New Internationalist

HOTDOCS Special

July 2007

Toronto’s HOTDOCS festival is now the largest and most diverse documentary film festival in North America. Activists could do worse than use these films in their campaigns or start their own local festivals. Here are some highlights:

USA vs Al Arian

This film will leave you fuming. Norwegian filmmaker Line Halvorsen goes inside the family of a Palestinian professor in Tampa, Florida, who is being prosecuted for his views under the post-9/11 national security state. A vengeful legal system looking for Arab blood is both cynical and relentless in its determination to punish Al Arian for his politics. Halvorsen has woven together an intimate story of family life under pressure against a tense backdrop of political repression.

The Devil Came on Horseback

Captain Brian Seidle, a retired US Marine, ended up in Darfur as an observer with the African Union peacekeepers. In the process he became preoccupied with the massacres engineered by the Sudanese Government working with Janjaweed militia. Directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, this film uses creative sound and visual techniques to make the most of Seidle’s still photos – his only record of the brutality. Focusing the film on Seidle is both its strength and its weakness. His military knowledge allows a clear understanding of what the Sudanese are up to and the difficulties peacekeepers face. But there is an implicit anti-Arab bias in the film and an annoying tendency to glorify the US military. Seidle’s passionate belief that we need to ‘do something’ is fair enough – but sending in the US Marines is scarcely a credible solution.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

The ‘few bad apples’ theory of why Iraqi prisoners were tortured by US service personnel at Abu Ghraib prison is finally put to rest here. Interviews with insiders, including those accused of abuse, reveal a systematic policy driven by Donald Rumsfeld and others to turn up the heat on Iraqi prisoners so as to gain ‘quality intelligence’. The result almost guaranteed US failure in Iraq. The spiral of brutality revealed in Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib has echoes in the psychology of military occupation far beyond Iraq. In the end it became clear to all that the detainees were not good ‘intelligence assets’ because in most cases they had no beans to spill.

Everything’s Cool

Judith Helfand and Daniel B Gold bill their film about global warming as a ‘toxic comedy’. It may not be roll-in-the-aisles humour but it does provide an ironic look at the way America’s lobby of climate-change deniers has managed to convince a gullible US public. This is a film less about the science and more about the politics but it has both verve and depth. Helfand and Gold build their story around veteran climate campaigners such as Bill McGibbon and Ross Gelbspan but add in quirky stories to leaven the mix. They point to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans as a turning point in US attitudes towards global warming.

Richard Swift

This column was published in the July 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 402

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