SACCO AND VANZETTI: Provocative parallels with the War on Terror but also subpar Ken Burns filmmaking.
Maybe things are getting better. November’s election results boosted confidence in the future. Of course, President Bush is persevering in his Iraq policy, or the lack of it, and the shirtsleeve January weather in New England makes you wonder whether An Inconvenient Truth is more than a political comeback for Al Gore. How do the films in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which usually represents the cutting edge in doom and gloom, read the situation? Their outlook is surprisingly rosy: repressed truths unearthed and confronted; evils and injustices redressed; the guilty identified, victims vindicated, both reconciled. Glad tidings, in many cases, but that does not always make for great movies.
Take earnest but amateurish filmmaker Shonali Bose’s AMU (2006; January 19, 6 pm). Kaju (Konkona Sen Sharma), a young American film student, returns to Delhi to visit her adoptive parents’ family. Kaju herself was one of the few survivors of a Sikh village that got wiped out in an epidemic when she was a child. Or is that what really happened? Kaju’s sentimental journey to her origins becomes more of a detective story as she, and we, learn of the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It’s a compelling subject, and Bose has an intriguing approach, but he puts it together it so clumsily that, well, I never finished watching the film. So who knows? Maybe Amu turns out to be a masterpiece.
At any rate, I felt I had seen at least two much better versions of the same story already. Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam’s DREAMING LHASA (2005; January 20, 1:45 pm) duplicates the pattern of a young American female filmmaker — in this case the allegorically named Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatsuo), a New Yorker of Tibetan background — returning to her roots, in this case the Indian town of Dharamsala, home base for the exiled Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees from the Chinese occupation. There, while making a documentary, Karma comes across a disturbing mystery from the past. Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), a Tibetan former monk whom she’s interviewed for her film, asks her help on a quest: his late mother has entrusted him with a charm box that he’s to return to a Tibetan hiding in India. Karma agrees, and in the course of the search she learns more about what it means to be Tibetan — which is less interesting than her growing attraction to Dhondup and Dhondup’s gradual enlightenment about his own past and identity.
Version number two is Gastón Biraben’s CAUTIVA|CAPTIVE (2003; January 20, 3:45 pm). Here 15-year-old Argentine Cristina (Bárbara Lombardo) is the young privileged woman compelled to look back at her country’s troubled past. One day a judge summons her from her snooty parochial school and informs her that she is not the daughter of the well-to-do former police captain whom she has known as her father since infancy but rather the child of two young students who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship. Despite her protests, she’s torn from the only life she’s known and forced to begin another with a new family. The powerful performances, especially from Botticellian beauty Lombardo, and Biraben’s understated direction dramatize the underlying issues (what is the value of truth, forgiveness, justice?) and provoke tough questions like “Why not just leave well enough alone?”