Trial and Terror – Movies Reliving the Past

The 2007 edition of the Santa Barbara Human Rights Film Festival, slated for next Monday-Wednesday at UCSB, features a two-to-one ratio of documentaries to features, as befitting an event that purports to examine the difficult social issues facing the world today.

But the only one that isn’t set in the current decade may in some ways be the most telling about our times.

“Sacco and Vanzetti,” which delves into a trial and execution that happened 80 years ago and on the other side of the country, takes the story out of the history books and brings it alive for modern thinkers. Filmmaker Peter Miller, who has served as producer and assistant director on many Ken Burns films, exhumes both the trial details and the condemned men’s own writings to compare the case history with the current debate on civil liberties versus safety, and the treatment of immigrants.

“This story isn’t a dry exercise in the retelling of history,” Miller said over the telephone last week. “The people I talked to – relatives, descendents of neighbors and historians – all have a great deal of passion and fire in the belly.”

Miller says he sees the story of the two anarchist Italian immigrants who were executed for a robbery-murder most believe they didn’t commit, as a “signal moment in the struggle of working class people.”

Eschewing a narrator and leaving out most of the legal details, Miller instead has actors (John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub) reading the duo’s powerful prison writings, which, says Miller, shows their indomitable spirit in the face of such a difficult situation.

“It seemed the best way to bring their humanity to life,” he says. “What these two men who hardly spoke English wrote is some of the most beautiful writing in English I’ve ever read.” (“Sacco and Vanzetti” screens Tuesday at 9 pm.)

Here’s the schedule of films:

“God Grew Tired of Us” – Monday, 7 pm: This documentary focuses on just three of the so-called “Lost Boys” who fled the Sudan in the civil war that started in the mid-1980s and then spent a decade or more in a refugee camp before being selected to relocate to the United States. Here, the resilient trio finds opportunities but also a dearth of the camaraderie they’d formed back home. But unlike so many otherwise worthy documentaries who take on their subjects with a single, serious tone, the documentary manages to be both unexpectedly funny and insightful, not to mention beautifully photographed, which probably explains why it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

“Cautiva (Captive)” – Monday, 9 pm: This also examines a specific incident to represent the universal, in this case, the fate of “The Disappeared” who criticized Argentina’s military rule in the early 1980s. A fictional teenager who is suddenly informed that she is adopted and that her birth parents were victims of the regime has to come to terms with the truth, her identity and the nature of trust. The film, both heartbreaking and unnerving, was shown at last year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” – Tuesday, 7 pm: Screened at SBIFF 2007 and a prize winner at 2006 Berlin, “Grbavica” explores similar themes as “Cautiva,” here dealing with the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars and their effect on a Bosnian mother and her pre-teen daughter.

“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” – Wednesday 7 pm: As the title indicates, this documentary examines the prisoner abuse scandal of 2003 via interviews with perpetrators, witnesses and victims, aiming to explore the psychology behind the actions, and using the famous Milgram 1961 Yale “Obedience” study as a bracketing device.

“Enemies of Happiness” – Wednesday, 9 pm: Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance, this political documentary traces Afghanistan’s first democratic parliamentary election in more than 35 years, which saw the historic appointment of a 28-year-old woman to the National Assembly.

(Tickets for the Santa Barbara Human Rights Film Festival are $6 for individual films, $10 for a day pass, or $25 for the full festival. Call 893-3535.)