In addition to research and advocacy work, the Human Rights Watch organization has long promoted socially conscious cinema as an instrument of awareness and change: It runs an annual film festival and collaborates on releases with the distributor First Run Features.
"The Human Rights Watch DVD Collection," issued this week by First Run ($79.95), brings together seven films that span decades, continents and a host of political conflicts. Their methods differ, but all spring from a similar activist impetus.
Five are documentaries, the most common cinematic vessel for political messages. The remaining films, "Dreaming Lhasa" (2005) and "Silent Waters" (2003), both directed by accomplished documentarians, use the familiar strategy of wedding a personal odyssey to a larger political and historical back story.
Directed by husband and wife Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, "Lhasa" is told from the perspective of a documentarian making a film amid the community of Tibetans in northern India who have fled persecution by the Chinese. Her journey of self-discovery becomes intertwined with the quest of one of her subjects, an ex-monk looking to fulfill his mother's dying wish. Despite the contrivances of the screenplay, the film poignantly conveys the disorientation of exile.
Set in late-'70s Pakistan, Sabiha Sumar's "Silent Waters" observes the relationship between a widow and her teenage son as he succumbs to the pull of radical Islam (the film takes place in the aftermath of the military coup that brought the fundamentalist Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq to power). It veers toward melodrama when it turns out that the mother has been harboring a secret since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
The most immediate of the documentaries, Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's "The Devil's Miner" (2005), is an affecting portrait of a 14-year-old family breadwinner who balances school with perilous shifts in the silver mines of Bolivia's Cerro Rico mountain. The boy serves as a guide into a topsy-turvy culture, where children toil underground alongside grown men, all of whom risk lung disease, chew on coca leaves to stay awake and make offerings to horned effigies.
Narrated by Janeane Garofalo, John Scagliotti's "Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World" (2003) undertakes a global tour of gay activism and anti-gay oppression. Made shortly after the 1980 murders of three nuns and a lay missionary, all American, by the El Salvador military, "Roses in December" (1982) tells the story of the missionary, Jean Donovan, through her letters and journals while touching on the complicity of an American government that propped up military regimes in Latin America.
Anthony Giacchino's "The Camden 28" (2007) recounts the early-'70s trial of a group of Catholic anti-Vietnam War activists who broke into a federal building in New Jersey to destroy draft records. They were aided by an FBI informant, who later revealed the extent of government entrapment, leading to the acquittal of the protesters. Although the film flirts with nostalgic self-congratulation, it's a reminder of a religious left that has been largely forgotten in the culture war.
The best offering in the set, "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" (2003), is also one of the most powerful documentaries of recent years. Director Rithy Panh, who fled Cambodia as a child and now lives in France, revisits the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide that, from 1975 to 1979, wiped out nearly 2 million Cambodians.
Unlike most catalogs of historical trauma, Panh's quietly devastating film rejects easy notions of healing and catharsis. Most of the perpetrators of the genocide have never been put on trial; it was only a few months ago that a U.N.-backed war-crimes tribunal got underway. Made in the absence of public accounting, "S21" is a corrective to collective amnesia, an invaluable act of testimony that traces the contours of a still open wound.