28th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Fest: Part 2

Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2


The Blood Is At The Doorstep

Erik Ljung’s debut documentary is an extraordinarily detailed examination of a police shooting of an unarmed mentally ill African-American man, and an intimate portrait of the devastating, yet energizing, impact on his family.  
Dontre Hamilton, 31, was shot 14 times in a public park across from Milwaukee City Hall, not far from where Ljung lives, and he was in contact with the family within weeks of the April 2014 deadly confrontation.  Maria Hamilton is the grief-stricken mother, but is furious that since the first day when she told an officer that her son was coping with paranoid schizophrenia the investigation stopped and she could get no answers.  Rather than the usual TV news approach of focusing on her tears and baby pictures, Ljung is with her week after week as she presses the police department, the medical examiner, the district attorney, and the mayor for facts and justice, and rails against the police union.  Her older son Nate is guiltily shaken from his own problems when the police and press mix up his own checkered background with his brother to justify the officer’s shooting.

When Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri a few months later, the Hamiltons are ready to join a solidarity rally and start seeing their tragedy as part of a long-time national problem.  Ljung stayed by them over three years, documenting how they gradually turn into nonviolent activists, and constructively push for changes in police procedures that can be used as a model in other cities.  (He also frequently interviews besieged Police Chief Ed Flynn to get his perspective.)  Maria becomes one of “The Mothers of the Movement” campaigning with Hilary Rodham Clinton, and founding Mothers for Justice [http://www.mothersforjusticeunited.org].

The family’s experience directly intersects with simultaneous scenes in Ferguson from Camilla Hall’s Copwatch (that World Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival), Queen Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Khaaliq’s #Bars4Justice screened at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, and Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis’s Whose Streets, that Magnolia will release in theaters August 11.  But even as the Hamiltons articulately take on leadership roles in protests and community training, they amazingly do not get sucked into rhetorical flourishes or physical confrontations celebrated in those films, but stay focused on keeping the peace and what could benefit Dontre’s legacy: the Milwaukee Police Department became one of the first in the U.S. Crisis Intervention Training for all officers.  Nate, Maria, and another brother Dameion Perkins participated with the director in Q & A’s with each Festival screening.

The Festival also included related screenings of Peter NicksThe Force on the beleaguered Oakland Police Department under pressure to reform and perform, the second in his planned trilogy of films exploring public institutions in Oakland: health care (The Waiting Room), criminal justice, and then education.  Kino Lorber will begin its theatrical run on September 15 in New York and the Bay Area, in Los Angeles on September 23, and then around the county.

Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2

Each of the documentaries on law enforcement rages against juries.  One is an in-depth re-consideration of the jury experience, albeit without the racial element.  French documentarian Florent Vassault met Lindy Lou Wells while working on his first documentary in the U.S., Honk (To Stop Executions) (2010).  Lindy Lou served on a Mississippi jury in 1994, went along with the other jurors to find Bobby Wilcher guilty of fatally stabbing two women, voting to sentence him to the death.  She has been haunted ever since.

Twenty years later, Vassault follows the 65-year-old Southern Baptist on a unique, thought-provoking quest through the Deep South landscape to find her eleven fellow jurors and see how they have reconciled with the trial and the sentence.  She is one of the most effective interviewers I’ve ever seen on screen.  Very personable, she disarmingly engages each former juror, who she tracks down one by one, about their memories of the trial and their reflections since.  In comfortable living rooms, on porches, and drinking sweet tea on front lawns in rural and suburban towns, their dialogues with this very open and honest woman run the gamut of opinions and are unpredictably revealing -- from refusal to talk, blanked from memory, to eye-for-an-eye Bible-thumpers with no doubts or regrets.  But she is gratified to find four who share her anguish that there was then no legal option of life without parole.
She also takes the director on a tour of her conscience, from returning to the courtroom and the prison where she became Wilcher’s sole visitor and correspondent in his last years, until his appeals ran out and he was executed in October 2006.

Lindy Lou is relieved to find younger family members of the jurors who question if they would ever serve on such a jury.  I, too, was called to serve on a death penalty case jury.  In the 26 page questionnaire that a higher court ruled potential jurors had to complete to weed out those against the death penalty, I successfully put in everything I could possibly think of that would disqualify me.  So the final approved jury only consisted of those who are pro-death penalty.  This film portrait is an unusually brave and frank look at that civic duty that bears a heavy responsibility.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

NobdySpeaksHulk HoganLeaving CourtAmerican investigative documentarian Brian Knappenberger specializes in delving into controversial people behind the internet.  Celebrity sex tapes online are tawdry click bait, and cheeky Gawker was the online equivalent of a gossipy tabloid (several editors came from the British Fleet Street tabloid tradition).  In 2012 it posted clips from a sex tape of WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea), though it wasn’t the first to break the salacious story.  Hogan’s lawyers initiated legal wranglings in his Florida hometown to get hold of the video, in the first celebrity sex tape case to go to trial.  Gawker refused to take down the clip.

Knappenberger immediately puts the well-publicized Bollea v Gawker Media in the political context of the attacks on the press around the right-wing conspiracy dial and the wider declarations from candidate Donald Trump: “We’re going to open up those libel laws, and you’re going to get sued like never before!”  Gawker is more sympathetic as a defender of free speech than Hustler Magazine when it won a 1988 Supreme Court case defending their freedom of speech against Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The director interviews Gawker editors extensively on the personal toll of the suit and liabilities, and media reporters give an inside look at the trial when more and more expensive lawyers (staying in nice hotels) dragged out the case, excluding their insurance company.  Only after their legal fees mounted over $13 million, and the court announced astronomical compensatory and punitive damages of $140 million did Forbes Magazine in 2016 reveal that billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel funded the litigation in revenge for Gawker outing him as gay back in 2007, quite a dish best served cold, or philanthropy as Thiel called it. Gawker was sold off (it still has profitable sub-websites) and the editors nearly bankrupted.  
Other detailed case studies show a warning trend, from Hearst in history to how investigative reporters (proudly) outed casino-owner Sheldon Adelson as the secret buyer (and bully) of their newspaper – and lost their jobs.  One wonders if the legal troubles fact-checking website Snopes faces is part of that trend.

Too bad the extended conclusion gets overly dramatic and heavy-handed.  Many familiar clips from the 2016 Republican Convention of Thiel and litigious Trump on the campaign trail railing against the media pile on.  These are intertwined with too many sanctimonious defenses of noble “speaking truth to power” journalism (even old school Edward R. Murrow and Woodward & Bernstein flash by), all citing wrapped-in-the-flag first amendment guarantees of free speech, accompanied by stirring music -- appropriating the very emblems the threatening side uses.  In addition to a theatrical run, the relevant documentary is now streaming on Netflix.

Black Code

Canadian director Nicholas de Pencier’s debut feature documentary is based on key chapters from Ronald Deibert’s 2013 book, with the subtitle Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, about the work of the public interest cybersleuths at his Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.  They reenact how they first revealed how deeply the Chinese government had infiltrated the Dalai Lhama and other exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, India through software they dubbed Ghostnet.

BLACKCODE CariocainRioHis emphasis that the fastest rise in internet use will be in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America where both populations and government control are growing are vividly illustrated with on-the-ground examples.  The posts by an activist against violence on women in Islamabad, Pakistan are sobered by news of how rape threats escalated to her murder.  Activists are seen using the expanded WiFi connections for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro to upload video as the “Media Ninja” network of their protests against the showy expenditures, even unmasking an undercover police provocateur, while the main TV networks ignored the demonstrations.  

The documentary also points to governments that have controlled internet connections to track down regime opponents, such as Ethiopia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.  The Citizens Lab identified off the shelf American and Canadian software that makes possible this spying on citizens.  
Some of Deibert’s insights are no longer shocking to a public inured by Alex Gibney’s Zero Days (2016) on the Stuxnet cyberweapon, how Arab governments have stymied the hopes of the Arab Spring’s Facebook revolution, the Russian cyberhacking of the U.S. election, repeated disclosures by corporations of data breaches, and especially the videos of police attacks on unarmed African-Americans that spurred #BlackLivesMatter.  One woman activist offers good advice: the best security is livestreaming everything.  Deibert keeps his faith with technological solutions to protect digital rights.
Human Rights Watch Festival also screened David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy as Nye’s mission for science literacy goes from his classic kids’ TV show to take on anti-science agitators directly through the media, a la his mentor Carl Sagan.  This is second feature-length documentary from these “science storytellers” whose Structure Films “makes films about people doing cool S.H.I.T– science, health, information and technology”.  PBS will release the film in theaters across the country later this year, after its festival; it will be broadcast in 2018 on PBS series POV.

Some of these films are also shown at versions of the Human Rights Watch Festival in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, and Toronto.  Watch for them as they open in theaters, streaming platforms, or broadcast on PBS or other channels.