Film, Reviews, Screen

Human Rights and Arts Film Festival reviews (Melbourne, Canberra)

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The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is in Melbourne until May 23 and in Canberra from May 22-25.
Hannah Carrodus reviews three of its highlights. Click on film title for details and times. 

The Panama Papers

“Who’s surprised that bad guys hide their money? Nobody is saying that’s a surprise,”McClatchy reporter Kevin Hall muses in The Panama Papers.

“The surprise is, you pull this veil back and see this is how they’re doing it. Everything you thought was happening – it is!”

Alex Winter’s documentary about the 2015 investigation of unprecedented tax evasion and money laundering is compelling storytelling.

Much like biographical dramas Spotlight and The Big ShortThe Panama Papers successfully conveys the tangled web of systems exploited for wrongdoing and distils exactly what this means for the average person. The documentary even has a similar visual aesthetic to Spotlight, with muted grey and blue hues highlighting the unglamorous environment of the newsoom.

The film starts with a digital re-enactment of anonymous whistle blower, John Doe, offering German journalist Bastian Obermayer copious amounts of incriminating data on Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm. It is immediately clear to Obermayer and his colleagues at Süddeutsche Zeitung that they have a lucrative story on their hands, but rather than seeking all the glory, they share their data with the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists. Thank god for that.

As a result of Obermayer’s foresight, more than 300 journalists from across the world analyse the data over a period of 12 months. They uncover billions of dollars linked to phoney shell companies, allowing the uber rich to pay little or no tax and, in some instances, cover up their criminality.

The fallout, as most will remember, is massive. The Icelandic president resigns, the Pakistani president is sent to prison and people across the globe take to the streets to demand change.

Editor Weston Cadwell does a great job stitching this complex story together and keeping us engaged. Close-ups of sticky notes, coffee cups and computers are contrasted with exquisite shots of grand European buildings; the former belonging to the journalists and the latter to the powerful people they are investigating. Sometimes the sheer scale of information threatens to overwhelm the viewer, but for the most part the documentary maintains its momentum.

With the issue of corporate tax havens being raised as an election issue in Australia this week, it’s clear we still have a long way to go to make lasting change. This film shows us why investigations like The Panama Papers are so critical.

Invisible Hands

There are over 200 million children making the things we buy. This shocking fact underpins Invisible Hands, which involves stellar reporting by Shrayasi Tandon, who wrote, directed and produced this powerful documentary.

The film has a raw and guerrilla feel, and is obviously made a on a shoestring, but is very well researched, exploring the issue with extraordinary breadth. We meet the palm oil plantation workers of Indonesia, who labour under excruciating conditions. They can’t pick enough crop to meet the requirements of their employment contracts so are forced to take their children along to help.

We also see the dark, cramped factories of India, where children make clothes for global corporations and travel to the tobacco fields of the US – yes, the United States! – where teens suffer exhaustion and headaches from working all day picking a poisonous product.

Yet it is the remarkable interview with the manager of a Ghanaian cocoa plantation that is most disturbing. The man speaks frankly about how the children work all day and don’t go to school.

“I want to learn from my books but my mother tells me to go to the farm,” one boy says.

Tandon and her team even embark on an undercover sting, posing as farmers looking to buy some kids from a group of traffickers. Mercifully, the perpetrators are then taken away in handcuffs by the cops.

While the confronting footage of children sorting rubbish at tips and working in mines in some ways speaks for itself, Invisible Hands also explores the underlying structural issues that must be addressed. Poverty, a lack of regulation and corporate irresponsibility are all at the heart of this.

And, indirectly, the film also shines a light on adult labour conditions as – let’s face it – turning 18 shouldn’t consign you to a life of misery. That said, most will agree that it is especially disturbing to see children suffering in such as way. Director of Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery Harvard University, Siddharth Kara, gets to the crux of the issue.

“It means the innocence and purity of childhood is transformed into grinding, menial labour, which is in turn transformed into the delightful things we consume every day.”

The sign for love

Elad Cohen is going through life as a somewhat typical 33-year-old in Tel Aviv. He is unsuccessful in his romantic life, struggling to understand his family and grappling with his insecurities.

Many of the things Elad is tackling are universal, except for the fact he is deaf. This disability has had a profound impact on his identity and his perspective of the world, much of which he is excluded from.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary has the feel of a home movie and it basically is just that: a collaboration between Cohen himself and co-director Iris Ben Moshe, with Nati Adler producing. Its simplicity works in its favour. The camera is often literally shoved right up into people’s faces, but they speak with such a refreshing honesty, it’s as if they don’t even notice.

When Elad and best friend Yaeli, who is also deaf, decide to have a baby, we witness their moving journey of pregnancy and early parenthood. They worry about how they will communicate with other people involved in their child’s life and hope they are able to maintain their autonomy as parents. They are also determined that their child will enjoy all their senses, even if they’re not entirely sure how they can help with this.

“If our child is crying in the car while you are driving you will sing to it,” Elad tells Yaeli.

“I don’t know how to sing,” she replies.

The Sign for Love is wisely edited to a crisp one hour 14 minutes running time, giving us insight into revealing moments in Elad’s life without floundering or becoming self-indulgent. It also has many humorous moments as well – Elad’s dad’s reaction when he tells him Yaeli is pregnant is priceless. A reflective, unvarnished film about disability, love and family.

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