LIGHTS, CAMERA, TAKE ACTION!

A new film festival makes its Santa Barbara debut this month, but you won’t see any Klieg lights scanning the sky above State Street, and the red carpets will remain furled, thank you very much. Fanfare and star-gazing aren’t a part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, here in Santa Barbara for the first time on May 19-20. What you will see are eight documentary films, the vast majority of which are having their first screening in Santa Barbara and all of which deal with important issues facing mankind around the world.

The eight movies have been culled from the Human Rights festival held annually in June in New York City for more than a decade now, a series started by the only human rights organization based in the United States to broaden its appeal.

“Our goal is to advocate for change on human rights abuses around the globe,” says Bruni Burres, the New York festival’s director, whose staff annually screens 500-600 films to come up with the final 24-30 that make the cut. “We conduct missions, research and write up reports, and publicize everything in the press and try to directly reach governments to change policies. But the reports aren’t easy reading, they’re long and in legal language and thus not easily digestible by the general public.”

The idea of the festival is to use the power of film to reach larger audiences and both educate and galvanize them into possible action, she said. “The festival puts a human face on the stories and the campaigns,” says Burres.

Of course, the organization doesn’t make the films or even have any say in production. “So they almost always explore different issues (than the ones we’re working on),” says Burres. “We don’t even always agree one hundred percent with the filmmakers’ point of view, but as long as there are no inaccuracies or false facts in the work, it’s important to have different voices, opinions that can serve as a jumping off point for discussion.”

In keeping with that concept, there will be a panel discussion following the screening of the opening night film, “State of Fear – the Truth About Terrorism,” with filmmaker Peter Kinoy and other guests. “A nation wages a war on terror and loses its democracy” – the 2005 Peruvian film’s tag line – says it all, as the movie examines the cycle of terrorism, repression and political corruption that resulted in nearly 70,000 deaths between 1980 and 2000, as a result of the nation’s struggle.

Much more up-to-date is Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight,” an American documentary that we were able to preview. The film tells the story of the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey, between the four-term incumbent and head of a powerful political machine, Sharpe James, and his young, Rhodes-scholar educated opponent, Cory Booker, who had moved to the city with a goal of reformation. Curry captures several incidents of on-duty police acting as paid James security guards, scenes that are so out of bounds you might think they’re fictional. He chronicles mudslinging so outlandish it would have been hilarious if it weren’t so effective. Surprisingly, race somehow enters the picture, even though both candidates are black (you have to see it to believe it). The coda to the story is that Booker, who lost in 2002, was just elected Newark’s mayor earlier this month by the largest margin in the city’s history. Look for some follow-up footage soon.

We also got a chance to pre-screen “Wall,” an French/Israeli film about the controversial barrier erected by Israel ostensibly to ward off terrorist attacks from its Arab neighbors. Director Simone Bitton is able to glean both points of view by asserting her double identity as Jew and Arab. Bitton chronicles the haphazardness of the structure, and interviews scores of ordinary citizens to determine its impact on their lives.

The opening night screening at the Lobero is preceded by a reception on Friday night, while all the other screenings take place at Victoria Hall. Admission is $6 per film, $30 for a festival pass (if available). Call 893-3535 for info and advance tickets.

Here’s Saturday’s complete schedule:

10 am: “Mardis Gras: Made in China” (USA 2004). Tracks the “bead trail” from a factory in China where workers are exploited to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street during Mardis Gras.

11:30 am: “La Sierra” (Colombia/USA 2004). Follows a leader, a soldier and a young woman all affiliated with Colombia’s illegal paramilitary armies in their daily lives.

1:30 pm: “The Liberace of Baghdad” (U.K. 2004). This story about a famous Iraqi pianist reduced to playing a heavily fortified hotel for contractors, mercenaries and journalists also looks at family’s struggle with divergent feelings towards America. Won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

3 pm: “Street Fight”

4:45 pm: “No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal” (Canada 2004). Fifteen years after her human rights advocate sister’s death in Sri Lanka, the filmmaker – a former militant and political prisoner – returns to the country to revisit the past.

7 pm: “Wall”

9:15 pm: “Videoletters” (several Slavic countries, 2004). Friends, neighbors and colleagues driven apart by Yugoslavia’s civil war exchange video letters in a bid to reconnect.

SBIFF Update

Following a smash year by just about any account the Santa Barbara International Film Festival seems to be in great shape heading into next year. The new board of directors is in place, and the new president is Jeff Barbakow, former chairman and CEO of MGM/United Arts, who relocated to Santa Barbara shortly after the company was sold in 1988.

On mark of quality: SBIFF has had a high placement rate of films returning under general release after playing at the festival this year. Already in just three and a half months, we’ve seen Foreign Film Oscar winner “Tsotsi,” nominees “Sophie Scholl” and “Joyeux Noel,” and Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” enjoy long runs in town – the latter is still playing in town as we go to press, make that eight weeks and counting! – while “Ask the Dust,” “On a Clear Day,” “Hard Candy” and “L’Enfant” dropped by for shorter stays.

Meanwhile, “The Hamiltons,” the Butcher Brothers’ fright fest that won SBIFF’s York Entertainment Gold Vision Award, is getting picked up by an as-of-yet unnamed major studio and is in the final stages of negotiation, according to Nate Bolotin, whose company Strategic Film Partners represents the movie.

But now of course summer blockbuster season is upon us, and smarter fare generally takes a backseat until the Oscar-baiting fall season. So may we recommend signing up for SBIFF’s Cinema Society program – which starts anew in June and offers a sneak preview (usually with Q&A with a filmmaker) of at least one quality film per month? After all, SBIFF 22 won’t be here until January 25, a full eight months away.