Fear is one of the greatest gifts that entertainment can give. I remember a sleepless night in college after watching The Exorcist for the first time. I was already an adult (or so I thought), safely away at school, and drifting in and out of nightmarish visions was a luxury I could afford. In a safe life, at least, being frightened is a novelty: with a scary book or a horror movie we get to feel the pain of loss without losing anything, experience terror without ever really being in danger.
But what about a film that is not only terrifying, but true? In the movies showcased in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival the protective veneer of safety is stripped away. The films are scary, but not in the far-fetched, low-stakes way common to summer blockbusters. As with any good horror flick, the protagonists are trapped and pursued, but in this case it’s not by supernatural forces or demented serial killers. In Call Me Kuchu David Kato leads a group of gay and lesbian activists in Uganda in a struggle for their lives, battling an anti-gay bill that makes homosexuality punishable by death. In The Invisible War soldiers in the U.S. military reveal the violent sexual assaults they endured, which have become epidemic within the military, and are punished professionally and personally for telling their stories. In Bitter Seeds a wave of suicides sweeps through India’s cotton farmers, but no one knows why.
I can think of no horror-movie premise to rival the one described by a female soldier in The Invisible War: repeatedly drugged and raped on a remote island base, she was not able to tell anyone—the only outside phone line was monitored by her attackers.
Knowing that these are true stories takes the pleasure out of the horror-movie fear, but human rights documentaries offer a different set of rewards. It’s thrilling to see a plucky hero escape a fantastical monster, but it’s even more frightening to see the monsters that really do walk among us, and even more stirring when the plucky hero is real. I can think of no horror-movie premise to rival the one described by a female soldier in The Invisible War: repeatedly drugged and raped on a remote island base, she was not able to tell anyone—the only outside phone line was monitored by her attackers. Her account of escaping with her life and sanity intact is as gripping as anything Stephen King has dreamed up.
Other horrors are subtler, but just as affecting. Bitter Seeds follows one farmer, Ram Krishna, through the process of planting a cotton crop and getting the necessary loans. When his crop is thin several things become clear: he will not be able to pay back the loan, he will suffer the social shame of not being able to offer a dowry to his daughter’s suitor, he may lose his home and farm altogether. The film opens with a statistic: a farmer in India commits suicide every thirty minutes. It seems like Ram Krishna may become one of them.
The evil forces at work are mysterious. A young woman in the village, Manjusha, decides to find out what exactly is driving all these men to suicide, and what she uncovers is not some cultural issue or new epidemic of depression, but the workings of the region’s agricultural system. For generations, cotton farmers planted heirloom seeds they kept from previous plantings. When genetically modified seeds were introduced they were more expensive, but came with promises that they wouldn’t require pesticide. This has turned out not to be true. They do require pesticide, as well as a very specific water and fertilizer regimen, one that’s nearly impossible to maintain on rain-dependent farms without irrigation. The GM seeds are more expensive, and they’re worse. But the natural seeds are gone—no longer sold in the region. Monsanto, which sells several varieties of GM seeds, has cornered the market. There’s no way to buy the old, natural seeds, which could be fertilized with manure instead of the special fertilizer the GM seeds require. Farmers can’t get bank loans, so they offer their land as collateral for high-interest private loans to buy seeds and supplies. Though the facts are disturbing, there’s a weird enjoyment in learning them, in getting a chance to understand how something so distant and complicated works.
The enemies in the Human Rights Watch films are worse than movie villains—oppressive mixtures of the human and the systemic. But the monsters are not the stars of the show.
In Call Me Kuchu, the monster is less nebulous; it’s embodied in politicians, clergymen, and street mobs, all pushing to make homosexuality punishable by death. A group of activists sues a newspaper, one of the many tabloids that pepper the streets of Kampala, which has started publishing the names and photos of gay Ugandans, making them targets for violence. The group’s leader is the outspoken David Kato, who throws high-spirited parties and talks freely on camera about his first gay experience. We see him working the crowd at an anniversary picnic, visiting his mother and laughing when she tries to set a lesbian friend of his up with a man. His openness is striking given the severe environment, and stands out even among his activist friends, who are bold politically but personally shy. It’s clear throughout the film that Kato has risked his safety by being such a public figure. He talks often about this risk, but it is worthwhile to him. He even organizes a small Miss Kuchu drag pageant (kuchu is an anti-gay slur) to celebrate a court victory when a judge orders the newspaper to stop printing the names. Then he is murdered. The pall that falls over the group feels like what happens when the first main character disappears into the forest—everyone’s frightened, mourning, and uncertain. The difference is that this fear is tempered with determination, and the remainder of the film deals with the ways the movement continues to go forward.
The dream of the human rights documentary is that telling the story will change the situation. This dream comes true in The Invisible War. The female soldiers tell stories of rapes at gunpoint, at the hands of their commanders, or men they lived and worked with and considered friends. The victims agree that the aftermath was as bad as the attacks themselves. Many were accused of lying, charged with adultery (yes, really), or dismissed. A large part of the problem is the absence of any sort of military SVU. Rapes are reported to commanding officers, who may have a vested interest in keeping these crimes hushed up. Nobody wants it in their professional record that rapes were happening on their watch.
At the close of the film we learn that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw the film this April; two days later he announced a new plan for dealing with sexual violence in the military, establishing a Special Victims Unit and taking investigations out of the hands of victims’ commanding officers. Pressure has been mounting on this issue for a long time. (Remember Tailhook? That was over twenty years ago.) So what makes this movie, and the movement it chronicles, so effective? Part of it is sheer volume. There are so many men and women telling their individual stories that the cumulative effect is a tsunami. But part of it is also the tiny details they share, things that bring home the reality of the situation because they are too personal, too small and strange to be fiction.
All good movies need fear, whether it’s fear of the deep-space alien lurking in the corridor or the rom-com fear of feeling rejected and alone, and these movies are no different. The antagonists in the Human Rights Watch films are worse than movie villains—oppressive mixtures of the human and the systemic. But the monsters are not the stars of the show. Amidst all this fear, the most fascinating element of these films is not terror itself but the ways that the protagonists respond to it. It is saddening to learn about their situations, but inspiring to see the way they fight back.
Some are quietly dogged, some outwardly defiant, others focus on finding emotional support or taking political action. All of them, though, are gutsy as hell. After watching these stories, the audience should walk away filled with something better than the giddy relief of fake terror. You’d think that thing would be empathy, but it isn’t: it’s chutzpah.