Never underestimate the power of a great documentary. While no nonfiction film is going to miraculously remedy our worst injustices overnight, the best ones can prompt the kind of discourse that could make a lasting difference in the long run, weaving together awareness and activism.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which takes place Thursday, Jan. 23, though Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, has this goal in mind. Six documentaries from around the world screen during the event, each exploring underrepresented perspectives and complex social scenarios using varied techniques. They are deeply personal visions by filmmakers seeking to shine a light on pockets of the world often left in the dark by mainstream media.
Yoruba Richen's The New Black, the festival's opening-night selection, is an intensely personal examination of the debate raging in the black community over LGBT rights. The film focuses on the efforts of activists and faith-based conservatives on opposite sides of the debate surrounding Referendum Question 6, the 2012 Maryland ballot measure that asked voters to either uphold or revoke the Civil Marriage Protection Act.
Richen gathers an array of subjects with different backgrounds and professions, from a police captain in the well-to-do black community of St. George's County to a prolific pastor leading the efforts to ban same-sex marriage. But it's a young political trailblazer named Karess who becomes the film's lasting voice. Her eagerness to hit the streets and campaign comes from a pure civic ideology, an endless vitality that every political movement needs to succeed.
The New Black considers the way societal judgments and political motivations weigh heavily on everyday life, but, more importantly, it paints the African-American dilemma over gay rights as a dynamic and evolving dialogue between equally driven but contrasting ideologies. As one interviewee says so eloquently, "The black community is not monolithic."
More procedural than ideological document, Marco Williams' The Undocumented nevertheless conveys the political implications of its subject matter. Beginning with a funeral procession deep in the Mexican countryside, the film follows a trail of stories up to the Arizona / Sonora border, where hundreds of migrants perish every year trying to cross the barren desert. It's an epidemic with binational ripples.
You can almost feel the extreme, dry heat as Williams' camera follows Border Patrol agents scouring the region for "crossers" left behind by their group. They find empty bottles of water, ragged pieces of clothing and personal trinkets covered in dirt, a breadcrumb trail that often leads to skeletal remains.
From here, The Undocumented follows the bones to the Pima County Medical Examiner's office and the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, which work together to identify the remains and notify family members. Chicagoan Marcos Hernández has yet to receive word of his father's whereabouts years after the man disappeared in the desert. Hernández's search is both desperate and impassioned, yet one can't help but recognize the futility in his efforts to find a needle in a haystack.
This isn't to say that Williams' film is cynical or enraged; in fact, it's quite the opposite. The efforts by these different groups, including a local nonprofit that works with the government to help families locate their missing loved ones, are highlighted in a minimalist but respectful way. Professionalism and respect resides at the heart of The Undocumented, for both the dead and the living trying to bring their families solace.
The other documentaries playing in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival are Harry Freeland's In the Shadow of the Sun, Nagieb Khaja's My Afghanistan: Life in a Forbidden Zone, Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief's Rafea: Solar Mama and Jeremy Teicher's Tall as the Baobab Tree. For details, visit ff.hrw.org/san-diego.