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Jennifer Merin

Hamptons Film Festival Honors Documentaries

By October 13, 2009

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In its Films of Conflict & Resolution competitive category, the Hamptons International Film Festival highlights cinema's potential to influence social change. The competition's guidelines point to its purpose, to honor films that do not glorify war and treat it as entertainment, ignoring its far reaching implications and leaving the human realities of war without investigation. Although the category isn't restricted to nonfiction, it has been dominated by documentaries. This year's winner, announced on October 11, is Rabbit la Berlin, director Bartek Konopka's engaging documentary feature about a population of wild rabbits that took refuge within the no man's land created around the Berlin Wall and have, oddly, faced a questionable future since the city's reunification. The film was a winner at 2009's Hot Docs Festival, too.

Rabbit la Berlin is a terrific film with a strong message, but I think that two other films in the competition so effectively address issues of conflict and resolution they should be at least equally recognized.

In My Neighbor, My Killer, Anne Aghion presents the results of ten years following the painful yet necessary Gacaca process, a series of hearings mandated by the Rwandan government to facilitate and enforce reconciliation of Tsutsis with the Hutus who'd slaughtered their loved ones during the 1994 genocide. The film is far from warm and fuzzy, but it gets to the crux of the human qualities that allow for peaceful reconciliation and the moving on to a new chapter in what will hopefully be cooperative coexistence.

The Good Soldier, a film that has not yet had its theatrical release, is a powerful documentary in which filmmakers Lexi Lovett and Michael Uys present a cadre of highly decorated soldiers who'd fought valiantly in America's wars -- World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq -- and, in doing so, came to the conclusion that warfare neither a righteous nor effective way to resolve differences of opinion, ideology and/or national interests. As Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks, who flew helicopter combat missions in Vietnam, says, "A young person who is considering a life in the military needs to know that it is not just the job, the education, the travel - the glorious parts they show you. Your real bare bones job is to go out and kill people. Every man is an infantryman. Every soldier's priority is to conduct the war."

Taking it further, Captain Michael McPhearson, who grew up on Fort Bragg, changed his mind about the military after fighting in the Gulf War. "Soldiers serve the public; they serve our society. I am saying do with me what you will. I am giving you my mind and my body. When I go to war, my body can be broken, my mind can be broken, or I don't come back. I give you permission to do this. I swear to uphold the Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights. It is a generally just document. When leaders break that, then I believe a soldier has the right to break their agreement.

McPhearson, resigned his commission and has become the Executive Director of Veterans for Peace. He now faces the anguish of having a son in the military. "I also believe that a soldier has a right to decide they don't want to kill anybody anymore. They have a right to break that too, because I have to live with taking somebody's life. You don't," he says in the film.

Both of these profoundly provocative films have the potential to change society's attitude towards and acceptance of war. It is extremely important that they be presented by festivals and other venues and seen as widely as possible. My Neighbor My Killer doesn't yet have a distributor, but is getting a lot of Academy Award buzz, and has qualified for consideration. The Oscars short list will be announced in November, and hopefully My Neighbor My Killer will be on it. The Good Soldier has been picked up for distribution by Artistic License, so look for its theatrical release in the near future. It's a beautifully crafted and extremely important film.

Other films considered for this year's Conflict & Resolution Award include How to Fold a Flag, a documentary by Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker, and City of Life and Death, acclaimed Chinese director Lu Chuan's drama about the 1937 rape of Nanjing.

New this year, the Hamptons International Film Festival also presents the Conflict & Resolution Development Award of $5000 in cash in completion funds for a promising work-in-progress exploring issues of global conflict. The 2009 award was presented to The Harvest, a film that follows four American migrant child workers as they journey from their homes in South Texas every April, moving from farm to farm, crop to crop, state to state, working to help their families survive, yet struggling to keep their childhoods alive. The cash award is sponsored by the Brizollara Family Foundation.

The festival's 's 2009 line up of documentaries in competition for its 2009 Golden Starfish Award was so strong that jury members found it necessary to give a special mention award to Mugabe and the White African, Lucy Bailey & Andrew Thompson's coverage of white Zimbabwean Mike Campbell's 2008 lawsuit against the against the government of Zimbabwe and President Robert Mugabe, in protest of the state-sanctioned "Land Reform" initiatives that threaten not only to take away his farm, but are also tantamount to the ethnic cleansing of whites.

But the Golden Starfish, which comes with a $5000 cash award, was presented to Long Distance Love, Magnus Gertten and Elin Jonsson's documentary about Alisher and Dildora, who are newlyweds in Kyrgyzstan who are separated when Alisher moves to Moscow -- 3,500 miles away -- to be able to earn enough to support his new family.

The Audience Award, however, went to Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary how Disney's Animation Studios overcame its 1980 slump and soared during the 1990s with popular films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Lion King.

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