FILM JUNE 16, 2010
National Geographic Entertainment
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Let It Rain
“War is hell.” General Sherman’s three-word definition has never been surpassed. He meant to dispel prevalent notions about glory, which he called moonshine. Factual knowledge, he apparently thought, would diminish war. The still camera had already started to support him; now there are also film and video. Today, however, Sherman might be bemused to see that, though factual knowledge has vastly increased, war has not exactly diminished.
The latest addition to factuality about war is an exceptional documentary called Restrepo. A few years ago Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger arranged to have themselves embedded with a platoon of American soldiers being deployed to an outpost in Afghanistan--embedded at least to the extent that sometimes singly, sometimes together, the two men made ten trips of a month each during the platoon’s fifteen-month assignment there. (Junger has also published a book called War about his Afghan experiences.) Their intent was to document soldiers’ lives--daily doings in which fierce firefights were part of the form as factory hours are to a mechanic. Obviously the emotional atmosphere, heightened and dulled by turns, was not the same as a factory’s, but the film is meant to distill the essence of dailiness through those fifteen months, twenty-four hours a day. Despite its terse ninety minutes, it succeeds.
Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade was aware from the start that its station in the Korengal Valley would be tough. The captain tells his men before they leave that he had been warned that they would “take fire” from the Taliban. They soon do, and they dig in. Supplied apparently by helicopter, they get the post in shape, then begin their patrols and explorations. Not long afterward, their medic, Juan Restrepo, is killed, and the men name their post in his honor.
We soon have the feeling of slogging ahead on a dangerous journey, fifteen months long, banality and crisis mixed day by day. Firefights are violent: off-duty interludes with guitar are poignantly easy. Often members of the platoon meet elders of an Afghan village nearby, endeavoring to enlist their support even though the villagers are constantly warned by the Taliban against collaborating. The villagers are also more than aggravated by the accidental killing of some of their people by American soldiers. (Part of the effect of the film is the placement of these killings in scale, as incidents, not as grievous as they would be elsewhere--simply regrettable incidents that can happen in these circumstances and do.) When at last the platoon is relieved, we almost feel the relief ourselves. The film-makers have had the useful idea of inserting throughout some comments by platoon survivors, interviewed after their return to base. These affecting moments, done always in large close-up, give a rounded effect to the whole enterprise. The fifteen months almost become a whole and weighty object that we can look at.
Hetherington and Junger clearly won acceptance by the men who never acknowledge the camera’s presence. The film-makers say that in order to get permission for their project, they had to promise to omit political comment of any kind. They kept their word. But we are not so obligated. It is hard not to remember that this film--reporting a small part of a gigantic upheaval--is part of the long-lasting result of some governmental decisions. It is also hard not to remember Sherman. The lives of these soldiers evoke both admiration and bitterness.
Restrepo is available two ways. It is being released by itself as a feature attraction, and it is also included in that annual benison, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. This year is the festival’s twenty-first edition, with thirty films from twenty-five countries. The festival may suffer a bit from its name. The organization that creates it deserves all the credit it can get, yet the name makes it sound as if the chief reason for seeing these pictures is that they are good for us. They are good for us. Also, so far as I have been able to sample them each year, they are good pictures.
This year I have seen two besides Restrepo. Another American entry is 12th & Delaware by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The title is a crossroads in Fort Pierce, Florida. On one corner is a pregnancy care center: right across the street, facing it, is the headquarters of a pro-life group. Throughout the film the pro-life people picket the center, which of course functions, among other ways, as an abortion advisory. The picketers, besides the expected placards, also flourish models of fetuses at various stages.
This Ewing-Grady film clings to the principle of human rights. It assumes that the pro-lifers have rights too, whatever our beliefs may be, and they are given seemingly equal screen time. The woman at the pregnancy center whom we get to know is reasonable, patient, unexploitative, much more engaging than her opponents. Still, the point of the picture is to present the conflict face-to-face, not to propagandize. Ewing and Grady have managed to keep their film fluent, rather than chunks of static data. As for our own beliefs, the picture will probably heat them.
Presumed Guilty is Mexican, filmed by Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, and directed by Hernández and Geoffrey Smith. It follows the story of Toño Zúñiga, who is arrested in Mexico City for a murder of which he knows absolutely nothing. Apparently the police needed to arrest someone, and Toño filled the bill sufficiently. He was convicted on the basis of what is apparently the local law--presumption of guilt until proved innocent. Hernández and Negrete follow the tortuous proceedings through the next few years trying to see that justice is done. The editing is nimble, the appearances by Toño are moving, and the odds seem awful. The ending is a surprise.
If we wonder how Hernández and Negrete got permission to do their filming inside prisons, we might note skeptically that every room and hallway we see is scrupulously clean. We may be permitted to doubt, from other sources, that this is always the case: authorities might have cleaned locations up as a little propaganda of their own.
As usual, after the New York premiere of the full festival, versions of the program will visit forty cities in the United States and Canada. As usual, too, though some of the items are grim, it is cheering once again to know that gifted people are addressing important subjects around the world--and are doing it with talent. Information about visits and availabilities is at www.hrw.org/iff.
A French film called Let It Rain, pliant and comfortable, advances a quite different sort of cause. In recent years a genre has been slipping into the film world so subtly that it is now fairly well established without much comment. Call it the Intimate Film. Several countries have supplied instances. It is a picture that wants to put us in the company of a group of people, with the principal purpose of acquaintance, not drama.
The genre’s core is proportion. A baby’s smooth skin is full of alpine crevices under the right glass. Relatively undramatic lives are jagged under an intense camera. The point is not to make mountains out of molehills. Rather, it is to show how film can investigate some kinds of human travail without large-scale traditional engines of drama.
Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, in their third venture together, have opted for this intimacy. They could hardly have committed themselves more fully: they co-wrote the script, they play two of the leading roles, and Jaoui directed. She sets the tone from the first shot: two men, conversing, move past the camera away from us into the story. We go along with them.
The place is southern France, the birthplace of Agathe Villanova (played by Jaoui). She is a prominent feminist who comes down from Paris to help her married sister Florence with family matters and, not quite incidentally, to run in a local election. While Agathe is there, two local film-makers, Michel (played by Bacri) and a young Algerian named Karim, ask her if they may film an interview with her. She agrees, but things do not always go smoothly. The work on the interview, plus Michel’s gradually revealed involvement with Florence, plus Karim’s doings, are some of the matters that course onward. We soon realize that the picture’s being is the sum of all these stories rather than a grand conflict.
In the Intimate Film the performances must carry the day. Jaoui is so commanding as Agathe that it is intriguing to remember that she is directing herself. Bacri is humorous and appealing as Michel, with just a slight tendency to italicize his expressions and gestures. Pascale Arbillot provides a Florence at that point in her life when she might leave her marriage even though it has up to now been all right. The Algerian Jamel Debbouze, as Karim, is uniquely vital as a gifted film editor who fills in between jobs as a hotel reception clerk.
With her directing Jaoui maintains the invitation of the opening shot. The title, we are told elsewhere, was suggested by a French song about a man who hates fine weather. One sequence in a torrential storm puts this quirk to the test. But rain or shine, Jaoui’s film is a pleasant place to be.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.