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Ugly truths that must be told

Amnesty International's fourth annual film festival will screen a compelling array of documentaries grappling with social justice issues.

May 22, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

In an arresting new documentary, a Cambodian dance teacher who lost loved ones to the killing fields of Pol Pot hears that the regional leader who terrorized her in the 1970s has come out of hiding and reinvented himself as a powerful leader in the same village where he once condemned people to death.

Her outrage overcomes her fear, and she decides to confront him. In a tale so intimate and suspenseful that it has the feel of a novel, she leaves her home in the city and journeys through the lovely Cambodian countryside to the village. There, in a crumbling old pagoda, Buddhist monks arrange for her a riveting meeting with the onetime village abuser, who at first pretends he can't remember what she's talking about.

This story, told in "Deacon of Death," is just one of a rich array of documentary films to be showcased at the fourth annual Amnesty International Film Festival West Hollywood, at the Directors Guild May 24 through 29. It is one of several films that are so visually stunning they could double as travelogues -- if it weren't for the social justice issues that drive their stories.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are playing an ever-increasing role in marketing documentaries that play to their concerns.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Film festival -- In an article in Sunday's Calendar section on the Amnesty International Film Festival, the Independent Television Service was called the Independent Television Network. In addition, the last name of Peruvian photographer Vera Lentz was misspelled Lenz. A photo from "State of Fear" that accompanied the article was credited to Amnesty International; it should have been credited to Lentz.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 29, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Film festival -- In an article about the Amnesty International Film Festival last Sunday, the Independent Television Service was incorrectly called the Independent Television Network. In addition, a photo from "State of Fear" that accompanied the article was credited to Amnesty International; it should have been credited to Vera Lentz.

The Amnesty International Film Festival, which began in Seattle in 1992, in the last five years has spread to five other U.S. cities, including Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Asheville, N.C., as well as Amsterdam, said Alessandra Gallo, the director of the festivals for Amnesty International USA. The first District of Columbia festival will be in October, in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Such exposure can be crucial for documentaries, said Sandra Ruch, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Assn.

"That's where you can launch the career of a film," she said. "Even a distributor wants to see the film at a festival first to see the audience reaction. How many distributors are going to take a political film right off the bat? I cannot overemphasize the importance of that festival."

At a time when Amnesty International is making its way into everything from the liner notes of U2 albums to network dramas like "The West Wing," its festivals are increasingly viewed as an effective branding tool -- even for films that are already scheduled for distribution or broadcast.

This year, the Independent Television Network will partner with Amnesty International to promote "The Devil's Miner," a film about child miners in Bolivia, according to Desiree Gutierrez, an associate publicist for the network. Amnesty festivals have helped to build audiences for such documentaries as "Born Into Brothels," "Senorita Extraviada," "Death in Gaza" and "The Murder of Emmett Till."

Among the 22 documentaries that will be screened here is the U.S. premiere of "The Other Side of Burka," an eerie look at the literally maddening lives of Iranian women on the Persian Gulf island of Qeshm, where they are forced to wear a pinching black face mask. The Los Angeles festival will also screen "Shake Hands With the Devil," retired Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire's memoir of his nightmarish stint as the U.N. peacekeeping commander during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where he was not empowered to stop the murders of 800,000 people.

Another documentary showing here for the first time is "State of Fear," about the abuses committed in Peru's war with the Shining Path, a chilling history narrated by such protagonists as a soldier who describes dropping Shining Path guerrillas from a helicopter one by one, to frighten the last guerrilla into providing information -- and then pushing him off too.

The world so beautifully photographed in "The Devil's Miner" -- with its festivals, folkloric dances and folk art devils -- seems conjured from the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except for the unbelievably harsh odds facing the boy miners who narrate the tale.

In a misty Andean dreamscape, a 14-year-old miner and his 12-year-old brother descend into the bowels of the Earth to eke a marginal livelihood for their family from a Bolivian silver mine where countless workers are said to have lost their lives.

The boys stumble into the darkness, stopping to pay homage to one of the hundreds of handcrafted terra-cotta devils that guard the tunnels. When they enter this underworld, workers leave God behind and hand their fate to the demons who safeguard their short lives in the mines.

In these claustrophobic depths, the boys breathe in the dust that destroys miners' lungs, and run for their lives when they hear the sound of dynamite exploding, so they won't be buried in the tunnels that are a tomb for so many.

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