Shame and the secrecy it engenders are two of the most potent weapons wielded by oppressors. In the second of five programs of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) at Webster University, the exploration of three diverse topics -- the July 1995 civilian massacre in Srebrenica, the physical abuse of Slovenian women and the stigma of leprosy -- confirms that silence can only implicitly perpetuate injustice in its many guises. Speaking out by documenting inhumane conduct, the HRWIFF began in 1988 to "prevent discrimination" and "bring offenders to justice." Crime and Punishment, Secret People and "Within Four Walls" directly, admirably promote that agenda, one crucial to civilization's advancement.
The program opens with Maria Fuglevaag Warsinski's Crime and Punishment, a careful and convincing indictment of Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Radko Mladic, coordinators of the destruction of Srebrenica and the massacre of thousands of civilians. Focused on this tragic event, Warsinski presents an understandable microcosm of larger destruction and ethnic cleansing. Through surreptitious home movies and footage of news events to touching contemporary interviews, a picture of horrid proportions becomes clear -- 6,000 people given five minutes to leave camps; the failure of Dutch U.N. troops to intervene; Mladic giving children candy as cameras roll and the same children being led away immediately thereafter; orchestrated ambushes and capricious killings.
One survivor remembers: "We thought, "Let's stay alive so we can tell what happened.'" Without the testimony recorded here, the July 10-15, 1995, history would undoubtedly be recorded by the victors, devoid of the torture and massacres and the complicity of Dutch U.N. representatives. The film concludes with a postmortem by the Bosnian Commission for Missing Persons. The remains of 1,800 men have been unearthed and still require identification. Confirming the importance of Crime and Punishment, the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia used this work as testimony during their hearings. Director Warsinski has done a commendable job of establishing a complicated chronology and explaining complex, horrible events with an evenhanded composure.
The program moves from this collective tragedy to focus on individuals. Ask most people what they know about leprosy, and they'll respond with the misinformation that has and continues to stigmatize those with Hansen's disease. Director/producer John Anderson's hourlong Secret People goes a long way to counteract our ignorance with medical data and to engage our emotions through firsthand interviews with a half-dozen patients quarantined in Carville, La., from 1935 on. Public fear over one sensationalized case led to the establishment of this 330-acre compound in 1921. By that time, physicians knew the difficulty of contracting leprosy, knew that more than 90 percent of the entire population carries a natural immunity. Nevertheless, until 1957 authorities quarantined lepers at Carville, transported them in sealed trains or special cars, separated them by barbed wire from the public and denied them the right to vote (until 1946) and access to telephones. Mothers had babies taken from them at birth, and the dead were buried in sealed caskets. In short, a diagnosis of leprosy meant a loss of freedom. As one patient said, "We were in a different country."
This treatment outlived medication that ensured a virtual cure for patients with the bacillus, first identified in 1873 by Armauer Hansen, whose name identifies the disease. Myths persist -- that patients' body parts drop off (they're surgically removed because of lack of sensation), that sufferers are sinful (the Bible describes different afflictions) and that survival is brief (life to ripe old age is normal). Ironically, in 1957, when the government closed Carville, 298 patients lived there. A year later, 281 had chosen to stay. Given society's stupidity and attitudes, who could blame them?
In its 34 minutes, "Within Four Walls" reminds us that physical abuse and emotional violence occur in private as well as public spaces. Shrouded in shadows in informal settings, Slovenian wives describe the beatings they endured regularly at the hands of their husbands. One brutal man caused a concussion; another explicitly urged his wife to commit suicide; another threatened murder; and yet another made the children watch. Still the victims repeat their refrains: feeling ugly and dirty, responsible for problems, needing to please the husband and taking responsibility for making peace. Despite statistics showing that one of every five women suffers abuse, it was the mid-'90s before Slovenia established a women's center. Imperturbable and clear in her empathy, director Zemira Alajbegovic offers some hope for the younger generation but is less sanguine about the future for the wives. Emotionally and psychologically battered, lacking legal and economic support, these women repeatedly return to cruel men.
None of the regrettable events documented in these three works has concluded. Exhumation and identification continue; tribunals are ongoing. Lepers live among us, afraid to identify themselves because of the enduring, unjust stigma. And women all around the world endure serious violence. HRWIFF wants to shatter the deafening silence.
Crime and Punishment plays at 7 p.m. (with an introduction by Patrick McCarthy, director of the Bosnian Student Project) and Secret People and "Within Four Walls" play at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at Webster University.
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