Rights and wrongs

Film - The goodies and baddies aren't that easy to tell apart in today's world, finds <strong>Alice

Land of the Blind is an intriguing choice to open the tenth Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It is a fantastic film: darkly humorous, intelligent, and chiming with all kinds of current preoccupations. Unfortunately it sits a little uneasily with the festival's upbeat manifesto: "We seek to empower our viewers with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a very real difference." Written and directed by Robert Edwards, a former US army intelligence officer, Land of the Blind is a satire on the failure of revolu-tion to bring about genuine social change. Ralph Fiennes stars as Joe, an idealistic soldier in an unidentified country governed by a deranged, sexually perverted dictator. While on guard at a prison, Joe befriends Thorne, a charismatic politi- cal prisoner played by Donald Suther-land. Joe eventually turns revolutionary, helping Thorne to overthrow the dictatorship and install himself as president. The population rejoices.

So far, so conventional. But in the second part of the film, the goodies and baddies get all mixed up. Like many revolutionaries, Thorne, once in power, becomes an egomaniac and fundamentalist who sends half the country to concentration camps to be "re-educated". He forces women to wear burqas and separates children from their parents, railing against "the narcissism of the family". With horror, Joe realises his mistake. "Under the old government man exploited man," he says grimly. "Under the revolution, it's the other way around." He is forced to take another stand, this time against Thorne, with disastrous consequences.

The film satirises with excruciating accuracy the kind of story we have seen played out all over the world, from Haiti to Afghanistan. It also demonstrates just how much the current state of the globe lends itself to satire: Tom Hollander's ridiculously childish dictator rings only too true, as does Lara Flynn Boyle's pouting, plotting first lady. But what the film does not do is send you scampering out of the cinema full of political conviction, ready to stand up and be counted.

For Bruni Burres, the festival's director, Land of the Blind reflects some of the changes that have taken place in the human-rights movement since its strident beginnings in the 1960s. "The film's great strength is that it's not simplistic, but nevertheless it is fighting for something," she says. "There was a time when human-rights groups concerned themselves only with governments. Now we are aware that we have to monitor all sides, both the state and rebel groups." In other words, it isn't all that easy to differentiate the goodies from the baddies.

Such political complexities are also tackled in Iraq in Fragments, a documentary picture by the American James Longley. Filmed over two years in Iraq, it tells three very different stories from diverse regions of the country. The first section focuses on Mohammed Haithem, an 11-year-old assistant mechanic living in central Baghdad, as he struggles with his cruel boss. The second section deals with the extremist followers of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as they attempt to enforce Islamic law in the southern city of Najaf. In one moving scene they arrest a number of poverty-stricken vendors at a local market, accusing them of selling alcohol. "I was tied up by Saddam, and now I'm tied up again. How can this be happening, brother?" screams one in despair. Finally, the film moves to a Kurdish community in the north, where a farmer praises the Americans for ridding the country of Saddam.

Iraq in Fragments is an intimate portrait of a society that, despite years of 24-hour news coverage, remains a mystery to the outside world. We are left in no doubt that Iraq's problems did not begin, and will not end, with the US occupation.

There is also more conventional lefty fare on offer during the festival. The Dignity of the Nobodies, by the veteran Argentinian political film-maker Fernando Solanas, is a paean to the forgotten poor. Through a series of interviews, he explores the build-up to the cacerolazo (or "pot-and-pan-bashing") revolts that engulfed Argentina in 2001. A rubbish collector struggles to bring up his eight children in a house with a swamp where the floor should be; a shanty-town dweller explains in a matter-of-fact way that there isn't enough money in his neighbourhood even to bury the dead. A social worker in a public hospital despairs that there have been people sleeping in the corridors for two years because they have nowhere else to go. And a few inspirational figures - such as "El Toba", an ex-revolutionary who cooks lunch for more than a hundred local kids in his tiny kitchen every weekend - represent some hope of a better future.

Solanas is part of a long-established tradition in Latin American cinema, making films that give a voice to the marginalised. He articulates the kind of black-and-white world-view that Land of the Blind stamps all over: as the title suggests, in this film the poor are dignified and their rich oppressors are invariably evil bastards. Somehow, in this day and age, it all seems a bit too simple.

The tenth Human Rights Watch International Film Festival takes place in London from 15 to 25 March. For tickets and details see www.hrw.org/iff