‘This festival is about what it is to be human,” says Pamela Groves, youth services librarian and coordinator of the 2006 Princeton Human Rights Film Festival, which takes place Thursday through Sunday, May 11 to 14, at Princeton Public Library. The program includes noteworthy national and international documentary films, several of which will be followed by discussions with filmmakers and other speakers, and relevant musical performances.
“There won’t be a lot of laughs here,” Groves says, “but the effect is positive and upbeat in showing how people meet challenges and overcome obstacles. Getting to know others helps us to know ourselves.”
These “others” — the characters the films introduce — are members of every race and live on every continent. Apropos of Mother’s Day weekend, many of the presentations deal with family and children. Audiences will become involved with the stories of children in Sudan, Leningrad, Cambodia, Haiti, Korea, Colombia, Cairo, Juarez, Buenos Aires, and from various regions of the United States. There are Roma Gypsies and Buryat-Mongols, indigenous Americans, immigrant families, American hate-mongers, teenagers in trouble, rape victims, and others whose moving, disturbing, and candid stories bring the human connection to us all.
“Siberian Dream,” a 56-minute documentary by Rocky Hill filmmaker Janet Gardner, takes place Saturday, May 13, at noon. Gardner will lead a Question and Answer Session after the screening. Much of Gardner’s work has focused on children and families from her days as an education reporter for New Jersey daily newspapers including the Home News and the Asbury Park Press in the 1980s. Earlier in her career she worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She has twice been named a Casey Fellow at the University of Maryland Journalism Center for Families and Children and is the creator of several award-winning documentaries that deal with children.
“Siberian Dream” documents the history, culture, and religion of the ancient Buryat-Mongol culture, once a Mongolian tribe in southern Siberia who resisted assimilation during the Soviet reign, when their monks were sent to concentration camps and killed. In the 1920s there were 15,000 Buddhist lamas and 47 temples in Buryatia. Stalin imposed collectivization in 1929. By 1935 only 900 Buddhist lamas and two temples remained.
At the film’s New York premiere at the Asia Society, promotional material said: “This riveting documentary follows author, actress, and fashion icon Irina Pantaeva and her family as they travel from downtown New York to Southern Siberia. Their journey reveals the effects of the downfall of the Soviet system juxtaposed by the revival of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Buryat-Mongolian culture.”
Based on Pantaeva’s critically acclaimed memoir of the same name, Siberian Dream is set against an imploding Russian landscape and the international art and fashion scene.
The film owes its existence to a chance meeting at a New York screening between Gardner and Buryat author/actress Pantaeva, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. Gardner was fascinated by Pantaeva’s story of how she was shunned as an outcast in her Siberian community of Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, for her modern views and with her height of six feet, and was later discovered by Pierre Cardin, who launched her modeling career in Moscow. She has appeared in such movies as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Celebrity, Zoolander, and People I Know. In 1994 she moved to New York City, where she became the first Asian supermodel. Pantaeva returns to Siberia every year with her two sons, Ruslan, born in 1989, and Solongo, born in 2003, to visit her parents.
After first meeting Pantaeva, Gardner called her son, Karl, (conveniently enough) a graduate student in Tibetan and Chinese art at the University of Chicago and presently a fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, asking him if he had ever heard of Pantaeva. “Mum,” he replied with a laugh, “she’s the most famous Mongolian since Genghis Kahn!” As Gardner began filming this story, her son and his wife, Kristina, who is a librarian at the Himalayan Library in New York, helped provide some of the art that serves as background and were helpful in other research about the culture.
“Siberian Dream” was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The documentary has been shown on TV in Israel, Latvia, Poland, and Finland and there have been screenings in this country at the Asia Society in New York as well as in Hong Kong and at universities and museums.
Southeast Asia has been the focus of much of Gardner’s film work for the past 15 years, consuming a large part of her professional interests since she covered postwar Vietnam and the Agent Orange hearings as a newspaper reporter and contributed stories on that topic to the New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, the Nation, and other publications.
Gardner grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Her mother, Elizabeth Paxton Gardner, was a painter. Her father, Edward Tytus Gardner Jr., is a business executive working in the paper industry. While a film student at New York University’s Graduate Institute of Film and Television (Gardner graduated in 1971 after earning her undergraduate degree from Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture), she met her husband, George Morren, on a ride to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Morren, now an anthropology professor at Rutgers, raised Gardner’s son with her from early childhood. The family has been in Rocky Hill since the 1980s when they moved from New York, to eliminate the onerous commute to his Rutgers position and her New Jersey newspaper job.
The Gardner Group, which she started in Rocky Hill in 1990 and incorporated seven years later as a not-for-profit organization, facilitates the production of documentaries for educational television, schools, colleges, and libraries.
Gardner has long had a special interest in films about hidden history. She has been involved with Vietnamese adoptees since the production of “Precious Cargo” in 2002, which she produced in association with Independent Television Service. This film follows the bittersweet journey of the first generation of Vietnamese adoptees back to their homeland in search of their personal history. “Precious Cargo” garnered six industry awards and has been broadcast on most PBS stations and throughout the world by National Geographic Channels International. Gardner has maintained contact with several of the subjects of her film, including two adoptees, who met on their trip back to Vietnam, fell in love, and married.
Gardner’s documentary “Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic & Madness of Cambodia,” focuses on the devastating effect of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reign on Cambodian dancers and their centuries-old tradition of storytelling. Her other films include the PBS documentary “A World Beneath the War,” which shows the Vietnam War from the villagers’ point of view; “Vietnam: Land of the Ascending Dragon,” an overview of Vietnamese history and culture from after the war to the present; “The United Nations: It’s More Than You Think;” and two series on runaway children, “Children of the Night” and “Starting Over.”
She is currently working on another film about Vietnam, “The Last Ghost of War,” which looks at the Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange, the scientific controversy, and questions of morality.
The Human Rights Film Festival schedule includes several area previews. Scheduled to air on PBS in August, the 85-minute documentary “Waging a Living,” which chronicles the day-to-day battles of four low-wage earners fighting to lift their families out of poverty, will be shown Sunday, May 14, at 3 p.m.
“Rize,” praised after its New York and Philadelphia showings, reveals a groundbreaking dance phenomenon that is exploding out of South Central Los Angeles, where kids are using dance as an alternative to gangs and hustling. The festival screening of this rollicking dance-filled documentary on Friday, May 12, at 8 p.m., will be preceded at 7:30 p.m. by a performance by Princeton Capoeira, a dance group that meets regularly at Princeton University to practice in this powerful, lively style, which combines fight, dance, rhythm, and movement. Capoeira is a conversation through movement, which can take on many shades of meaning. The details of Capoeira’s origins and early history are still a matter of debate among historians, but it is clear that African slaves played a crucial role in the development of the art form.
Another first showing in the Princeton area is the highly acclaimed “Darwin’s Nightmare,” scheduled for Saturday, May 13, at 4 p.m. This surreptitiously made depiction of how a multinational industry has extinguished almost the entire stock of native fish species in Lake Victoria is a richly-illustrated report on a distant ecological catastrophe that has spawned ramifications of multi-faceted human tragedy.
Also on the subject of food, Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union and an expert on the issues surrounding genetically engineered crops and foods, will speak after the screening of “The Future of Food,” which is the opening film of the festival on Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m. This documentary delves into the disturbing truth behind unlabeled, patented, genetically engineered foods that have quietly filled U.S. grocery store shelves for the past decade. The film deals with the alarming health implications, government policies, and push toward globalization of this practice. According to a press statement, “from the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, to the fields of Oaxaca, Mexico, this film gives a voice to farmers whose lives and livelihoods have been negatively impacted by this new technology.”
Some of the other topics covered during the weekend include prison torture; conflict in Colombia and Haiti; the struggles of lesbian, gay, and transgender people in Cairo; violence in Brooklyn; the human cost of war in the Middle East; homeless children in Russia; Native American communities; the workers’ struggle in Buenos Aires; and poverty in our own South.
Says festival organizer Groves: “A key goal of the festival is to shine a light on our own country’s involvement in human rights abuses — domestic and international. However, human rights abuses have no boundaries and so the committee has also selected outstanding international films that help to flesh out the kinds of challenges we as a world are facing.”
Princeton Human Rights Film Festival, Thursday through Sunday, May 11 to 14, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. All films will be screened in the Community Room. There is no admission charge and seating is on a first-come basis. For a full schedule with descriptions of the films visit www.princetonlibrary.org/phrff. 609-924-9529.