Provocative films about human rights at TIFF

Valentine Road, which investigates the 2008 killing of openly transgender teenager Lawrence “Larry” King, is one of eight films featured in the Human Rights Watch Festival, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, from Feb. 27 to March 6. Photo: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch
Valentine Road, which investigates the 2008 killing of openly transgender teenager Lawrence “Larry” King, is one of eight films featured in the Human Rights Watch Festival, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, from Feb. 27 to March 6. Photo: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch
Published February 26, 2014

No frame is wasted on first-time feature filmmaker Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road, a powerful documentary about the 2008 murder of openly gay California eighth-grader Lawrence (“Larry”) King, by his classmate and crush, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney.

Set in Oxnard, Calif., this wonderfully crafted film is one of eight featured in the 11th Human Rights Watch Film Festival, co-presented by Human Rights Watch and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Feb. 27 to March 6.

Nothing escapes Cunningham’s astute eye and ear for dialogue. She skillfully juxtaposes seemingly incongruous but important symbolic images, and her intuitive sense about people is remarkable-she is able to coax them to reveal themselves for who and what they truly are. It was almost painful at times to watch everyday people not realize how homophobic, racist and downright heartless they are. In one memorable scene, a group of white women jurors are gorging themselves on piles of gooey pastries as they talk about the torment of having to punish McInerney, who looks like such a sweet boy, and really, “where’s the civil rights of someone who’s being taunted?” No one uttered a caring word about the victim-a brave, bi-racial young man who, abandoned by his parents, had grown up abused in foster homes but still wanted to live life and had, in fact, been crocheting scarves to donate to soldiers in Afghanistan. Worse, he himself was to blame, said one juror. “It was the high heels” (that King, who came out as transgendered, had worn).

The heroes in the film are King, the sole teacher who encouraged him and ended up paying the price for it, King’s friends who stood by him and his memory, and the prosecutor, who was relentless in her pursuit of justice. One can’t also help but feel for the antagonist’s mother, who doesn’t absolve her son of the murder but plumbs deep into her soul for answers and weighs whether her own family’s horrific life story of substance abuse and domestic violence contributed to the hatred that led him to kill.

King’s classmates and friends describe King so eloquently, including his best friend, who explains how he went from being a soft-spoken and shy boy to La Toya, with her high heel boots and attitude. La Toya was the alter ego who could protect King against bullies. “You don’t mess with her,” she said.

Young people discuss the culture of exclusion, even within the predominantly Latino community, where some parents can be in denial about their children’s sexuality, and the fear that resides in the hearts of some members of the white community who notice that their numbers are dwindling.

They also give a damning indictment at the failure of adults to protect them. “They just put on Jaws,” recalled one, talking about how all 25 eighth-graders were herded into a room to watch the video right after the shooting took place at E.O. Green School on Valentine’s Day, 2008. They were then left to basically fend for weeks, months and years to come-they did not receive counselling and the school refused to name a tree that a fellow student had planted in King’s honour.

Daniel Junge’s and Shameen Obaid-Chinoy’s Academy Award-winning Saving Face and Harry Freeland’s In the Shadow of the Sun are two other luminous and cinematically beautiful films that deserve to be seen.

Saving Face is not for the faint of heart-it addresses the vicious acid attacks on hundreds of Pakistani women by spurned husbands, suitors and other family members.

It is a difficult film to watch, not because the women have been so disfigured that they refer to themselves as “the living dead,” but because one cannot comprehend the evil that resides in some people’s hearts. On the whole, however, Saving Face is an inspiring film about courage, kindness and the triumph of the human spirit.

Mohamad Jarad, a plastic surgeon of Pakistani descent, is living a comfortable life with his wife and two children in London, U.K., when he decides he wants to do something more meaningful in life other than “boob jobs.” When he finds out about the plight of acid attack victims, he decides “it’s time to rise to the challenge and help.”

He comes face to face with brave women like Rukshana, whose husband threw “the highest quality and unadulterated” battery acid on her, and Rakia, who takes her husband to court for destroying her face and effectively, her life.

The film also takes us into the minds of men who burn the faces of their wives, girlfriends and daughters. They all lie, insisting that the women doused themselves with acid and gasoline or claim that their wife’s lover performed the deed.

Saving Face chronicles the plight and the fight of these women, who manage to rally the support of women members of parliament to push for legislation that will sentence acid-throwers to life imprisonment.

Harry Freeland’s In the Shadow of the Sun, set in scenic Victoria Lake, Tanzania, is a gripping and tender documentary about the plight of children, men and women with albinism. It documents the horrific killings of albinos who are hunted, dismembered and killed in Tanzania because of superstitious beliefs that their limbs will bring luck and wealth. Spoiler alert: there are some gruesome scenes that show the bloody bodies of victims, the only unfortunate aspect of the film.

The plight of Tanzanians afflicted with albinism is told through the struggles of Josephat Torner and a promising young man named Vedastus, who reminds Torner of his younger self. Torner refuses to live in fear and decides to confront his people’s vicious prejudices and hatred, traveling to areas where attacks have taken place and asking people, “What’s the difference between you and me? I’m not the devil. We are both human beings.” He begs them, “Please, don’t kill us. Look after us.” He notes that those who put a price on his limbs are the rich who believe in witchcraft, who often entice the poor to kill on their behalf.

Torner also visits camps and villages where children and, later, adults with albinism have been banished “for their own safety.” They tell him they have been called “dogs,” “ghosts,” “white devil” and “uncooked rice,” among other names; a young girl suspects that it was her father who was behind the chopping of one of her arms.

And, as if four years on the road educating people were not enough, Torner decides to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to call attention to the plight of people with albinism, a gruelling journey for someone like him who cannot be exposed to the sun and who is physically weaker than most.

For his bravery and his big heart, Torner has incurred the ire of some who continue to attempt to kill him. But he is undeterred. “I have learned to love my enemies. When someone mistreats me, I forgive [him],” he says. “I look for positives. You say I’m nobody. I will stay strong.”

Torner says he will keep fighting for the day when “we will all sit at the same table.” He adds: “I have hope. I’m a good person.”

Closer to home, Canadian director Matthew Smiley’s Highway of Tears documents the decades-long disappearances and murders of indigenous women along British Columbia’s notorious Highway 16.

Smiley has a lot of material to work with, and it is rather unfortunate that the film is not cinematically engaging; it could use tighter editing. It also seems to be stuck in moviemaking style of the 1970s, with a voice over that sounds like a newscast.

But it is a necessary film to watch to better understand the lack of justice, violence, poverty, unemployment and inter-generational effects of Indian residential schools that affect a number of aboriginal women in Canada.

Other films in the lineup include Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture and Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem and Rachel Boynton’s Big Men.

The Square chronicles the civil unrest and revolution that erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Missing Picture recount a family’s suffering in the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Bethlehem follows the life of a young Palestinian recruited as an informant by Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. Big Men is an inside look at the world of the global energy industry.


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