inthe rubble of the Presidential Palace as Pinochet'stanks rumbled in. The film-maker finds a pair ofbroken wire glasses in a case, a few crumblingphotographs - and a taboo. There have been no seriousbiographies of Allende, little public discussion ofhis legacy, and in a long sequence Guzman tries to askpeople living near Allende's old house for theirmemories of him. Doors are slammed; most peoplerecoil. One man, with a nervous look, murmurs, "He wasa gentleman. He thought the traitors who overthrew himwere honourable, and that is why they could destroyhim."

He's right. As Guzman reconstructs the story ofAllende's election in 1970 - on the back of widespreadpopular movements - it becomes clear that the CIApropaganda-demon of Allende as an incipient Communistdictator is absurd. He was a European romanticsocialist, misty-eyed about the values of the FrenchRevolution - more Michael Foot than Chairman Mao. Herejected the principles of Leninism and "proletariandictatorship", and he was so reluctant to infringe onliberal freedoms that he left enough space for his owndestruction. Even senior CIA operatives in the filmacknowledge that he was "an exceptionally civilisedman".

Yet Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger determined thatChile's democracy had to be destroyed for being"irresponsible" enough to select a man who believed inredistribution of land wealth, not to mentionlimitations on US corporations. As Guzman explains inthe gentle poetry of his Chilean Spanish, Allende'sgovernment was subject to systematic destabilisationthrough-out its three year term. Economic sanctionswere tried and a bizarre "employers' strike" wasfermented. The Nixon administration tried to bribeGeneral Rene Schneider - the head of the army - tomount a coup, but he was committed to protecting hiscountry's democracy. The CIA murdered him. Pinochetemerged in his place.

In a prophetic speech to the UN General Assembly inNew York City in 1972, Allende warned of "a comingconflict between multinationals and democraticgovernments? They operate without assuming theirresponsibilities. They share no instinct for thecommon interest. The political system of the world isweakening as a result." Within a year, he was dead.The criminal Henry Kissinger - who directly orderedthis destruction of democracy - is still at large. Inthe new Santiago - even while Pinochet awaits trialfor Crimes Against Humanity - Guzman feels like astranger. He cannot forget this is the graveyard ofAllendeism - cluttered with the untaxed, suprememegastores belonging to the multinationals Allendewarned about - and there has still been no reckoningwith his country's past.

But Allende's story - and this remarkable film -resists the soft corruption of declaring him a martyr.He was not a Christ-figure who sought to die in aredemptive fit of agony. He simply wanted to be ademocratic politician in a democratic country. As thePresident says in a rescued clip here, "I do not havethe qualities of a martyr. I am only a social fighterdoing his duty."

So here ends our rat-a-tat-tat tour of haemorrhagingcountries and suffocating societies, all witnessedfrom a plush armchair in an air-conditioned cinema inLondon's West End. As ever at the Human Rights WatchFilm Festival, the popcorn tastes faintly of blood.

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